Ten years ago, Denise Stilmann and Julian Ruiz moved to Montreal from Buenos Aires, fleeing an ongoing economical crisis.
Though they only had $3,000 to their name, the couple saw it as a fresh start in a new place to call home. At the first glimpse of snow, they rushed over to nearby Jarry Park at 11 p.m., camera in hand to capture the moment.
“It was all exciting,” said Ruiz, who quickly found work as a technician.
It took Stilmann two weeks to find a job in a hotel restaurant downtown while juggling French classes at night. She had always loved to cook. As a teenager she hijacked her family’s kitchen, and by the age of 16 she was taking baking classes, bored by being half the age of anyone else enrolled.
Besides the initial language barrier, Canada has been great since day one in 2004, they say. But something was missing.
In Argentina they spent nights scouring cities for the best restaurants. Not the classiest or most expensive restaurants, Stilmann notes, but the corner dives or hidden gems where real Argentinian cooks ran the kitchens.
In St-Lazare, where they moved in 2006, they craved the comfort of their homeland’s food culture.
Stilmann missed the elaborate desserts and treats, Ruiz missed afternoon lunches with friends and family where wine poured freely and asado — picture beef grilling over a wood fire barbecue — was always a viable option.
So in 2011, together they started La Générosité — an Argentinian cuisine catering business they run out of their home. Stilmann started with alfajores, a traditional dessert that pairs two small hockey-puck-sized cakes together with dulce de leche. Ruiz convinced her to bring empanadas into the mix, which she learned to cook from his mother and grandmother back home.
“We tried to have our comfort food here, to reproduce it the best we can with the ingredients that we can find here,” Ruiz said. “For Latin Americans, it’s a comfort food, but for the people from here, I think it’s more of an exotic treat.”
Small accomplishments started adding up: tastings at SAQ’s were well-received, their raspberry sour cream pie won the best pie in town contest, they took home the prize for “best autonomous workers” at the Vaudreuil-Soulanges Ovations awards last year. The business started taking off, and in three years the demand for their cooking has kept growing steadily.
Last month, Ruiz quit his job to start helping full time. Last week, the first industrial-sized mixer arrived at their home, placed in the basement they’ll be turning into a cooking space this winter, equipped with an extra over, deep-freeze, mixers and countertop space to roll dough and pastries.
“We’re trying to switch from homemade to semi-industrial, to do the process more quickly,” Ruiz said. “If not, it’s impossible to meet the demand.”
At their home in St-Lazare, besides meeting that demand, maintaining their Argentinian culture takes top priority: their two children, Catalina, 9, and Matias, 6, are both born here, but they don’t want them to forget where their family is from either.
Only Spanish is spoken in the household between the two of them, and movies and cartoons from back home are often watched. This year’s World Cup, where Argentina lost in the final, was good for pride building.
La Générosité is the family’s way of sharing that same culture with those around them.
“The same love and quality that we put in when we cook for our kids, goes in when we cook for our clients,” Stilmann says.
When Catalina starts school each year, she asks to bring her mom’s cooking in her lunch box to show classmates what her family eats. For her Grade 3 presentation at school next week, she’ll be showing her class how to make empanadas, having recorded a video of the process at home.
“She wants to share our culture the same way we do,” Stilmann says.
When family visits, they come bearing recipes of the new food trends happening back home, where they act as their eyes and ears.
For years, Stilmann had asked for recipes from a cousin of Ruiz’s who was always in charge of baking the cakes for family reunions. Her requests had always been shot down, but after seeing what the family was trying to accomplish here, Stilmann finally received the recipes.
“They understand what we’re trying to do,” Stilmann said, “and why we do it.”