“I was born in Chile in 1980 and my mum was very politically involved against the Pinochet regime, so there came a point when I was about six that we had to flee the country, as it was getting too dangerous for us to stay.
"My mum made the decision for my brother and I, I think if she hadn’t had kids she would have stayed but she feared too much for our safety’” Juan explains, sitting at a table in his cosy contemporary restaurant, tucked downstairs off its namesake street and over the sound of some upbeat Chilean music.
Opened in late July 2018, just days before the hectic rush of the Edinburgh Festival, 83 Hanover Street was billed as a sister restaurant to the hugely popular 99 Hanover, which had been acquired by Juan some months previously.
Having left his job as a restaurant manager at Gleneagles, Juan’s journey, which culminated in him owning his own restaurant, could be that of any restaurateur in the city, however his story is a little different.
“We had a few options of where to go during that time (of the dictatorship) - Canada, Australia and Sweden. My mum had a cousin who had already moved to Sweden so we had one person that we knew and who we could get some help from. We moved there in 1987, to...I wouldn’t call it a refugee camp but it was more like an area where new people come into the city, but as it was Sweden, we were all really well looked after.”
Surrounded by people of other cultures and far from home could have been daunting, but Juan says he found the situation to be a positive one.
“We lived in this area and there were Chileans, Somalians,Yugoslavians and people from all over the world. It became a really strange upbringing in a sense, for me, but in a good way. I think living like that made me really adaptable to different cultures. We ended up moving around and eventually settled in Arboga - this is where I went to school and grew up.
“My mum, who had been a teacher in Chile, started working, first as a cleaner because she didn’t speak the language. During our first few months in Sweden she had to start again with a job where the language barrier wasn’t a problem - until she built up her language skills. Then she started teaching kids Spanish, so she got into the school system and built her career back up from there.”
It was this job back in teaching and Juan’s mum’s efforts to keep their heritage alive in the home that lead to his interest in food and cooking.
“One of the main reasons I got into food and cooking was because of my mum, she always cooked. It was her way of ensuring that we never lost our culture because she never stopped cooking Chilean food in our house, though she had to adapt and use the local produce.
“In 1987 globalisation hadn’t really hit as it has now, so when she went shopping, she could only find local, seasonal produce so my mum made the best of that.
“She also insisted that we only spoke Spanish in the house - so we never lost our mother tongue,” Juan recalls.
“One of the things she made a lot was empanadas, which are a very Chilean thing. There was one time that she brought them to school and some of her colleagues tried them and couldn’t believe how good they were.
"At that time you just wouldn’t get food like that, the most exotic thing I think there was, was a kebab or a pizza. Everyone was like ‘oh my god, what is this?’.
“People started buying these empanadas from my Mum, who would make about 100 every weekend and sell them all. At that time, that money from the empanadas funded all our trips back to visit family, when it was safe to do so. Food was a huge part of how we stayed connected to what we had back home in Chile.”
Once he had finished school and college, and worked in Reading, Ibiza, Barcelona and a cruise ship - all by the age of 22 - Juan started to look for more regular work and a place to settle down. And thoughts turned to Scotland.
“I’ve always been fascinated by Scotland, since I was a young kid. I don’t know why that is - I think I saw a picture when I was a child and I always wanted to go. I applied for a job at Gleneagles, which I got so I moved there in 2005. I started as a waiter in the Strathearn restaurant and stayed there for nine years.
“Every year I’d learn and become the best that I could be in everything that I did there and slowly got promoted. I eventually ended up at the Clubhouse restaurant just before the Ryder Cup, which was a dream come true for me. We looked after all the players and their families, so it was quite a big responsibility.”
A meeting with a family who frequented Gleneagles often and had seen Juan grow resulted in an investment opportunity for him to start up on his own.
After breaking his ankle, giving up his job at Gleneagles and deciding on his restaurant concept, Juan bought 99 Hanover but quickly decided it was “too iconic” to shut down and turn into a restaurant.
The hunt started for what would become a sister venue and it wasn’t long before 83 Hanover came up for sale. Formerly La Lanterna, the premises had been in the same family for 40 years and needed a lot of modernisation.
“We bought 83 Hanover in December 2017 and for about four months me and my security man, Stuart, from 99 Hanover, stripped it out. Because it hadn’t been touched in about 40 years, there was so many cables and we found three fireplaces hidden behind walls. There was little rooms everywhere so we opened it all up to make it one big space.”
With the trend for more ‘modern casual’ restaurants in full swing, and the Festival only days away, Juan opened 83 Hanover Street with more than a little trepidation.
“When the restaurant first opened I was very mindful of people’s reaction as I don’t think many people have really tried Chilean flavours - maybe Peruvian flavours to some extent - but I think the Chilean thing was completely new. It was scary in the beginning to see what the reaction would be and if people would like the menu and flavours.”
Juan’s idea for 83 was not a traditional Chilean restaurant, but an eatery which used local produce with Chilean flavours and inspirations - much like what his mum did at home in Sweden when they were growing up.
Since opening last July, Juan and his team have grown the menu and developed new dishes but still focus on big flavours from Chile. “I wanted to a modern side of Chilean cooking and make it more in my style, how I cook and what I’d want to eat” says Juan. “There’s nothing worse than bland food.”
After a break of 14 years, Juan returned to Chile in January this year and was bolstered by what he saw. “We went to some of the best restaurants there and it gave me such confidence as they are doing what I am doing here and I wasn’t even trying to create something on trend, but it made me realise we are onto something. This is what Chile is evolving into as well.”
What of his mum’s speciality, the empanadas that funded the family’s trips back home? Luckily for diners, they still make a limited appearance on the menu at 83 Hanover Street, but only when Juan’s mum visits.
“She will come in and stand in the kitchen, where you can hardly see her over the bar, and make them and we sell them fresh. She loves it, she’s barely off the plane and she’s here telling the head chef what she needs,” laughs Juan.
With another Festival season about to start, Juan is working on the summer menu and has hopeful plans to open another restaurant where he will bring the heat of Chile to, potentially, another Scottish city.
Not forgetting, of course, those empanadas.
83 Hanover Street is open Tuesday to Sunday until midnight.