Playing With Fire: New Restaurant ‘Puma’ is Coming to Detroit

Carlos Parisi, host of DevHour, talks with Javier Baudauil about his roots as a chef, why he loves Detroit, and the big cat that gives Puma its name. 
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Javier Bardauil. // Photograph by Nate Sturley

From the very beginning in Argentina, Javier Bardauil has let his calling in food guide him. After attending the Argentine Gastronomy Institute and The Lenôtre School of Culinary Arts in Paris at the age of 23, Bardauil exploded on to the culinary scene. He worked with Francis Mallmann at Patagonia Sur in Buenos Aires, with Chef Pablo Massey, and eventually became a television star on the popular show “Cena y Cine,” broadcast in all Spanish-speaking countries.  

After some time in Miami, and with the encouragement of his childhood friend Ignacio Gerson, Detroit became the landing place for Bardauil to build out his culinary dreams. Here, he has focused on his passion for cooking with and gathering around fire, the way it is in Argentina. 

Since opening his first restaurant, Barda, with Gerson in June 2021, the city has accepted him as one of Detroit’s most treasured culinary gems. In 2022, Barda was a James Beard Awards finalist for Best New Restaurant in America. Immersed in the team’s familial energy, Barda patrons find comfort in their dining experience time and again.

This same passion and energy are already breathing life into his newest project, Puma. 

Located across the street from Barda, Puma will pick up where Barda leaves off. Offering a more relaxed experience, this eatery features some of Bardauil’s comfort foods such as choripán, empanadas, and ceviche, all paired with (of course) delicious cocktails.

The sleek, black interior reflects the shadowy figure of the Puma, the largest big cat native to the Americas and an animal that resonates with Bardauil’s childhood in Argentina. In the evening, after traditional restaurant hours, Bardauil converts Puma into a much-needed late-night dining destination he calls Cougar. 

With live DJ performances, full-service cocktails, and some of the most comforting yet adventurous foods, Cougar offers the late night, informal balance that Detroiters crave, further amplifying the energy in Detroit’s Core City neighborhood.  

From the marble bar top of Puma, Bardauil sat down with Hour Detroit’s DevHour video series host, Carlos Parisi, to share stories and discuss the opening of this exciting new space.  

How did you discover your love for making food? 

I didn’t discover it. It was an inner call I got when I was 10 years old.  Every year, in the middle of summer, my family would repaint our pool, which was not very fun for me. I remember comforting my family while they worked by going to the kitchen and squeezing lemons to make lemonade or cooking for them, and I remember that as the first calling.

Then I started feeding my friends, and discovering all these things around food —  the happiness you can give or the people that you can bring together — just because of that. So, I started entertaining people, and the food was part of it. 

What did you make for your family during these days?  

Pasqualina — traditional pie, coming from the Italians brought to Argentina. Pasqualina is pie filled with spinach and hard-boiled egg. It’s nice for a summer snack. 

Cooking at 10 to 12 years old is a challenge, but I really enjoyed myself while I was cooking. Even when I was working at the bank or going to college, I never thought I was able to have fun and get paid to cook. For me it was playful, and then one day I discovered that life was too short to do something you don’t like. So, I went to culinary school and started cooking for real, in a professional way.

I still remember the first time I got paid cooking in the kitchen that I wanted to cook in. I started looking for the best chefs in Buenos Aires and they accepted me as a chef. I started working in those kitchens, and I spent a lot of time cooking for free with amazing chefs. I did my best to get into the kitchens in town, and I did it. That’s where I met Francis Mallmann – that’s how I started cooking with this master.  

 Is there a food item that grounds you most? 

Bread. Cheese. Wine. That’s what I need every day. Of course, I would gladly take a bump of caviar, but if you’re asking me what is comfort food for me every day or every time I need something comforting, it’s just wine or beer and a grilled cheese sandwich with fresh bread. 

As well as being a chef paired with some heavy hitters in Argentina’s culinary world, you also were a co-anchor on the show “Cena y Cine”. How has your love of entertainment fueled your projects moving forward? 

Well, I always thought about myself as an entertainer. I’m a chef; I know what I’m doing as a chef, but I started this business because I’ve seen myself as an entertainer from the very beginning.

I like to set up the ambiance, the vibe, the music, the lighting, everything. I’m obsessed with that. So “Cena y Cine” was just something in between. I got to do that TV show because I was making some noise in Buenos Aires working in a very good restaurant, and I was like a new talented chef in town, so they offered me this TV show. We did it for three years and it was a really successful TV show broadcast in all Latin America. So, I was famous for a second.  

 How did you find your way to Detroit? 

I have a friend, Ignacio; he is my business partner in Barda — we lived in Miami for a while, in 2005, and we started thinking about owning a restaurant. Because he was my friend, we were always having dinners together, having a good time. Ignacio said we should open a restaurant in Miami. End of story — we didn’t open anything because we didn’t find the right place, but that seed was inserted in our brains already.

A long time after that, one day, Ignacio called me and said, “Javier, you should come to Detroit and see what’s going on here because the culinary scene is so vibrant, and everything is happening right now. The city is growing so fast.”  

So, I came. Because I like adventure. I already lived in Barcelona, worked in Italy — it’s the life you want as a chef. That’s why you’re a chef at the very beginning, because you like adventure. If you don’t like adventure, do something else.  

Because of that, I came here [Detroit] and I went to the best restaurants that we had in the city, and they were all packed. I remember trying to squeeze in at the corner of the bar because there were no reservations open for a week.  

I brought my family here. We came in the winter, but they loved it. I started studying about the history and what was going on here. That’s when I decided it was good for me to bring some South American flair because that was not a thing here. And of course, fire. I love cooking with fire. That’s how I opened Barda. Long story short, because a lot of things happened in between. 

 
Detroit is unique in that it has so many stories in its past. Did you find it difficult to make your mark here? 

The first thing that really got me when I arrived here was the people. The people from Detroit, how they embrace my culture and what I was trying to bring here. I fell in love with the city, not because of the beauty of the city, but because of the people. The people were so similar to me, so resilient in a way, and sharing that with Detroiters, that was something that clicked immediately.

I think the way I got myself out there was bringing my culture and of course cooking with fire because nobody was doing that all the way. I mean, we have some spots in the city; Selden Standard is one of them, but not all the way.

The challenge to bring your culture and to cook only with fire is something I knew from the very beginning was a hit… and I know how to do it. 

Obviously, we need to know about the food at Puma. What can we expect, and do I need to make reservations now? 

No reservations will be required here. This is first come, first served; more relaxed. I didn’t want to go with reservations. I don’t want people to be worried about anything while being here. You just show up and there is plenty of room.

The food will be very friendly to eat with your hands, and will be straight forward again, bringing some Argentinian staples. It is choripán. It sounds easy: bread with sausage inside, and some chimichurri, but the combination; and if you have a good bread, as I know we’re going to have from DIB [Detroit Institute of Bagels] — they’ve got my back because the bread is amazing. 

I have my own recipe with the sausage that I brought from Argentina. Chimichurri will be fresh and tangy, and we’re going to represent this in a couple of modern ways. I wanted to Americanize this a little bit. The choripán is in my heart; it’s how we grew up in Argentina — you can have choripán every Sunday and in every corner of the city.

I really wanted to bring this experience to Detroit. That’s why I chose the name Puma, because this cat is coming from Argentina, from the south up to Canada; there is a huge population in America. It’s the second largest population after human beings, so it’s a huge thing — you’re not going to see them around because they don’t expose themselves. That analogy with the choripán was something fun for me to bring to the table. 

Because I’m bringing South American culture, I’m trying to bring something from Bolivia — empanada Boliviana — ceviches from Peru, some ceviches from Mexico, too.

The wine program will be oriented around South American wines, beers from Detroit and Michigan, and the cocktail program will be very South American with all the liquors that we have in Peru, Bolivia, and even Argentina with Fernet. So, cheers to that. 

When you say, “late night,” how late are we talking?  

That will depend on the traffic. If I have enough people to celebrate my idea, good. If not, I’m very flexible. I have an idea I am trying to bring alive, but if for some reason this isn’t the vibe you’re looking for, I’ll change it.

I’m expecting to leave it open until 2 a.m., because people are saying there isn’t much variety past 10 p.m. So, it will be up to the people. 

When can we expect Puma to open? 

It looks like it’s ready, but there are a lot of things still to accomplish in order to make the experience the way I thought. But we are almost there; hopefully, we are going to be open by the end of November.

I’m so excited, I’ve been thinking about this for four years now. This is a long project for me, and I’ve thought about this for so very long. So, I want to make it come true. 

Watch even more of Parisi’s coverage of local restaurants on the DevHour video series on hourdetroit.com.


This post was originally published in October 2023. An edited version appeared in the February 2024 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our digital edition.