When his restaurant D.O.M. opened back in 1999, Brazil’s dining scene was dominated by French and Italian cuisine, imported caviar and non native truffles. But São Paulo chef Alex Atala was determined to change all that.
Here, he speaks to Elite Traveler about Brazilian food, the country’s fine dining scene and sourcing unique ingredients from the depths of the Amazonian jungle.
One of the most intriguing characters currently at the forefront of fine dining, Alex Atala trained as a teenager at gourmet establishments in Italy and France, later opening his exclusive São Paulo restaurant D.O.M. in 1999 – the first to merge classical European cooking with native Brazilian ingredients.
As our interview begins, the enigmatic chef is relaxed and laid-back – and well he might be: D.O.M. has now been voted South America’s Best Restaurant for four years running. But – perhaps more importantly – it has influenced the country’s fine dining landscape beyond recognition.
“As a people we are super open for new flavors, for new ingredients and for new cultures,” Atala explains. “But this can make us forget our own.”
Indeed in the years since his first restaurant blazed onto the scene, there has been a tidal wave of change in Brazil’s gourmet culture.
The popularity of traditional dishes and home-grown ingredients once shunned by high end restaurants – including cassava, tapioca and palm heart – has risen. Young chefs have also taken Atala’s lead in sourcing native ingredients from as far afield as the depths of the Amazonian rainforest. But how does Brazil’s original rebel chef feel about the new generation he’s influenced?
“We’ve got the same feeling, the same inspiration, but they are not trying to be copies of Alex Atala. They are doing something special. Special just because every chef can express their personality through those native ingredients,” he says.
“Helena Rizzo for example. At Mani (a São Paulo restaurant) they made a dish called maniocas, which is different types of root composed in one single dish. Thank God we have a lot of ingredients; that means we have space for lots of chefs. I really do believe that one life researching ingredients and flavors in the Amazonas (region) is not enough.”
Atala has worked with anthropologists and scientists in recent years to discover brand new foodstuffs in the Amazon basin, adding unexpected items including ants to D.O.M’s gourmet menu.
“I was the first chef who put ants in a dish. On the one hand, for fine dining restaurant clients eating insects is a joke. I know this. Maybe thirty years ago, eating raw fish was as well. Eating insects, it’s primitive,” the South American super chef explains.
“As primitive as opening your fridge and taking a strawberry yoghurt. The red in yoghurt is cochineal and cochineal is an insect.
“Those ants, if you close your eyes and I give you an ant in a blind taste, you’re never ever going to tell me that you’ve eaten an ant. You’re going to swear that you have a strong flavor of lemongrass and ginger in your mouth,” he smiles.
This year, Atala, along with some of his contemporaries, founded Atá, a Brazilian institute focused on our relationship with food and cultivating healthy farming and trading practices.
“We set up an institute for organising the food chain in all of the Amazonas. In this institute, we try to not use the word ‘sustainability’ – just because there’s so much guilt attached to it.
“People understand ‘sustainability’ as going to the dentist; it’s necessary, but there’s no pleasure involved. Food is pleasure. Food is delicious. It’s fancy, it’s sexy. We can do much more than sustain,” he insists.
We move onto talk of his home country. Despite his international fame, Atala is the perfect patriot, who feels it is important to put Brazilian ingredients on the world stage. But why should the globe’s jetsetting elite come and experience his country’s unique flavors for themselves?
“Brazil is a country that has amazing charisma and of course amazing landscapes, beaches. This would be enough (in itself) to go to Brazil,” says Atala.
“But for someone who’s never been to Brazil and is kind of a gourmet or a ‘foodie’, it’s mandatory to go there nowadays and see what’s happening – not only in Brazil, but in all of South America.”
The one-time teenage punk DJ is also keen to point out how much South American foods have influenced the global diet.
“60 per cent of the ingredients we consume in our daily life come from Latin America. From chillies, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, manioc – all of this comes from the Americas. So I really believe that we are almost ready to send to the world a second wave of flavors.
“We sent the first one 500 years ago almost – or a little more – and in the last two decades, we are building a new wave. Brazilian food is spreading everywhere,” he adds.
Part of this wave includes a new book, the iconic chef’s first in English. ‘D.O.M. Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients’ focuses on the unique elements in Atala’s dishes – many of them sourced from the Amazonian rainforest – with an individual D.O.M. recipe dedicated to each one.
“The most powerful message of this book in my personal opinion is not the recipes, but the way you deal with food,” Atala explains.
“Food’s not only something delicious; it can be something powerful in the sense of transformation and a big instrument or tool for promoting social inclusion. I hope I inspire people and other chefs to approach their work from nature, from the local producers, to be creative. If I can give back to Amazonas, half of what Amazonas gave to me, I’ll be more than happy.”
‘D.O.M. Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients’ (USD$49.95, Phaidon Press) is out now.