Most chefs you speak have that aha moment when they realised cooking was going to be their vocation. For some it was cooking with their mother or grandmother or remembering something they had eaten which triggered that spark. Not for Alberto Landgraf, chef of Rio de Janeiro restaurant Oteque.
“For me it was different because I went to London to study English and finish my studies. My mother was an English teacher and wanted me to finish my studies in England. For some reason, I ended up working in a kitchen,” he told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview.
The chef who is slowly but surely putting Rio de Janeiro on the food map thanks to his work at Oteque could not crack an egg when he arrived in London. He found himself working in a kitchen to be able to extend his stay and this triggered his interest. “I thought this was the best place to be because I am a very active person, have always been involved in all kinds of sports, loved adrenaline and the rush it brings to you.”
It was perfect in the kitchen because there was adrenaline, intensity, mathematics, history, culture and creativity. There was everything in one place so I decided to become a chef.
He was also a student of history, physics and mathematics and it was the first time that he could connect everything together. Alberto loved physics having studied it for two years at university but although he liked it and was fascinated by Einstein’s biography, it was not something he could get himself to do as a career. He needed something more dynamic. That dynamism he managed to find in the kitchen. “It was perfect in the kitchen because there was adrenaline, intensity, mathematics, history, culture and creativity. There was everything in one place so I decided to become a chef,” he said.
Jokingly he says he regrets that decision each day. “You can regret it because it is very hard work but it is also something that gives you a lot and is something that you love doing every day. A customer comes to tell you he or she loved a dish, maybe because it brought up a memory from a trip or a wedding. It is a very strong sensation you feel when you make someone happy,” Alberto said.
For Alberto, working to make someone happy through food is particularly important in a world that is chaotic. “Today the world is like a global village, there are no countries anymore. If people are having trouble in Africa, we know about it through social media and it impacts us. We see the images. So if you can give someone an escape and make them happy that is a very strong power you have. With that power comes responsibility as well.”
The restaurant Oteque is today considered to be one of the best in Brazil and not just Rio but he only moved to the Brazilian city from Sao Paolo because his girlfriend was from this city. “My girlfriend is from Rio and she is a single daughter so my father in law was not happy with the idea that she would have to move to Sao Paolo. There was also another reason. Temperature is very important in my cuisine and the best way to extract flavour of food is to serve it at the right temperature, that is, it should neither be too cold nor too hot. Sao Paolo can have very cold winters and you therefore have to serve food that is too hot. It is like wine, it has an impact on the food. Rio is more suitable to the direction my food was heading towards, lighter with more acidity. Therefore it made sense for me to move to Rio. I could also make use of seafood because we are close to the beach.”
Alberto is conscious of the fact that he was lucky to do well in Rio. “There is no formula for success. Just because I was successful doesn’t mean I would be automatically successful elsewhere. Many chefs have closed restaurants that have had some success and then under-achieved with their next restaurant.”
The two year gap between the two restaurants was also tough for Alberto. “When you are used to doing something on a daily basis and its no longer there, when you are cooking for someone everyday, speaking to guests and suddenly you are no longer doing it, you start to have many doubts..”
It might not sound obvious at first but Alberto also pointed out that there was less competition in Rio for him from a business point of view. “For me, it was easier to start a new business here than in Sao Paolo,” he said.
Closing the restaurant and moving to Rio was not without pain however. “It was difficult and painful. At the time, my mum passed away. That was a trigger because I felt really sad, I was really close to my mother. I felt that I needed a change in my life and it had to be something radical. It was a long and painful process but then I decided to close the restaurant in one day. I had been thinking about it for a long time but when I decided, I did it it within a day and told myself to take a decision and not look back. It was very hard to let it go,” he said.
Today, I take much more care of myself, both physically and mentally. If something happens, it does not mean that I will be depressed again or need another radical change
Alberto said he would ask himself whether he did the right thing. “I would ask myself whether I was able to open a restaurant again. That period made me stronger. One thing I learned is to give more value to what I have. I know how hard it was not to have a restaurant and I now know that it is hard so I look at the new restaurant differently. I take much more care of myself, both physically and mentally. If something happens, it does not mean that I will be depressed again or need another radical change,” he said.
He gives physical fitness a lot of importance nowadays. In Rio, he takes a paddle and goes rowing until he cannot see anyone. “It is the only way you can find silence in a big town. Silence for me is something that is really underrated. Noise bothers me a lot,” he said.
Alberto is also reading much more. “Sustainability was the word a few years ago. Today it is mindfulness. I try to read a lot about this. I am not into meditation or yoga because I am a very active person. I am also trying to get back into the habit of reading. Today with the phone and the internet there is never a time when you are alone. With friends in Europe and elsewhere we are living in a 24 hour system. What I am trying to do is to turn off the phone at least in the evening when I get home and get back into books. I think this is really healthy. Meditation and yoga are not for everybody but with books you can forget about time and trouble,” he said.
So what books does he enjoy reading I ask. “I am reading Leonardo Da Vinci’s biography at the moment. I read everything. I’ve recently read Bill Clinton’s fiction book. It was entertaining. I am also reading classics that I had not read before. I love to read about creativity, disciple and sports. I admire how an athlete positions himself to be a winner. As spectators, we do not see what happens behind the scenes, what comes before. I went to the Olympics to watch Usain Bolt run the 100 metres. It was over in less than 10 seconds but when you look deeper you realise the effort and sacrifice that went into that 10 second performance.”
I point him to one of my favourite all time books, Open by Andre Agassi and about the fact that he trained systematically despite hating tennis. “It happens to chefs a lot. It is not necessarily an easy life and you see people who hate cooking, who hate coming into the kitchen. When you start to cook it is not because you want to become rich otherwise you would become a lawyer or a doctor. Most people start to cook because they love it but very often they start to hate it even as a young chef. It becomes a job and it is no longer fun when it is a job. So I try to read a lot of biographies. As a perfectionist, it is not the best approach to read books about people who are perfectionist, aggresive and sometimes fanatical. Friends tell me I should try to find other books and not something like the Steve Jobs biography,” he said.
His wife does read poetry and he manages to get his hands of a few such books.
Alberto was known for having a very young team in Sao Paolo. “That choice was deliberate. I wanted to help the community but it also helped from a creativity point of view. Today, I have a much bigger responsibility than when I opened the restaurant in Sao Paolo. When I opened the restaurant I had one customer in the first week in Sao Paolo. When I opened here I was fully booked for three months. Social media helps but there is no margin of error today. This applies to me, it applies to Rene Redzepi and to anyone,” he said.
He said that today people are exposed at all times which means that he has decided to open the restaurant with a more experienced team. “I still try to hire young people and teach them and also learn from them which is something that is really important.”
In Sao Paolo, the creative process was something he was completely in charge of. Now he shares that responsibility with his team. “I sent a chef to gain experience in Amass in Copenhagen and then in Blue Hill afterwords. He came back with a lot of knowledge and therefore can really help in the creative process. The sous chef worked at Le Bernardin and has a lot of information and knowledge. So we work together and creation has become much easier. I saw this collaboration when I worekd at Noma. Rene is very open to ideas. He is not the guy who says that he wants to create this. He is very open to work with a creative team around him. When you read about other creatives, whether it is in architecuture or other fields for example, they work with other people.”
I think I have a better restaurant today than I had in Sao Paolo and one of the reasons is that I can share the burden of creation with others. Creativity is the art of hiding who you copied it from. If you hide it well, you will be considered creative.
Alberto believes that the restaurant in Rio is working better than the one is Sao Paolo. “The food is better, the process is better, we are more efficient and the customers are happier. I think I have a better restaurant today than I had in Sao Paolo and one of the reasons is that I can share the burden of creation with others.”
Brazil is a huge country and we talk about its food scene. “I saw Ferran Adria being interviewed the other day and he was questioning what is local. What is local in Spain is very different from what is local in Brazil because the latter is 50 times larger. With the way the world works today, the technology, the exchange of information it would be stupid for us not to be open to new cultures, after all that is why we travel so much.”
He said that with people travelling more, discovering new things it does not make sense to not bring what we learn from elsewhere into our lives. “If we don’t do that we would regress as human beings.”
Alberto said that humanity has evolved because it has been open to new things. “As a chef, even if I am Brazilian and I am cooking Brazilian food, I am of course influenced and I allow these influences to come to my food and my kitchen because they make me a better chef.”
“Why shouldn’t I learn from the Japanese who have been cutting fish better than us for 500 years? You need to be humble when you are in a learning process. Two years ago, I went to cook at Zaiyu Hasegawa’s restaurant Den in Tokyo. It was the most challenging day of my life to cook at a Japanese 2 Michelin star restaurant for Japanese clients. He asked me to cook fish. I told him I am not going to cook fish for Japanese. He told me I should cook fish as it would be a good challenge. It was a great learning experience. I showed him how I would do it and he gave me tips, telling me to use less salt. I learned and today I cook the fish in the restaurant the way I learnt with him. It is much better than I did before.”
He said the discussion about what’s local should go beyond purely produce. “When you talk about local, many tend to focus on ingredients. And that makes sense because you have control, you can speak to the people who have produced it and it is also fresher and freshness has an impact on the quality of the food. If it is closer it is better but then you should be open to techniques because anywhere you go you see differences. This has always been the case but now with social media there is nowhere to hide,” he said.
When he speaks about creativity he believes that this comes from knowledge and building on what others have done. “The best definition on creativity comes from a friend who works in advertising. He told me creativity is the art of hiding who you copied it from. If you hide it well, you will be considered creative. Even Einstein did not create something out of nothing, he worked on someone else’s work. The same applies in the kitchen. The way to be creative is not to create something out of nothing but maybe it is to take something that has been done before and give it a new twist and try to bring it into your world.”
Alberto said it is very hard to be creative these days, it has become an extreme. “All extremes are dangerous. You need to find balance,” he said.
Alberto has a formula which he uses. It places constraints on him but it is a way of forcing creativity. “My food needs to have texture, acidity and temperature. I create on this platform so even if it is something that has been seen or done before it needs to fit into these three points. I’ve tried to study creativity in other disciplies. Creativity comes out of necessity. You have to force yourself to work on things that are not necessarily easy because if you relax you will not push forward. It all began with Ferran Adria who used to close el Bulli for six months to work on changing the menu. He was imposing a rule for him to be creative. He would say we have six months to create a whole new menu. That is not my rule but I have my own way to force myself to be creative,” he said.
It is a bit like music. I can teach you how to play a song on the piano. But if I don’t teach you the theory behind it, you are not really a musician, you only know how to play a song. I can bring you into my kitchen and show you how to make a dish but that does not make you a cook.
The Brazilian chef worked in London with chefs like Tom Aikens and Gordon Ramsay. He says these experiences were important because he actually learned to cook with them, something that does not necessarily happen today. “In those days, there were no trainees. If you had a job, you were paid for it and you had responsibility. You worked on your own station, you cut your own fish, you make your own sauce, you cooked, gave it to the chef and the chef plated it. Nowadays people might be working in a renowned restaurant, they might learn how to make a dish or two but they will not necessarily learn how to cook. I believe that you need a strong foundation. It is a bit like music. I can teach you how to play a song on the piano. But if I don’t teach you the theory behind it, you are not really a musician, you only know how to play a song. I can bring you into my kitchen and show you how to make a dish but that does not make you a chef. My time in London was great because it was a transition between the old school and what we have today,” he said.
That was a golden age. As Alberto says, he works with chefs like Isaac McHale of the Clove Club and James Lowe of Lyle’s. “We have great memories and stories together. Working in London at the time was hard. It was like a military system and the British guys are the ones who work the hardest. I’ve never seen others work so hard as the British. They really work hard,” he said.
He returned back to Brazil in 2005 as his father was ill and he missed out on two revolutions. First came the internet and Spain. Five years later came Noma. “Food changed a lot. I had missed out on these revolutions so I needed to update myself. The food I knew was outdated, I needed to go outside and refresh myself. I went for 20 days at Noma, didn’t tell anyone about it and I don’t consider it as a traineeship. It was a visit and then I went for a trip to Japan before returning to Sao Paolo. It was also because of this knowledge he accumulated on these travels that I decided to close the restaurant in Sao Paolo.”
Alberto believes the next revolution will come from Japan. “Japan has been influencing chefs for very long. With the Olympics, people travelling there and their openness to English it is the place to be. The biggest influence in everybody’s cooking today is Japan. The search for umami, the fermentation, the simplicity and knowing that simplicity can be complex all come from Japan,” he said.
Alberto’s mother was Japanese and he feels lucky because this gives him access in the country that others might not have. “When I was in Copenhagen during the Mad Symposium I was having dinner at Bo Bech’s restaurant. For language reasons they put me at table with Ferran Adria and Quique Dacosta. Ferran was very quiet because he was preparing for his presentation but the only thing he told me was to go to Japan and forget about the rest. With all due respect, it will be more of the same. You will see things and understand quickly. The only place that’ll change your life is Japan,” he said.
When Alberto went to Japan for the first time he learned that Ferran was right not just from a cooking point of view but also how they respect people. “The best thing I learnt in Japan is to respect differences and to respect everyone.”
Brazil’s most representative chef is Alex Atala and he has put Brazil on the map. “I think we have a very strong new generation. But the second generation has taken longer to emerge not like in Spain. The problem is the country is so big. If you come for a week you may visit Sao Paolo and Rio but the country is so big, there is so much more to visit. Brazil has a lot of potential. People are starting to understand that food and restaurants can help the country when it comes to tourism.
Alberto knows exactly what he wants. In five year’s time he wants his restaurant to be closer to nature, to grow his own vegetables, to have his own fishing boat. The only objective is quality. I want to have better produce, to cook better. My objective is to do better than I did today, in all aspects of life,” he said.
That is definitely the right approach.