No one has been more important for Brazilian cuisine than Alex Atala, chef of world renowned restaurant D.O.M. in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Chef’s Table episode about this 47-year old Brazilian chef is a must watch for food lovers interested in learning the story of the chef who fought against the odds to make Brazilians love ‘Brazilian’ cuisine and become Brazil’s topmost food ambassador.
Cooking Brazilian food did not come naturally though. He recalls a conversation he had with a French chef who told him that he was a good chef who understood flavour but he would never be able to cook French cuisine like a French chef because he did not have the cultural background. “I felt bad. I had a tattoo, i was different. If I was not able to cook French cuisine like a Frenchman, than nobody could do a better Brazilian experience than me so I started to switch gradually to Brazilian ingredients,” Atala said.
The Brazilian chef’s story is an inspiring one. It is incredible to think that he only became a chef by chance and out of necessity.
Atala was recently in France cooking at Mirazur, Mauro Colagreco’s restaurant which is celebrating its 10 year anniversary.
Atala’s cooking adventure started in Europe where he went to discover punk rock life. He was living the dream in Europe and decided he would not go back to Brazil. But he needed a job to earn money and he needed a visa. He started painting walls but that would not lead to a visa. A painter told me that one way to get a visa was to go to a chef’s school. “I did not decide to be a chef, my visa decided to be a chef.”
This happened when he was 19 and he headed to the Hospitality School of Namur, in Belgium, to begin his career as a professional chef. In France, he worked in restaurants such as the ones owned by Jean Pierre Bruneau and Bernard Loiseau, and was a trainee at the renowned Hotel de la Cote D’Or.
Firmly linked to his roots and looking towards the future, Alex Atala is, above all, passionate about Brazil, nature, gastronomy, and life.
He is known for his boldness and vision and surpasses the boundaries of cuisine and acts as a responsible citizen, valuing the small producer and encouraging young professionals.
The chef has full respect for ingredients. A hunter and a fisherman, he knows nature and says that every dish begins with death. “People close their own eyes to it. One of my first memories of food and cooking was with my father and grandfather. We used to travel to remote areas and go fishing and hunting. It was mandatory if you killed a fish to clean it and eat the whole animal, no matter what we killed. It was a way to respect that life and the natural environment and to take what we just need to eat. We are not God, but just a tiny part of nature,” he says.
Atala is the international ambassador of Brazilian cuisine but he is also working to raise awareness about sustainability and the importance of the Amazon. “Everyone who knows the Amazon is afraid of the future. The Amazon is under huge pressure and we need to understand that the way we have been producing food is sterilising entire eco-systems. Indigenous people have been living here for centuries and they have balance. To have natural conservation we cannot just protect the forest but also the men who live there. We need to learn from them,” the chef says.
Rene Redzepi has mentioned Atala as the chef that told him he could use ants in cooking. And Atala says that food is all about the cultural interpretation of flavours. It is clear that if you keep an open mind you can make delicious food out of anything.
Atala is a firm believer that cooking is about finding amazing ingredients and amazing persons who care about these ingredients. “A chef can be a leader, looking for ingredients, connecting people, building a better food chain,” he says.
The early days of D.O.M. were not easy since no one respected or appreciated Brazilian cuisine. For years he struggled to get people to go and try his Brazilian cuisine because people were used to French and Italian restaurants and did not consider Brazilian food as something that could be eaten in a restaurant. He believes that it is not necessary to use expensive ingredients. “The luxury is in your hands, in your ability. Luxury is the human capacity to transform something into emotions.”
But he was endorsed by none other than Ferran Adria during Madrid Fusion in 2005 and he describes this moment as the turning point of his professional life.
“I left Brazil with a kind of shame to be Brazilian and returned back to Brazil much more Brazilian than I ever could have imagined,” Atala says.