For Brazilian chef Manoella Buffara of Restaurant Manu story-telling comes naturally. After all, she was studying to become a journalist before she decided to embark on her career as a chef. And that is a very good thing for Brazil. Cooking in her home town Curitiba where there was nothing as she herself says, she has taken a gamble that her story will attract not only people from her home town but also world travellers.
But she clearly knows what she is doing from the flour she prepares for the restaurant to her journey through the kitchens of René Redzepi and Grant Achatz.
Mention Brazil and the first chef that comes to mind is Alex Atala. It was he who discovered ‘Manu’ as she is known and it was he who encouraged her to go out and tell the story to the world. And what a story it is.
A chef with a communications’ background, she is spreading her story using not only travel but also social media.
“I loved journalism before I experienced the kitchen. But then I discovered that in the kitchen there is more art, more emotion and more motivation. I love emotion and art and I believe that food can convey these messages. You can put your heart and soul in your food,” she told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview while in Austria for GELINAZ! DOES UPPER AUSTRIA.
“I trust where I come from. I did not move to Rio or to San Paulo but decided to stay where I came from in Curitiba because I have a connection to the place where I was born. It is the same land and I believe in this connection. Ultimately cooking is about communication so journalism and gastronomy are connected.”
Storytelling has become more and more important in a world of distractions. “The chef is not the story because you cannot embark on a story alone. You need someone to produce, you need somone who works the land, you need someone to prepare the food, you need the whole thing. Telling a story about the food you are eating is an amazing thing. It is an amazing job if you are able to do it because then it is not just about the dish you are eating.”
Manu believes that the menu of a restaurant tells the story. “It is not about one dish or two plates, it is about the whole experience,” she says.
And that is something that comes naturally to her. In her restaurant, where she uses organic ingredients from carefully selected suppliers and her own garden, the team prepare their own flour and I am intrigued why this is the case. “I grew up in a farm and my father worked as a farmer. We did everything in our house. So when I started the restaurant, it was important for me to know where the sugar was coming from or where the flour was coming from. I needed to know where the sugar cane came from because it was also available in supermarkets. This was new not only to me but also to the cooks. It is not easy because we might have just 10 kilogrammes of grain but once we process it we end up with six kilogrammes. It is not easy but knowing where the grain is coming from, who the producer is, how fresh it is and also the person who created the machine is essential,” she says.
She believes that food can be better. “I think that we can serve healthy and sustainable food if we look around us.” It is obvious, speaking to this talented Brazilian chef that her experience at Noma with René Redzepi has had a lasting impact on her. “I learnt a lot from René because he is really connected to his city and country. He really believes he can change food, he can change ingredients.”
After that experience, she knew that she wanted to return to her home city. “That was when I said yes, I am in the middle of nowhere but I can do it. I can find a producer, I do not want someone to deliver my food.”
Brazilian chef Alex Atala has also had a very important influence on Buffara. “Alex helped me a lot not only when it came to food and what I was doing. In Brazil, he is a rockstar and alone he has put Brazil on the world map. He knows everything about ingredients and producers. It is really nice to have someone like this close to you. Sometimes if I do not know my ingredients, I sent a Whatsapp asking if he can help me. It is really nice to have these pop stars near us. If I think about the future, I want to be like him. He has really changed Brazil and Brazilian food. I like the way he works with food, the way he cooks. He was the first one to believe in Brazil and its food. He has been telling everyone that you cannot cook French food in Brazil because you do not have the ingredients here. You cannot cook Italian food because the flour is not the same so you need to do Brazilian food and that will be better than French food in Brazil. You have to know your food, your land, your family, your culture and then you will cook with your soul. He taught Brazil this,” she said.
She believes these two chefs are her mentors, René for his philosophy of life, for the way he cares about his family and employees. “On the other hand, Alex is from Brazil. Without him we would not be where we are today.”
She still thinks there is a long way to go for Brazil and the country will need a few years before it gets the recognition but ‘we are getting there’.
Manu loves to spends her days with producers, in the farm or in the kitchen. But when it comes to the subject of creativity she does not know where inspiration comes from. “It is not an easy subject. Sometimes, even I don’t know where this comes from. Sometimes I am with a producer and I try something. For me Monday is a crucial day. it is a day for me, a day when I can stay in the kitchen by myself because the restaurant is closed. I can test, I can experiment. For me Monday is important not just for creativity but also to learn about ingredients because you need to understand them very well before you can be creative.”
“Monday is everything for me. it is the time I spend with my children, it is the time I cook at home. Sometime I create dishes at home. Monday is the time for myself , the time I do not need to be in the restaurant. Everyone now knows that they don’t call on Monday,” she says.
She tells me that having two children (girls) have really changed the way she thinks about food. “I have a vegan menu and I think that they have really influenced this. My kids are vegetarian. Vegetables came into my life after they were born and they become more important each day. I always says that after you have children you are more emotional, more careful. You think more about healthy cooking so I think that I have changed in the kitchen,” she says.
I ask what she thinks about children in fine dining restaurants. “My child of two has already tried a tasting menu,” she tells me.
She believes that women are starting to find more space in the restaurant world. “We want to get more recognition as women and as leaders in the kitchen. We have the power to get there, we just need more space. We need more events like GELINAZ!. Women don’t just talk about babies or about being housewives.”
Manu says there is no shouting in her kitchen. “Our kitchen is quiet, people learn more when you talk and do not scream. You do not need to humiliate people,” she tells me.
She is young and she dreams of having her restaurant connected to her farm. “Brazilians don’t travel to eat and that is why the restaurnt is in the city centre. But I want to move the restaurant to the farm. it is my focus for the next years to change the people in my city. I am also working with kids and people who do not have food and want to involve myself more. In Brazil we throw too much food away and we need to change this. People at home need to change the way they think about food.”
She thinks chefs can set the example by cooking humble ingredients even in fine dining restaurants. “Chefs need to lead. We need to introduce these ingredients to people who cook at home. It might be fancy but people are more travelled than they were 5 to 10 years ago, it is easier to get people interested.”
At GELINAZ! DOES UPPER AUSTRIA she was paired with Magnus Nilsson and Konstantin Filippou and convinced them to prepare the venison the Brazilian way. She tells me that the experience is very important for. “To cook with such people is a change experience. The most important thing is to learn and to ask a lot. I want to know how they do things. They also ask me a lot of questions because no one knows the city I come from.”
She loves the GELINAZ! because it is a way to make friends from different countries and cultures. It is also a way to discover new chefs and their stories and this is one of them. Note this name, we will hear a lot about this Brazilian chef in the coming years.