On a quest for new sensations
A celebrity in south america, Alex Atala is a chef at “d.o.m.” and “davla e dito” and an ambassador for new brazilian cuisine that respects both people and the environment. He is continually on the lookout for little-known ingredients to create dishes that embody his homeland and culture, making them accessible to all.
Unconventional. That’s one way to describe the career of Alex Atala, who left home for the bright lights of são paulo at the age of just 14. He will happily admit that he has tried his hand at everything. After working as a dj in the underground club scene, he bought a one-way ticket to europe when he was 18. A painter and decorator one day, a dishwasher in a restaurant the next, he finally enrolled at a catering school in namur, belgium on the advice of a friend, so that he could qualify for a work permit. It was to change his life. Having discovered a passion, he went on to gain more experience in France, Belgium and Italy, before returning to brazil in 1994 with a few new tattoos, fluency in two new languages and an unshakeable determination to reveal the gastronomic potential of brazilian cuisine to the world. With his wildman look, he is a hunter at heart who can handle a bow and arrow just as well as a shotgun. He sought out native ingredients and combed the amazon rainforest in his quest to discover his own culinary identity. The opening of his first restaurant, “d.o.m”, created a shockwave in the culinary world. It heralded the dawning of authentic brazilian cuisine, which was both sensually appealing and environmentally friendly. Alex Atala is the darling of brazil, an ambassador of south american food and a founding member of the “cook it raw” movement (see page 88). But rather than sit back on his laurels, he continues to fuel his questing spirit and is constantly driven to search for new flavours. Here, he reveals his “raw” vision of a cuisine midway between nature and culture.
São Paulo’s latin motto is “non ducor, duco”, which means “i am not led, i lead”. Is that your motto too, when it comes to cooking?
Alex Atala. It’s a difficult expression to convey. You can also translate “ducor” by “giving your best”. In my kitchen, we spend a lot of time thinking and researching flavours. But the most important thing is emotion. In brazil’s national anthem, there is line which sums up my country well: “for the sons of this land, you are a beloved homeland and generous mother.” that’s the message i try to convey in my cooking: the pride and bounty of this land.
You have become the ambassador of brazilian cuisine. In what ways is it evolving?
This is a really exciting time to be a chef. Young people are getting more and more involved in food culture. Often, they train abroad and then come back to brazil to reinvent traditional dishes and highlight indigenous ingredients. Today, everyone is working towards establishing a uniquely brazilian culinary culture, throwing off former portuguese, spanish and african influences. The movement began when several french chefs came here at the end of the 1980s. At that time, the country was closed to imports and they had to start using local produce to create their dishes. It all demonstrated that “made in brazil” can mean top-quality cooking.
You are said to be very committed to defending small-scale producers.
As chefs, we have a role to play in encouraging quality, because it is so often beneficial for the environment and also tends to improve people’s living standards. For example, the black rice i use at “d.o.m.” is produced 200 km from são paulo in a relatively poor area with low yields. In terms of the quantity they produce, they are simply not competitive. But their rice has an incredible flavour and is so much better than normal rice. I have spoken a lot about it and their sales have gone through the roof. Now the whole valley has stopped intensive agriculture – the dominant model in brazil – and has turned to producing high-quality wild rice. Both the environment and the growers are reaping the benefits.
You also spend a lot of time in the amazon region. Why this area in particular?
The amazon rainforest covers half of brazil, so it is natural that half of my work should be based in this vibrant region. I use a sweet-smelling root called priprioca, which is used in cosmetics, in some of my dishes; thanks to an increase in its production, three hundred people are enjoying improved living conditions and are protecting the rainforest, rather than standing by as it disappears. Cooking alone cannot provide all the answers, but it is a force for good that can help to protect people and the environment.
When you were younger, you went through a rather nihilistic punk phase. Are you more upbeat about the future of cooking now?
More and more, cooking will become a way of expressing oneself, both as an individual and as a citizen of a particular country. Nowadays, a chef can do more than just produce recipes; he can turn cooking into a cultural and environmental adventure. In the future, food will be the point at which culture and nature meet. And the main ingredient will be a healthy dose of thinking about where we source our products.
How have your extensive travels influenced your cooking?
In some respects, after spending those years in europe, i ended up feeling even more brazilian. This convinced me that all tastes are first and foremost cultural. The first time i tasted foie gras or caviar, it was an intense and not necessarily enjoyable experience. But i grew to enjoy those flavours. It’s not easy to introduce a new flavour, but if we carefully introduce littleknown brazilian ingredients, such as fruits that have a sweet yet fermented taste, they can soon be considered as “de rigueur”.
What leaves a bad taste in your mouth?
All brazilians resent deforestation, but i don’t believe in “bad taste”. I try and taste everything, in life as well as in the kitchen. Even fast food. I try to understand why so many people enjoy and consume things that are so mediocre.
It is said that your tattoos all depict emotions. If you were to get a food-themed tattoo, what would it be?
A big plate of rice and beans! We eat that here seven days a week. It is highly representative of brazil – maybe even stronger for us than pasta is for the italians.
Apart from a strong coffee in the morning, what drives you? What keeps you awake at night?
My children, of course. And my firm belief that south america can contribute new flavours to the world. There are so many potential ingredients here, so many possibilities that it’s almost alarming! On a positive note, we are addressing the topic with botanists and anthropologists and that’s very exciting. For years i have been searching for an edible wild mushroom i was told about by indians. I have to find it. That’s what’s driving me at the moment!
So you’re still a hunter at heart, then? (laughs.)
More of an explorer. I feel like the adventurers who left portugal to find a new world and riches. Except that the world i’m exploring is my own and i want its riches to be for everyone.
CARPACCIO OF FRESH AMAZONIAN PALM HEARTS, SCALLOPS, SQUID AND FOIE GRAS
PREPARATION TIME: 20 min.
COOKING TIME: 2 min.
INGREDIENTS: 4 fresh (or tinned) palm hearts – 120 g (4.2 oz.) fresh squid – 20 g (0.7 oz.) dried edible seaweed – olive oil – 1 teaspoon of soy sauce – 10 leaves of flat-leaf parsley – 10 chives – 8 good-sized scallops – 3 pinches of wasabi powder (or horseradish) – 30 g (1.1 oz.) foie gras.
For the coral sauce: 100 ml (3.5 fl . oz.) lemon juice – 90 g (3.2 oz.) scallop corals – 50 ml (1.8 fl . oz.) soy sauce.
Thinly slice the fresh palm hearts with a mandolin, or if you are using tinned palm hearts, slice as finely as possible. Put to one side. Plunge the squid in boiling water for 2 minutes, then immediately place in cold water so that they do not continue cooking. Drain and put to one side. Blend the ingredients for the coral sauce in a food processor for 5 minutes. Pass through a sieve and put to one side. Soak the seaweed in cold water for 2 minutes, drain and mix with the squid rings. Season with the finely chopped herbs (keep 4 chives and 4 parsley leaves to one side), salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Halve each scallop width-wise. Combine the wasabi with enough water to make a paste and spread a very thin layer over the scallops. Place one palm heart, then one slice of scallop on each plate. Continue to create alternating layers and finish with a palm heart (use a circular mould if necessary). Add a little squid and a shaving of foie gras. Garnish with a parsley leaf and one chive. Pour a line of coral sauce, season, and drizzle with olive oil mixed with soy sauce to serve.
AL DENTE BLACK RICE, BRAZIL NUT MILK AND GREEN VEGETABLES
SOAKING TIME: 5 hrs (for the Brazil nuts)
PREPARATION TIME: 20 min.
COOKING TIME: 30 min.
INGREDIENTS: 200 g (7.1 oz.) black rice – 1 litre (35.2 fl . oz.) chicken stock – 1 g (0.1 oz.) saffron threads – 100 ml (3.5 fl . oz.) white wine – 1 onion – 1 garlic clove – 2 tablespoons of olive oil – 8 asparagus spears – 1 green pepper – 100 g (3.5 oz.) mangetout – 100 g (3.5 oz.) leek whites – 100 g (3.5 oz.) broccoli – 1 stick of celery – 10 chives – 100 g (3.5 oz.) Brazil nuts.
Blend the Brazil nuts in a food processor with 300 ml (10.6 fl . oz.) cold water and leave to soak in a cool place for 5 hours. Peel and fi nely chop the onion and sweat in 1 tablespoon of oil until translucent. !Add the pre-rinsed rice and the wine, and cook over a low heat until all the liquid has evaporated. Add the saffron, season, and add several ladles of stock. Continue cooking over a low heat, stirring from time to time and adding the stock, allowing each ladleful to be absorbed before adding the next. Do not allow the rice to stick to the bottom of the pan. Cook for around 30 minutes until the rice is cooked but still a little al dente. While the rice is cooking, chop the pepper into 3 cm squares and the mangetout into 1 cm strips. Remove the tough part of the asparagus spears and peel if necessary. Chop the leek into 5 cm sections and blanch the broccoli florets in boiling water for one minute. Sauté all the ingredients in a hot pan for a few minutes with 1 tablespoon of oil and season. Set aside on a low heat. Strain the nut and water mixture using a strainer to obtain “Brazil nut milk”. Divide the rice and sautéed vegetables between 4 plates and sprinkle with finely chopped celery. Drizzle the Brazil nut milk around the rice and vegetables and sprinkle with finely chopped chives to serve.
PIRAIBA CATFISH WITH A BACON AND TAPIOCA CRUST
PREPARATION TIME: 25 min.
COOKING TIME: 50 min.
INGREDIENTS: 400 g (14.1 oz.) piraiba catfish or sea bass fillets – 300 g (10.6 oz.) bacon – 200 g (7.1 oz.) tapioca balls – 500 ml (17.6 fl . oz.) fish stock – 250 ml (8.8 fl . oz.) tucupi (or vegetable stock) – 1 garlic clove, finely chopped – 1 onion, chopped – 6 sprigs of fresh coriander – 6 basil leaves – a bunch of bitter salad leaves (such as chicory, rocket, etc.) – 100 g (3.5 oz.) cassava flour (or potato starch flour) – 1 pimenta de cheiro (or 1 red chilli) – rapeseed oil.
To decorate: borage flowers, pansies, etc.
Cook the bacon in a hot pan with a drizzle of oil until crispy. Dry the bacon on kitchen paper, allow it to cool so that it hardens and blend in a food processor until it has the consistency of breadcrumbs. Heat the tucupi (or vegetable stock) with the chopped onion, garlic, fish stock, coriander, basil, pimenta and bitter salad leaves. Add salt. Simmer uncovered on a gentle heat for one hour, until one third of the stock remains. Drain and put to one side. Meanwhile, cook the tapioca in a large pan of boiling water for around 45 minutes or until the balls are translucent. Drain and add to the stock. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan. Cut the fish fillets into bite-size pieces and dip one side in the cassava or potato flour, then in the bacon crumbs to create a crust. Cook for 2 minutes on the bacon side in the hot pan, then carefully turn and cook the fleshy side for 1 minute. Divide the stock and tapioca mixture on to four plates, place the fish on top and sprinkle with the flowers. Serve immediately
Text Anna Penotti
Photography Jean-Claude Amiel