Alex Atala: an exclusive interview

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th December 2013
Alex Atala is the chef-patron of D.O.M restaurant in Sao Paulo, recently ranked sixth in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Alex, who was the only chef to appear in Time’s 100 most influential people in the world list, is a champion of Brazilian ingredients and their native producers. His most iconic dish is simply an ant on a piece of pineapple. He recently set up the ATÁ institute in Brazil to improve the relationship between people, food and the environment. The Staff Canteen caught up with him on a trip to London to open an exhibition on food photography from his book ‘D.O.M. Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredient’s'. The exhibition is of food photography from D.O.M. by Sergio Coimbra; how did you first meet Sergio? We’ve known each other for about five years. It’s funny I never wanted to make photos outside of my restaurant in a studio, just because as a chef it’s more comfortable to be in your own kitchen with your own stuff. But Sergio has an amazing studio. The first two or three times we worked together he came to my restaurant and I became very impressed with the way he thinks about all the details of a shot and, in a good way, he’s not a demanding photographer; he’s a very open and he lets the chef work in a very comfortable way. After a couple of shoots at my restaurant he asked if we could do one at his studio, and he’s such a gentleman that I said: “Yes of course.” And when I got there I thought it was beautiful and a very calm place to work, and actually even more comfortable than my restaurant! Have you managed to eat out anywhere on your short stay in London? Yes, I was so impressed by The Clove Club. It’s a very casual place; you don’t feel like you’re in a fine dining restaurant which is nice and the food is brilliant. I’m a huge fan of The Ledbury, of Heston, of Nuno Mendes at Viajante and all these top chefs you have in London, but discovering something new is wonderful and The Clove Club really felt like the big discovery of this trip to London. In the introduction to your book you talk about travelling to the Amazon with your father and grandfather on hunting and fishing trips; are those memories that have inspired you all your life? Yes, back in the seventies and eighties travelling around Brazil was quite an adventure and we’ve tried to keep this adventurous flame alive in my family. I try to take my own children to these remote places too, to show them the experiences I had with my father and grandfather. For example when I go back to Brazil we’re going to spend Christmas and New Year with the kids in the south of Bahia in a place where there is eight kilometres of beach with absolutely no one there. On the one hand it’s going to be difficult because there are no amenities and it’s not easy to bring food for 10 days for the whole family, bit on the other hand it’s brilliant to be in such an untouched place; it’s a real adventure. You also talk about your youth, before you became a chef, as a ‘DJ, a punk and a creature of the night’ could you go into that a bit more? In the eighties Brazil was a very closed off country and we were living under a huge delay of information. When I was growing up I was fascinated by music. We didn’t have the internet; we didn’t have magazines so the only single way to get that kind of information was to talk to people who were travelling and ask them to bring you records or bring you Melody Maker or New Musical Express, so I became fascinated with this new world that was almost inaccessible to us. So that was the reason that I decided to make a backpacking trip to Europe and in the middle of that trip I decided not to go back to Brazil but to stay in Europe and to support myself. And that’s how you became a chef? Europe was such a whole new world for me and I was learning something new every day so I wanted to stay but to stay I faced two problems – one was money, so I started working as a painter in the construction industry; the second problem was getting a visa. Another guy who was working with me said that going to chef school was a good way to get a visa, so I did it and I quickly realised that I enjoyed being a chef more than painting walls! And when did the realisation come that it was Brazilian cuisine you should be cooking? When I first came to Europe I tasted for the first time things like foie gras, truffles, caviar and at first I didn’t appreciate them because they were so new for me. After a while I began to realise that although I could reproduce a European recipe, I’d never be able to reproduce a whole entire experience. All chefs can make a fillet Rossini or a spaghetti carbonara but to create a whole meal, match the wines and give a real experience – I realised I wasn’t able because I didn’t have this cuisine in my heart or in my background. So you went back to Brazil and eventually opened D.O.M. But before that you worked in a restaurant where you used to slip Brazilian ingredients into the dishes; was that an important part in the process of building towards your cooking at D.O.M? Yes, I was working in a restaurant where the ingredients were okay but I knew I could do better. I knew the recipes; I knew the ingredients in Italy and I knew it was impossible to do the same, but I knew that if I used this amazing Brazilian ingredient, it would be much better – this was the first step towards my cooking style. Famously you use ants in your dishes and you’ve talked before about the importance of insects as food; do you think insects should be more widely used in restaurants? In the eighties eating sushi in the west wasn’t good; the time hadn’t come for that yet but step by step it became popular. Insects are challenging for us; they put customers in front of a cultural barrier. However the American Food Department accepts that 86 parts per million of peanut butter is insects and it’s 74 parts per million in chocolate, so we are already eating insects. It’s all about what our culture sees as acceptable. What is honey? It’s something that an insect vomits but we see that as acceptable. If you think about the big picture and the global food situation, insects can be very helpful for feeding people. Nowadays there are lots of farms breeding insects to feed animals which will be food for us, so it’s already acceptable to use insects as a feed but not as a food. If we can reach the point where insects become culturally acceptable as food I think they will be very helpful- if they have a good flavour! The ants I use are very tasty but others don’t taste so good. Our commitment as chefs has to be to make good food, not trendy food. Now you have ATÁ which is a very interesting project; can you expand on the ideas and goals behind it? ATÁ is not a chefs’ institute; it’s not a gastronomic institute; it’s an inter-disciplinary institute. When you deal in the food chain from nature to table, you’re not just dealing with a one-dimensional line; you’re dealing with a food web because you start to affect people’s lives, culture and the environment. Food is the link between nature and culture so through the food chain you can achieve beautiful things. But we, as chefs, aren’t trained for it, so this relationship with native people, through food, needs to be supported by other disciplines like anthropologists and sociologists. In this way we can achieve real benefits. For example, in Brazil at the moment there is one cow per hectare of grazing – it’s insane – ATÁ is working on a method of feeding the same number of cattle on half the amount of land, or twice the number of cattle on the same amount of land. Do you think food and chefs can be at the forefront of the drive to create a more harmonious balance between, humanity, food and the environment? I met Ferran Adriá about a month ago and he told me something that really blows my mind. He said: “Alex, Facebook is not the most powerful social media in the world, cuisine is.” Cuisine connects people. As a chef I can say that I’ve spent half my life inside kitchens. When I first started in a kitchen, nobody used computers; nowadays everybody does. In the last 15 years there has been a technological transformation in chefs’ lives. If, in the next 15 or 20 years, we teach young chefs to take care, not only of the quality of their ingredients but the way those ingredients have been produced, this would be a huge transformation and we can really be better chefs, not as performers but as citizens. Are you optimistic about the future of Brazil and the Amazon region, and what do you see as chefs’ roles in helping to create a better future? Chefs can be very helpful. Chefs can save the planet. I believe that if chefs do what I’ve been talking about, not only the Amazon will be better or Brazil or South America but the whole world. Food is a very powerful weapon. Last September at the MAD food camp I made a demonstration where I killed a chicken on stage and a few people freaked out, saying it was cruel and horrible. My grandmother used to kill chickens. I have very good memories of those times. She used to save everything from the chicken, even the feathers . No waste. She honoured the chicken and its death. Nowadays chefs have lost contact with the ingredients and we waste too much. What’s the best way not to waste? By using. We are all loin lovers but cattle are not just loins; we can make beautiful things with all the animal, even the nose, ears, tail – parts that nobody wants to eat. We need to understand that behind all food there is death and we must honour death and honour the animal, then maybe we will stop wasting so much food.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th December 2013

Alex Atala: an exclusive interview