The Guild of Food Writers Awards 2015 has shortlisted Sybil Kapoor as Food Journalist of the Year for amongst other work, this article which was published in the Telegraph Magazine on 14 June 2014.
At the highest level of cooking, chefs hope
that they will leave a culinary legacy.
Some seek to change how their guests perceive the world around them,
such as René Redzepi at Noma, who
literally serves a taste of Nordic wilderness in his restaurant. Others are like Ferran Adrià, who revolutionized cooking at elBulli, in Spain, by devising new
techniques that radically altered the appearance, taste and texture of food
with foams, ‘pearls’ and gels. But few
can match the Brazilian chef Alex Atala.
His cooking is changing Brazil’s culinary identity; but his sourcing,
which includes indigenous pre-conquistador ingredients, is transforming social
and environmental attitudes within the country by creating dynamic new
networks. By his own admission his
latest project, Instituto Atá is already
much bigger than his restaurant DOM, in São Paulo. It is set to change
Brazil for ever.
Atala is one the world’s leading chefs. DOM is currently seventh in the World’s 50
Best Restaurants, the highest rank of any restaurant in Brazil. ‘Alex is at the
vanguard of shaping modern cooking in Brazil,’ his friend, Heston Blumenthal
said. ‘The country is so vast. We don’t have sense of it here, but with the
World Cup and the Olympics coming, people are going to be much more focused on
Brazil. Alex could massively change how
the world perceives its food.’
I recently met Atala for tea in London. There
is no doubt that he is a charismatic man.
At 46 he exudes an energy that makes you feel anything is possible. He
has an aura of intelligent sensitivity, which he channels into countless
different projects surrounding his work. It is hard to believe that when he opened his
restaurant DOM in a forsaken side street in São Paulo in 1999 many considered him misguided. It was not just the dodgy location, it was
what he planned to serve. He wanted to
use native Brazilian ingredients, from yams to Amazonian wild foods such as
huge white-fleshed pirarucu river fish and pungent pitanga fruit. ‘I had spent five years cooking in Europe’
Atala said. ‘While I was there, I
realised that I needed to look to my own culinary heritage, because no matter
how good you are, you can’t cook another country’s food like your own.’
Brazil was booming. The vast city of São Paulo, which has the highest GDP in Latin America, was
chock-a-block with expensive Italian, Portuguese, French and Japanese
restaurants. The country’s glitterati held
French and Italian cooking in the highest regard, in much the same way as
French cooking was revered in Britain until the 1990’s. Traditional Brazilian family dishes, such as
rice and beans were too homely for the best restaurants. Brazil’s stringent
anti-import policies had just been lifted, so there was an explosion of foreign
ingredients that São Paulo’s residents
reveled in eating.
Nevertheless, Atala followed his instinct
and DOM, a beautiful, modern Brazilian restaurant, served home-grown food,
albeit in a sophisticated modern way.
‘What is creativity?’ Atala said. ‘It’s to do something that everyone
does, but in a better or unexpected way.’ Take his recipe for fettuccine with
prawns – a familiar dish, except that at DOM the pasta has been replaced by
tender fresh hearts of palm, finely sliced and lightly cooked to resemble
fettuccine. The result is a fresh,
innovative Brazilian dish. Brazilian
ingredients are at the heart of his gastronomy, for example, sweet
neck-pumpkins and manioc (cassava) in all its myriad forms.
Not content with produce from the local
markets, Atala wanted to introduce some of the wild fish, herbs and fruit that
he collected when out foraging in the rain forest. ‘Initially, I sourced all my
Amazonian ingredients through my friends’ he said. ‘They would either harvest them or buy them
from the market at Belém do Pará and send them to me by post or plane. We’re talking 4000km from São Paulo. I’d spend more time
talking to people, trying to get ingredients, than really cooking. After a year, it started to become a business
for my friends, so to help both them and me I started to promote some of the
ingredients to other chefs.’ His desire to find wonderful ingredients but still
spend time in his kitchen led him into Brazilian food production. Step by step
he began to encourage everything from sustainable farming to nurturing the
livelihoods of indigenous tribes deep in the Amazonias.
Take the palm hearts. These are very popular in Brazil but have always
been collected in an unsustainable way, from wild juçara palms, which take eight years to reach maturity. When the 700g
heart is removed, the tree dies. Atala
encouraged the farming of Amazonian pupunha palms, which form clusters of stems,
each of which contain 2kg of heart.
Carefully managed, the trees do not die, and unlike the juçara palm, the hearts do not oxidise, so they can be sold fresh
rather than canned. Today they can be
found in supermarkets across the Brazil, prepped for home-made palm heart
Another early venture was persuading a
local farmer to grow unfamiliar wild herbs such as Amazonian basil and coriander,
pimenta de cheiro, an aromatic,
sweet green chili pepper. Today they can
be found on the menu of stylish Brazilian restaurants across the country.
Atala’s cooking became increasingly unique
as he created dishes to express the essence of items in his ever-expanding
repertoire of native ingredients.
However, it’s one thing to serve innovative dishes with recognizable
ingredients, such as baked onion and beetroot with a tucupi sauce, and quite
another to discover and develop new ingredients. ‘ About 12 years ago I bought
some land in the Amazon. As I started to
get to know the local community, I realised that I needed help to understand
the interdependency of their life style’ he said. ‘I started to work with anthropologists and
sociologists. They could map their food
web and see the links between people, culture and nature.”’
He became fascinated by the incredible
diversity of wild products utilised by the local tribes. For example, they used pripioca, a fragrant
root, as a body scent. It set him wondering whether it was edible. He had the root tested and, working in
collaboration with the fragrance house Givaudan, has developed an essence that
is carefully sourced through the tribes. Its subtle woody, earthy notes,
similar to marijuana, permeate many of his dishes, including his delicate jelly
lime and banana ravioli. ‘I’m hoping that in about a year people will
be able to buy priprioca essence,’ he says.
Perhaps the origins of the Instituto Atá lie in these early years. Atala
began to formulate a vision that brought different societies together to create
a system in which local people could feel pride in their culture and
ingredients. He believes that this will
help protect their environments, as they will be earning money through produce
that depends on their surroundings being nurtured.
As Atala’s culinary reputation grew, so did
the number of ingredients being presented at his door. ‘Nine years ago, Chicao
Ruzene, a small rice producer, offered me some black rice,’ he said. ‘When I tasted it, I was astonished. It has a very different texture, with clear
notes of nuts.’ Curious, Atala
discovered that the rice came from the lush Vale do Paraíba, some 120 miles from São Paulo. ‘It’s one of the oldest rice-growing regions
in Brazil, but about 50 years ago they began to grow rice on an industrial
scale in the south of Brazil and the small producers in the Vale do Paraíba couldn’t compete, especially when the economic crisis hit,’ he
said. ‘Chicao Ruzene had been working
with a rice research breeder, who convinced him that the answer lay in growing
black rice, despite the fact that at that time Brazilians regarded black rice
as diseased. [Ruzene] got a good yield
but was laughed at by the other rice growers. He couldn’t sell his rice, so in
desperation he knocked on my door.’ As
you might expect, Atala took on his cause, and other farmers in the valley
began to grow black rice as it became chic in São Paulo. Other unusual rice
varieties have followed, including pretty pearls of mini-white rice.
Some chefs might be content with that, but
not Atala. In 2012 he
brought together a group of practically minded friends - including
philanthropists, anthropologists, environmentalists, magazine publishers and marketing
and brand experts - to create Atá, an institute whose remit is to nurture the link
between man, nature and food. Part of Atá’s brief was the creation of a label called
Retratos do Gosto. Carefully selected
small producers can sell their produce through this a label, and they receive
support and help in developing their businesses. The rice farmers from the Vale do Paraíba were among the
first to benefit.
‘It’s wonderful to see how they now realise
the viability of their own lives, with more money and growing equality,’ Atala
said. ‘Our next step is to convince them
not to use chemicals. Brazil is a world
leader in chemical emissions. The problem is that people don’t believe in
organic farming because for several generations they’ve been using the
chemicals that are automatically sold with the seeds. They’ve lost their original farming culture.’
As our tea-time meeting stretched into the
evening, there were many aspects of his work with Atá that we had barely covered, such as his efforts to cultivate wild
vanilla, the distribution of Baniwa chilli from a remote area of Brazil, and his
work to reinstate Brazilian-wild-bee honey. I asked about the honey. ‘Did you
know that there are almost 500 different species of bees in South America? Most are tiny - much smaller than foreign
bees - and they’re also very friendly, as they don’t sting. Their honeys have a very different flavour to
ordinary honey. Some taste of pineapple,
others are more fruity, or fragrant, depending on the bee’ he said. But Brazilian-bee honey has a high water
content, which makes it susceptible to fermentation, so in 1952 the Brazilian
government made it illegal to sell honey that has more than 20 per cent water
content. In other words, only foreign
bees honey can be legally sold as honey.
One of Atá’s stated
aims is to campaign for trade regulation of native wild honey. Aside from producing an exquisite ingredient,
Atala sees this as a means of protecting conservation areas while generating
income for their often-neglected population.
project is the attempted cultivation of a special wild Brazilian vanilla orchid. Its pod is as large as a banana and has a
smoky vanilla flavour. It grows in the
Cerrado, an arid region in the middle of Brazil. ‘It’s still a small community
project among local women, but if it takes off it’s going to be a good way for
them to generate extra income’ Atala said.
Atala believes that being a chef today is
not only about transforming food into recipes, but about transforming lives by
tapping into local culture and protecting the environment. He wants to change the world for the better;
and to his eyes, if he does something along – promote Brazilian ingredients,
say – it is just a fashionable splash, but if other chefs do the same, life can
be changed. Above all, he conveys a
sense of fun so infectious that it makes you want to change the world, too.