Alex Atala - Swallow the Amazon

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 Ren é Redzepi at Noma, who literally serves a taste of Nordic wilderness in his restaurant.  Others are like Ferran Adri à , 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 At á is already much bigger than his restaurant DOM, in S ã o 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 S ã o 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 S ã o 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 S ã o 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 Bel é m do Par á and send them to me by post or plane.  We’re talking 4000km from S ã o 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 ju ç ara 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 ju ç ara 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 fettucine.

Another early venture was persuading a local farmer to grow unfamiliar wild herbs such as Amazonian basil and coriander, and 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 At á 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 Para í ba, some 120 miles from S ã o 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 Para í ba 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 S ã o 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 At á , a n institute whose remit is to nurture the link between man, nature and food.  Part of At á’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 Para í ba 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 At á 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  At á’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. 

Another At á 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.

You can also access some of the recipes from his book DOM: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients (Phaidon) if you click the following link:


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