Jan 6, 2009

An interview with Brazil's number one chef, Alex Atala

The media and his peers have crowned Alex Atala São Paulo’s top chef. This avid fisherman and hunter is chef and part-owner of D.O.M. - considered by many São Paulo’s top table (pictured below).

At the strikingly beautiful restaurant he serves up a modern cuisine, which combines Brazilian ingredients – such as Amazonian herbs and fresh heart of palm – and techniques from classic France and modern Spain.
Atala’s path to becoming Brazil’s haute cuisine king was a long one. At 19 Atala left his native São Paulo to tour Europe on a shoestring budget. Two years at the École d´Hôtelerie Namur followed. Diploma in hand, he worked at many restaurants during his five-year stay abroad, including Bruneau (three stars in the Michelin Guide).
Atala returned to Brazil in 1994 and in 2000 opened his flagship D.O.M. Since 2001, it has been voted each year best contemporary restaurant by Gula magazine (the Brazilian equivalent of Gourmet) and also by Brazil’s most prestigious restaurant guide, published annually by Veja, the country’s preeminent newsweekly.

Alexandra Forbes: Within a year of opening, D.O.M. was crowned the best of its kind in the city. What is behind your meteoric rise?
Alex Atala: Everything in life involves a bit of luck, but also a lot to do with the fact that I found a market niche. And people appreciate that if I promise an 8, I will deliver an 8. I never promise a 10 only to deliver a 6.

A.F.: You’ve said before that you don’t consider what you do today a national cuisine, since what you do does not fit into the standards of Brazilian cookery. How would you define, then, the style of food you serve?
Alex Atala: Let me clarify: I do what I call Brazilian gastronomy, and not Brazilian home cooking. I don’t use the same methods as Brazilian home cooks, although I do work with a lot of the same native ingredients. My cuisine aims to heighten the flavours of ingredients, most of all, of Brazilian ingredients mostly, through the use of haute cuisine techniques, mostly European.

A.F.: You’ve been experimenting with some innovative cooking techniques that are also being useed by a select group of avant-garde chefs, mostly based in Spain. These have included pulverizing foie gras and cooking meats in vacuum-sealed bags. What is the importance of these new cooking methods in your kitchen?
Alex Atala: They are very important because some of these new cooking methods that you mention allow me to achieve certain flavours and textures that I could not achieve using more traditional techniques. These new methods are tools I use, but experiments are not what drives my kitchen. My food is not wildly experimental, it’s food that looks like food.

A.F.: Ferrán Adrià, widely recognized as one of the world’s best and most creative chefs, says that Brazil has fantastic products and fantastic people, citing you as an example, and praising the work you do to promote lesser-known Brazilian ingredients. Do you consider his work a source of inspiration?
Alex Atala: I admire his work a lot, but my focus is different, it is on showcasing Brazilian ingredients. He opens a world of possibilities for all chefs, but what I have to do is to filter what he does and make sense of it from my Brazilian perspective. Although I have a great working relationship with some of the world’s hottest chefs, like Adrià himself and (England’s) Heston Blumenthal, I am not trying to be a scientist like they are. We exchange knowledge and help each other, without trying to be like one another.

A.F.: What are some of the typically Brazilian ingredients that aren’t often used in restaurants, and why do you think they don’t make it into São Paulo’s best kitchens?
Alex Atala: There are many, many fruits, and wonderful fishes from the Amazon, like the Pirarucu and the Piraíba, which are hardly used in the nicer restaurants. But the greatest example of underused ingredient is the manioc, which is available all over the country, in its many guises – flour, tapioca, etc.

A.F.: Why do you think that happens?
Alex Atala: Well, some of these foods suffer because they are seen as the common man’s food, they have a very humble origin (even though they can become very refined if handled properly). In other cases, the products are just too hard to find in the big cities.

A.F.: How do your fishing and hunting trips influence the way you cook?
Alex Atala: These hobbies you mention have fostered, since I was a kid, an intimacy with nature which has taught me, first-hand, the difference between what’s fresh and what’s not. And that knowledge puts me at an advantage to select the freshest ingredients, and to understand how to preserve their essence during cooking.

A.F.: Now that D.O.M. is recognized in and out of Brazil as one of the country’s top restaurants and you have become a celebrity, what’s next?
Alex Atala: Kicking the ball high up in the air is easy, but keeping it up there isn’t. My goal is to consolidate D.O.M.’s reputation, rather than lose my focus on other projects.

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