On a recent visit to launch his book, Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients, Alex Atala talks about the new Brazilian cuisine, his love for Amazon ingredients, and what public recognition means to a chef.
By
Beatriz Wagner

15 May 2014 - 4:34 PM  UPDATED 2 Jul 2014 - 3:54 PM

Alex, you’re on TIME’s 2013 The 100 Most Influential People in the World list, and your restaurant in São Paulo is a fixture on world top restaurant lists. Do you think your enthusiasm for Brazilian ingredients brought on this success?

I don’t doubt that. I think the most important souvenir of a trip is the taste of food. If I come to Australia, I don’t want to eat sushi. If I go to Japan, I don’t want to eat pizza, and I imagine that people who want to go to Brazil want to taste flavours; taste the diversity and strength that Brazil has in its culinary traditions.

Obviously, everybody knows that we have different culinary traditions in Brazil – I mean cuisines, like from Bahia, Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Sul, or from the Amazon. We have unique ingredients as well. Brazil itself barely knows the diversity that it has. When we talk about diversity or biodiversity, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about nature and environmental conservation. Of course we must preserve rivers, seas and forests, but we must not forget another important element of this ecosystem: human beings. The man of the river, of the ocean, of the forest, also needs to be supported, needs to benefit through this. These ingredients, once we know the flavours, gain a new direction. It’s time for Brazil to look to our cuisine, our wealth and, most importantly, understand that cuisine is also culture. Brazil still does not see food as culture.

Your book features the Amazon to a large extent. Were you the first person to rediscover the ingredients of the Amazon?

I wasn’t the first, but I think I may have been the most enthusiastic, the most fervent for the cause. Maybe the oldest, as well [Laughs]. For the book, we produced 120 recipes and I had to carefully select only 65. I was careful to put in a little from each region, so I talk about chimarrão (a mate, or green herb tea) from the south, recipes from Pantanal, of the Caiçara Indian culture, of all the diversity. I wanted to show people that Brazil isn’t just churrasco and feijoada, like the world thinks it is.

Is there an Amazonian ingredient you like best?

Well, the Amazon is difficult to represent in only one product. There are many Amazons, and within each of these Amazons, there exists great diversity that people don’t really know about. There's one ingredient I like a lot which is tucupi. It’s an unknown Brazilian ingredient. Most people don’t even know what it is. It’s the fermented milk or juice of the cassava plant.

At the time of the navigations, when the Americas were exporting potatoes, tomatoes, cacao and chillies, tapioca went as well, which is cassava starch. It’s really cool and I think it’s now Brazil’s right to claim ownership of this product. Also, when we’re talking about cassava, we can’t forget about the farofas and cassava flour. It’s the only ingredient that you find from north to south at every table in Brazil. From the simplest to the most refined, our farofinha is sacred.

Let’s talk about environmental footprints. People care about sourcing local produce, and the Amazonian ingredients you use have to cross the country to São Paulo. In terms of regional cuisine and international gastronomy, how do you balance these two distinct forces?

They are distinct forces. I wouldn’t say that they’re opposing, but complementary. I would love to be able to work with the main concept of zero-kilometre food. Everything is the least processed possible, closest possible, with the least production of carbonic gas for the atmosphere. Without a doubt, these are all beneficial. But the reality is that more Brazilians have visited Miami than the Amazon. For us to share the Amazon and to show that the forest is rich, that it can generate value – and I’m not talking about money, I’m talking about perceptions – that’s through cuisine.

A fortnight ago, I was with Ferran Adrià in Brazil and he said something that just left me amazed: "The most important social media network in the world isn’t Facebook – it’s food!"

Do you think the chef has a social responsibility?

I think a life without dreams, without yearnings, is pretty dull. I dream about these things. I don’t do it because I think it’s a mission, I do it because it’s from my heart.

Small attitudes that we can use in kitchens today can be transformative tomorrow. Looking forward like that can be a little difficult to understand, but remember that only 15 years ago very few chefs used computers. Twenty-something years ago, chefs had secrets. These days, if you have an idea, a new technique, a new ingredient, you run to the internet and publish it. Public recognition brings people to you.

If we educate a whole generation – it only takes 10-15 years – to work with local food, to know that food is culture, that food can be an important social tool for cultural and environmental benefits, the computer will be another tool not just for flavours but for integration of man.

Tell us about your institute, ATÁ?

The transformative power of cuisine today is exceptional. In Brazil, some friends and I ended up creating ATÁ to manage the food cycle. Let me give you an example: Brazil relies on commercial large-scale agricultural production. Agribusiness is important for our country’s balance. It is important for us and the rest of the world that Brazil continues to produce grains. But it is important to understand that this has bad consequences. Small rural producers can sometimes be forced off their own lands. Let’s look at an old example: Europe. Great cheese and great wines are produced in small areas. In other words, producing quality may be the viability of the small rural producer. Using these elements, we managed to transform not only individual lives but the lives of whole regions.

Nine years ago, we started work in Paraíba Valley with one small rural producer growing black rice. Now the whole valley is tending towards the production of specialist rice: Japanese varieties mocha and Koshihikari, Jasmine, Basmati and some Italian varieties. There are a variety of grains arriving in Brazil, being planted there, and changing lives. This is the power of food.

Do you have a special relationship with Australia?

I think all Brazilians have a fascination with this continent-country, “the Brazil that turned out morally right”. Their relationship with nature is very unique. Australians take care of their ocean, soil and desert. Sadly, Brazil is the world No.1 in chemical emissions in agriculture. Our deforestation rates have fallen, but are still far from being acceptable. I think Australia is a point of reference, of inspiration for us. I like it here! [Laughs] I don’t know if I even need to say that, but there is the connection with local chefs, some I’ve become very good friends with, and it’s lovely.

Sydney’s gastronomical scene keeps getting stronger. Would you agree?

Oh, yes. You guys have amazing restaurants: Mark Best, the guys from Quay, Neil Perry... You guys have legends. Tetsuya. You have world legends here.

What are you hoping for the World Cup, for Brazilian cuisine?

I think it’s an important channel for us. I think it will really open doors to show people that food can be beneficial not just for those who eat. I think it’s a moment that Brazil can be proud, not just of its football, of its smile, of its people, but of its cuisine. If we don’t make it ugly, I’ll be happy. Hopefully, we will do great – in the stadiums as well!

 

Photography by Sergio Coimbra