Brazil’s taste en­voy

Chef alex atala high­lights the cui­sine of the ama­zon.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TASTE - By NATALIA RAMOS

BRAZIL­IAN chef Alex Atala, widely seen as one of South Amer­ica’s culi­nary wizards, is mak­ing his name by high­light­ing the lit­tle-known cui­sine of the Ama­zon re­gion.

From an al­most ac­ci­den­tal start in the busi­ness – he took a cook­ing class in Bel­gium in or­der to get his visa ex­tended – Atala is us­ing his star sta­tus to pro­mote Brazil­ian food and de­fend sus­tain­able pro­duc­tion.

“Cook­ing is a mix of magic, alchemy and ex­act sciences,” Atala said in an in­ter­view at his award-win­ning D.O.M. restau­rant in his na­tive Sao Paulo.

Atala grew up in sub­ur­ban Sao Paulo. As a punk young­ster, he ex­per­i­mented with drugs and em­braced tat­too art.

At age 45, he still cuts a re­bel­lious fig­ure, with his nu­mer­ous tat­toos and grey­ing red beard. When asked what re­mains of his edgy youth, he says en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, “Ev­ery­thing!”

But with suc­cess – D.O.M. ranked sixth this year on the Bri­tish mag­a­zine Restau­rant’s list of the top 50 eater­ies – has come some mel­low­ing.

“Life forced me to ma­ture. Cook­ing gave me method and dis­ci­pline,” said Atala, clad in his crisp white chef’s at­tire.

From house paint­ing to cook­ing

In his late teens, Atala went back­pack­ing across Europe. In Bel­gium, he painted houses to make money and when his visa was about to ex­pire, he en­rolled in a cook­ing class in or­der to ex­tend his stay.

He thus be­gan his culi­nary train­ing at the age of 19 at the Ecole Hote­liere de Na­mur. He later headed to France and Italy to widen his reper­toire.

In 1994 he re­turned to Sao Paulo, hav­ing learnt one les­son.

“I re­alised that I would never be able to cook Ital­ian food like an Ital­ian chef. But I could dis­tin­guish my­self as a Brazil­ian chef with recipes and in­gre­di­ents of my coun­try,” he notes.

In 1999, Atala opened D.O.M., which stands for Deo Op­timo Max­imo (or “To God, most good, most great“) and is viewed as the best restau­rant in South Amer­ica.

The menu there no­tably fea­tures un­con­ven­tional in­gre­di­ents that in­cludes palm heart fet­tuc­cine; pi­rarucu (Ama­zo­nian fish) with tu­cupi (tra­di­tional Brazil­ian sauce from wild man­ioc root); and ba­nana ravi­oli with pas­sion fruit sauce and tan­ger­ine sor­bet, as well as in­sects bur­nished like jewels. An eight­course din­ner cost around US$250 (RM802).

“The Ama­zon is the new fron­tier of taste. Its rich­ness and pos­si­bil­i­ties are in­fi­nite,” says Atala.

“Every­body knows the word Ama­zon, but no­body knows the taste as­so­ci­ated with it.”

In 2009, Atala opened his sec­ond restau­rant, Dalva e Dito, also in Sao Paulo, to crit­i­cal ac­claim.

He has also worked in ad­ver­tis­ing and runs the ATA foun­da­tion, which cham­pi­ons the in­dige­nous peo­ple and pro­duce of the Ama­zon.

Atala says he likes to eat street food, es­pe­cially Brazil’s pop­u­lar fried em­panadas. As a child, he used to go fish­ing and hunt­ing with his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther, and he says he is try­ing to res­ur­rect such mem­o­ries by pro­mot­ing an “emo­tive cook­ing”.

Time mag­a­zine in­cluded Atala on its 2013 list of the 100 most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple in the world.

Fel­low chef Rene Redzepi de­scribed him in his in­tro­duc­tion as “the most ded­i­cated per­son in his field”.

“Self­lessly, he has sur­ren­dered to the enor­mous task of shap­ing a bet­ter food cul­ture for Latin Amer­ica. His phi­los­o­phy of us­ing na­tive Brazil­ian in­gre­di­ents in haute cui­sine has mes­merised the con­ti­nent,” wrote Redzepi, a Dane whose restau­rant Noma in Copen­hagen tops the World’s 50 Best Restau­rants list.

Food links ‘na­ture and cul­ture’

A rest­less trav­eller, Atala at­tends con­fer­ences around the world,

by chef alex atala, which he hopes will pro­pel brazil­ian food onto the world’s culi­nary stage. — aP cooks in Chile or Sin­ga­pore and oc­ca­sion­ally treks into the Ama­zon rain­for­est in search of ex­otic new tastes.

He in­sists that Brazil is a coun­try “which still has a lot to show” if it de­cides to fol­low the ex­am­ple of coun­tries such as Peru, which have learnt to pro­mote their cui­sine.

“Food is the best link be­tween na­ture and cul­ture ... The mod­ern chef and many of us to­day have be­come dis­con­nected from the orig­i­nal in­gre­di­ents.”

Dur­ing a re­cent event in Den­mark, Atala was crit­i­cised when he killed a hen in front of his au­di­ence, but he dis­missed the is­sue.

“To­day, a chef sparks a con­tro­versy if he kills a hen, but our grand­par­ents did this rou­tinely.

“They used the feath­ers to make pil­lows and the legs for other things. They made full use of ev­ery­thing. At the same time, there is a lot of waste in the food busi­ness. We need to re­write this story and value life, veg­e­tal or an­i­mal,” notes Atala, who says he likes to spark de­bates.

Atala has three sons from two mar­riages and says that if he had not pur­sued a culi­nary ca­reer, he might have be­come a ve­teri­nar­ian or a bi­ol­o­gist. – AFP

Sourc­ing for the best: alex atala (right) shop­ping at the Feira Livre mar­ket on the streets of the Jardins neigh­bour­hood in Sao Paulo, brazil. The chef oc­ca­sion­ally treks into the ama­zon rain­for­est in search of ex­otic new tastes. — aFP

chef alex atala at work in the kitchen of his d.O.m restau­rant in Sao Paulo, brazil. The restau­rant has been named the best restau­rant in Latin amer­ica and the caribbean. — aFP

a dish made of ant and pineap­ple from the cook­book d.O.m.:re­dis­cov­er­ing brazil­ianIn­gre­di­ents,

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