MILAN (Reuters Life!) - Brazilian Alex Atala used to mix music as a DJ. Now he mixes indigenous Brazilian ingredients at his Sao Paulo restaurant, ranked by experts among the world’s best eateries.
The bearded, tattooed chef is keen to promote local ingredients, using European techniques to make dishes such as mushroom consomme with Amazon aromas, breaded oysters with tapioca marinade and banana ravioli with maracuja and tangerine sauce.
He says every ingredient has the same value — sardines and manioc are just as important as foie gras and truffles.
Of Palestinian origin, Atala began his cooking career when he was 19 at a hotel management school in Belgium.
He opened his restaurant D.O.M., an acronym coming from a Latin phrase meaning “God is Great and Maximum” in 1999 and the eatery was the only restaurant in Latin America that made Britain’s Restaurant magazine Top 50 List last year, ranking no. 40.
Atala spoke to Reuters on the sidelines of the Identita Golose food forum in Milan last month.
Q: How would you describe your cuisine?
A: “Brazilian, but more than anything it is a cuisine of product, where Brazilian ingredients are the protagonists.
Other than using European techniques, the flavors we have are not found elsewhere.”
Q: Why is it important to you to use local products from the Amazon?
A: “These Brazilian flavors that I have known since I was a child are flavors that are a novelty for Europeans and need to be adapted. The best way to do that is through a cuisine which uses the techniques you have and our flavors...The only way to break this geographical distance, is to do a cuisine that speaks both languages.
Q: How rich is the Amazon in such ingredients?
A: “Very much. The numbers are overwhelming, more than 2,000 kinds of fish, 600 edible herbs, fruits ... An institute in the north conducted a research and found another 300 new edible species — among them flowers, herbs, roots — all unknown.”
Q: Do you have a favorite?
A: “No. I have fun with priprioca (a plant) ... up till today there were cosmetic products with it in Europe, but it wasn’t used for food even in Brazil. I’m fascinated.”
Q: What do you cook for yourself when alone at home?
A: “Something simple.”
Q: What inspired you to become a chef?
A: “I came to Europe on a trip ... I wanted to stay but I had two problems, not enough money — so I started working as a wall painter — and my visa. I could get a visa, if I went to school. I started cooking school to have a visa but I started doing small jobs in the kitchen. I found I had much more fun as a chef than as a painter.”
Q: You used to be a DJ. Are there any similarities in mixing sounds to mixing ingredients?
A: “You mix music as a DJ and you mix flavors as a cook but it is not the same. There is a certain sensibility. For a chef to do creative cuisine, he needs a sensibility, to be demanding on himself.
After many years of cooking, it is easy to understand that the difference between what is good and what is very good and the exceptional are enormous. To make a good recipe is very easy, for a very good one you need a few years.
A football player goes onto the pitch to win, a chef who wants to be renowned for his food doesn’t want to be second. He dreams of being first.”
Edting by Paul Casciato