Brazilian chef Alex Atala juggles pans full of adventurous ingredients, such as ants, popcorn powder and electric daisy. His hunting ground is the Amazon region, a wilderness that he helps to preserve with various projects. Meet the wild chef. The American news magazine Time featured three chefs on the cover of one of its November […]
Brazilian chef Alex Atala juggles pans full of adventurous ingredients, such as ants, popcorn powder and electric daisy. His hunting ground is the Amazon region, a wilderness that he helps to preserve with various projects. Meet the wild chef.
The American news magazine Time featured three chefs on the cover of one of its November issues in 2013, with the intriguing headline The Gods of Food. Three chefs with rock star status: Alex Atala of D.O.M. in São Paolo (which holds sixteenth place in the fifty best restaurants in the world), René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen (two Michelin stars, currently closed) and David Chang of the successful Momofuku restaurants located in various cities, including New York.
For the accompanying photo shoot, photographer Martin Schoeller placed the men in the river in a forest. It was an obvious choice of location: the three chefs are good friends who like to hunt, forage and fish together – despite their geographical distance. But what are those stiff, snow-white chef’s hats doing on their heads in such a setting? The guys never wear them in their kitchens, so the photographer asked them to as a joke. The three friends recognised the humour of it, they don’t take themselves too seriously. This irreverent attitude led to more cheeky pictures, such as the heavily tattooed Atala wearing nothing more than an animal skin.
Pineapple with ants
While the men may not take themselves too seriously, their careers certainly are. Noma has been voted best restaurant in the world four times by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants jury, which is composed of an international panel of chefs and food journalists. Momofuku has won endless awards and has eighteen locations in North America and Australia. But the most striking – or wild – career belongs to Atala (49). He has given Brazilian cuisine a new spin by throwing unheard of ingredients from places like the Amazon into the gastronomic mix, and by learning from the Tupiniquim, the original inhabitants of that region. So what can you eat at D.O.M.? Pineapple with Amazonian ants (the taste is similar to lemon grass and ginger), fettuccine of palm heart and popcorn powder, and transparent lime-banana ravioli with priprioca, an indigenous root from the Amazon that can be poisonous if not prepared properly, but which Atala developed to create an edible, spicy ingredient. Another of his unique ingredients is the electric daisy, which makes your tongue tingle.
The man is as fierce as his cooking and his attitude to gastronomy. As a dedicated punk in his twenties, Alex Atala left Brazil to broaden his horizons, push his limits and expand his mind (with a little help from stimulants). He travelled through Europe, worked as a painter but finally landed in cookery school and worked in different restaurants. He describes himself as “always curious” and “restless” but he also sees this period of his life as his “dark time”: sex, drugs and rock-’n-roll. Fortunately, this was followed by falling in love with the culinary world.
After all sorts of perambulations, Atala ended up in Milan with his girlfriend and became a father. This led to a decision to return to the motherland: he realised that he was homesick, that Brazil is his heart and soul, and that he wanted his son to experience both the concrete jungle of São Paolo, its endless hinterland and the stunning nature. His Brazilian soul was stronger than himself.
When Atala opened D.O.M. (Deo Optimo Maximo, which means “to God, most good, most great”) in 1999, fine dining in São Paolo was constrained to French or Italian cuisine. Brazilian dishes were for the “ordinary” people. The chef simply ignored convention. His mission: to hero ingredients from the Brazilian rainforest and authentic recipes (using, for example, insects) from indigenous peoples, and to champion sustainable production. By doing so, he was also working towards something that is perhaps more important: the protection of the rainforest and its inhabitants.
With his organisation ATÁ (check out the project’s website – which is also in the indigenous language Baniwa – for the mission statement), he tries to contribute to a better relationship between nature, the products that we extract from it and the people who live in harmony with it. For example: by putting a native pepper on the market that has been salted by the women for centuries, a tradition is preserved, the position of the women is strengthened (they share in the profits) and the culinary world is introduced to a previously unknown Brazilian ingredient.
In its second season, the wonderful documentary series Chef’s Table (Netflix) portrayed this idiosyncratic man. The first thing Atala says in the episode – in perfect broken English with a Brazilian accent – is revealing: ‘During my dark time,’ (laughs), ‘I took a very strong… acid. And during that trip, I understood the meaning of life.’ We see him a little later – tattooed, wearing speedos – in the wilderness with the catch that will form his evening meal, standing beside a roaring bonfire. Humans are a part of nature, and Atala doesn’t doubt it. Welcome to his world.