Alex Atala: Brazil's taste envoy

Alex Atala: Brazil's taste envoy
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.

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 eight-course dinner cost around US$250 (S$314).

"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, 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.

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