Chef Alex Atala has captured the zeitgeist of the present culinary world. This is a man who has influenced other chefs around the world in what they put in front of diners and in the research that is integral to most progressive chef’s kitchens in the world.
Atala is one of the most personable, charismatic and talented chefs of our time and the fact that he is handsome enough to give George Clooney a run for his money is just a happy coincidence. Atala’s success, recognition and charismatic personality have made him part role model and part cult figure in the industry and put him on the cover of Time Magazine last year along with Rene Redzepi and David Chang as one of the 100 most influential people of the year. His maturity as a chef and human being is a result of the tough and long road to his enviable position at present. What started as a backpacking adventure for this former disc jockey and punk rocker has developed into an amazing career with the #7 restaurant in the world as rated by Restaurant Magazines 50 Best Restaurants in the World 2014 list. Last week he was also awarded the Chef’s Choice Award of 2014, an indication of his strong relationships with his peers.
Atala started his culinary journey at 19 at culinary school in Belgium and worked with acclaimed chefs Jean-Pierre Bruneau and Bernard Loiseau, followed by stints in the South of France and Italy before going back to Brazil and opening D.O.M in 1999. Since 2009 he has opened a second operation, Dalva e Dito, in Sao Paulo and a take-out/market version next door in 2012. Atala is credited with introducing native Brazilian ingredients to top tables in his region.
Every time we meet it is in a different city and continent, since like other chefs on the event circuit he travels constantly. I see so many different facets of his personality every time we meet or I hear him speak or do a cooking demonstration on stage. For instance in San Sebastian at the Gastronomika he spoke of his cuisine and its base of Amazonian products, a few months later in Mexico City he was a rock star on stage who brought out fans wearing lucha libre masks on stage with him and had the audience go crazy.
In Copenhagen last August in the MAD3 symposium arena he shocked the audience by wringing a chickens neck and later that night skinning it for an audience clasping cameras and I phones to record his antics. Next year he will be co-curating the same Symposium and the “Death Happens” t-shirt he was sporting and gifting to fellow chefs was presumed to be a hint towards the direction of the event. In January 2014 the theme for the symposium was disclosed as “What is Cooking”, a loaded question indeed and will probably be the focus of conversations amongst chefs and cooks this year.
A few days after Copenhagen he was in Lima, Peru for the first 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America awards as well as Mistura 2013. It was a very serious Atala on stage at Mistura 2013 who spoke about our footprint on the planet and how our choices of food products we use in our kitchens impact the environment. It is impossible to be unaffected by his passion fervor and honesty about the path he has chosen.
For most of 2013 and 2014 he has been traveling the world and promoting his very well received cookbook D.O.M. ( he has previously authored three other books ) and speaking and demonstrating at the world’s most prominent food events. I last sat down for an extended conversation with him in Lima, he was exhausted and had the Gelinaz dinner to cook for that night before heading home to Sao Paolo on the early morning flight but he answered my questions with patience and good humor. It was a very introspective Atala, different from the guy with a warm hug and a hello beautiful for me every time we meet and he candidly shared his thoughts:
My questions for Chef Alex Atala:
How have you transformed as a person through your journey to the highest levels of your profession?
It is an honor and so beautiful to be recognized for doing something you live for and enjoy doing. On the other hand it puts a lot of pressure and takes you away from your kitchen and restaurant. So I have to say that there is a duality. I am super happy but I do miss time in my restaurant and with my family. I cannot complain about the pressure because I try to create beautiful food and at the same time show Brazilians and foreign guests more about our food culture.
These days as a chef you can take this one step forward by using local ingredients and bring real benefits to the local population as we for example created the ATA (It denotes fire in the native language) institute in 2013 in association with anthropologists for the benefit of Amazonian natives. Our aim is to create accountability and sustainability in production of food. My first compromise as a chef is to make delicious food using our local ingredients from the Amazon. If you come to my restaurant and I give you a taste of something from the Amazon and tell you that the real hero of the dish is the person who planted and harvested this ingredient it will change your perception. It takes a lot of guts to stand up for and stress these ideas but for me it is a way of promoting Amazonian products and it brings back benefits to the native people.
Why do you think chefs are important players in these discussions?
A chef is someone who is working in the kitchen, but what is new now is that we are now becoming multi-faceted professionals. Chefs are already public speakers but now they are doing more than working in their kitchen and speaking out about different issues. Magnus Nillson of Sweden for example has focused his cuisine on promoting and protecting the local culture and environment. Rene Redzepi, Andoni Aduriz, and myself, we have achieved a special position and once you have a successful restaurant, a nice brigade behind you, then you can support research and the promotion of your culture and environmental issues.
When we talk about natural conservation we know we must protect the sea, the land, the rivers etc. we must not forget the human being. The people in those forests, along the riverbanks and seashore need to be protected as well only then can we bring change and real benefits to all.
What do you mean by real benefits?
Real benefits are not making or giving them money. In my case in the Amazon I can just give money and help elevate social problems and social disease that do exist in these remote cultures but that does not preserve their culture. That is why we must involve anthropologists to help keep our native cultures alive and help them stay, prosper, be healthy, and be proud to be Amazonians in Brazil.
So you are trying to enable people instead of just providing for them?
I need the assistance of others in this venture as when people help me I can in turn help more people. The human relationship with food has a lot of problems right now with overfishing, deforestation etc. Our human society is putting a lot of pressure on the planet and we can change this by not only changing attitudes but more importantly our principles to protect nature.
This is why I say that ‘the human relation with food must be revealed’. As a chef working with Amazonian products I know that it is almost impossible for a chef in Japan or elsewhere to use the same ingredients that I use in my recipes. So though it is not practical to adapt my recipes to their local ingredients they can certainly adapt my ideas to their ingredients.
So you are basically sharing ideas?
We are also sharing concepts and techniques along with ideas.
Where do you see yourself few years down the road doing the same work or is there a change in the future?
Hopefully, the same as in the past 26 years working in the kitchen and hope to continue to do the same in the next 26. My true profession is that of a chef but now I can and am trying to do much more. I have been recognized as an important chef and I can take this as wow! I am the coolest guy in the world or I can use it to do something better. I have a voice now as opposed to 10 years ago and I believe if I keep working in this direction I can bring home more benefits for people who don’t have a voice and for my country. I want to inspire other Brazilian chefs to be proud to work in Brazil which is a huge continental country with amazing ingredients.
I hope that my message inspires chefs all over in following the main concept and ideas in their own reality. It is a new idea to do something not for you but at a wider scale for the whole food chain.
When you are sharing these concepts and techniques, do you think you are building a better community of cooks out there?
This is something happening these days that we are super happy and proud about that we have now a kind of fraternity or brotherhood. All of us like Massimo Bottura, Rene Redzepi, we want to share rather than compete and we are glad when we can share our ideas with others.
Do you think that in this ride to the top you have been able to keep your own intrinsic self intact?
Going back a few years chefs had their own secrets and it was their way of attracting more customers to their own restaurants. This is changing now because of the Internet as information goes out cheaper and faster. Now when you find something new you run to the Internet to spread the message so chefs in other cultures and restaurants can get it too. Actually it is a way of helping your own restaurant too in the process. Now this happens not in a competition but in a fraternity. I learn with Rene and if he shares something I share it with others and so on.
This pleasure of sharing with other chefs is a beautiful thing!
Human biology has evolved and changed and what do you think is the relation between bringing back forgotten ingredients and its impact on the health of consumers?
In my case I am trying to focus on people eating healthy and local primarily because we are losing our biodiversity, eating modified food which is having a huge impact on our planet. I do believe that as humans we should not ingest something harmful to our body but we must simultaneously think about our planet as well. It is not only about eating organic food but paying attention to how it was produced. Food chains have people behind them that need to be supported as well. That is why I stress that ‘the human relation with food must be revealed’ and the food chain supported.
What was behind the two differing vibes of your presentation at MAD symposium and the one two weeks later in Mistura in Lima?
In both cases the same idea was presented using two different approaches. The MAD symposium is sans cooking demos and is more conceptual and places more emphasis on sharing ideas with a strong message as I did there. In Lima I tried to do something more lyrical and poetic in my cooking demonstration yet my message was the same. I wanted to show everyone what soil pollution has been doing to our Amazon. I dreamt of this presentation while in Copenhagen and I wrote about ”What is a Green Desert?”
Kilometers and kilometers of soil polluted with chemicals, it is an eyesore yet no one speaks about it. Deforestation on its own is harmful but it does not kill all animals and plants existing in a region. Now when we see acres and acres of green we think wow it’s so verdant but we forget what’s in the soil and will eventually be eaten by us in crops grown in the polluted soil. We need to address what soil pollution is doing to our planet.
What is the idea behind the theme for MAD next year that you are co curating?
Last year the main idea was guts and this year we will build on the same theme. Reflections about the planet and food inspired this symposium initially.
For a movement to go forward it must include people at all levels. When you speak of your own region are you speaking about high end restaurants and how do you bring these concepts to those economically limited from dining at such establishments?
Whether a restaurant is high end or not there is a choice about where you buy your ingredients: supermarket, large producer, local small farmer, or even grow your own. You always have an option – it is not so complicated. What I am trying to do is bring the idea to people that we must change our principles through our daily actions. Why does someone decide to cook or produce organic food? It is a principle before an action, it’s that simple.
What do you want your legacy to be?
If I can inspire a new generation of cooks, mainly from Brazil, to choose a path to make them not only a good chef but the best they can be I will have achieved my goal. Lots of Brazilians have never ventured into the Amazon though they know all about fancy destinations like Miami, New York or London. These days people close their eyes to what makes them uncomfortable so if I correctly analyze my feelings I want to inspire young chefs to be proud of their own food and not forget their own heritage and culture.
We later spoke about young chefs coming up in the ranks who tended to lose touch with their reality. I suggested that they broach this topic at the next symposium and tap established chefs in helping the new generation stay grounded and not fly too high with their first brush with celebrity and the influence of food shows that are about building stars overnight. I will have to wait and see when I travel to the next MAD symposium in Copenhagen to learn the direction predicted for food culture and where Chef Atala takes the conversation.