Brazil has long been known for its football, its music, its rainforests and glorious beaches– and, thanks to one man, it is now known for its food.
That man – who has been responsible for this change in attitude – is Alex Atala. Before he stepped onto the scene, Brazilians hadn’t embraced their own culinary culture within the gastronomic world, choosing French and Italian cuisine over the indigenous products of their own country. Now, his popularity and his food have contributed to him being named the ‘Ambassador for Brazilian Gastronomy,’ with international chefs and celebrities desperate to taste his Brazilian delicacies.
Since opening his restaurant, D.O.M (from the Latin Deo Optimo Maximo – God is Great and Exceeding – good in his wisdom and exceeding in his kindness) in 1999, Atala has pushed the boundaries of his country’s perception of its produce and cuisine and elevated it onto the world stage. Looking back, no one could have foreseen that a tattooed punk DJ from São Paulo would have reached the dizzying heights of stardom through cooking.
Atala was born in the neighbourhood of Mooca. At the age of 14, he left home to live in São Paulo, where he worked as a DJ in the night-club, Rose Bom Bom. By the age of 18, in order to improve his languages and be closer to the origins of the punk music scene he adored, he decided to backpack through Europe working to pay his way. Taking various jobs, including a painter and decorator, it wasn’t until a friend suggested enrolling in a catering college whilst he was in Belgium, that he discovered an outlet for his innate creativity.
This turn was to be his destiny.
At 19, driven by a new passion and tenacity, he began working at the École Hôtelière de Namur in Belgium. Working his way through Belgium, France and Italy, in some of Europe’s most prestigious Michelin-starred kitchens, Atala not only gained in knowledge and experience but acquired new languages of English, French and Italian.
In 1999, he returned to São Paulo to open D.O.M. The love of his home country, tradition, art and music burned within him, and he wanted to express it through his cooking.
Using local ingredients, sourced from the huge market of Belem do Para, did little to satisfy his desire for true local produce. With a minimum 6hr flight between him and the Amazon, he decided to explore the untapped vegetation of the rainforest; seeking out new ingredients in a quest to discover his own culinary identity.
Heading to the depths of the Amazon Forest - with the help of ISA (Social Environmental Institute), scientists and anthropologists; he gained knowledge of the indigenous lifestyle and how to sensitively forage with minimum impact on both the forest and people.
D.O.M’s menus were filled with the Amazonian discoveries as well as ingredients such as Pirarucu fish – the largest fresh water fish in the world; and Tucupi - a yellow sauce extracted from wild manioc root and used in a range of sauces. But, the challenge for the chef and the restaurant was to educate the customers and reintroduce their own produce back into their palate.
A true innovator, he used Brazilian staples in all of his food, adding Amazonian fruits or roots into a simple duck confit or using brioche crumbs made from Amazonian tubers as a batter.
D.O.M soon became the embassy for Brazilian gastronomy and his food was desired world-wide.
Atala is constantly inspiring a new generation of chefs. Thanks to his discovery of a new type of Palm Heart – which grows faster and has five to eight side shoots that can be harvested without killing the tree, and can be eaten raw; he has encouraged a world-wide interest in Brazilian food.
The Palm Heart was used in his fettuccine recipe; a dish that became so popular that other chefs emulated it, increasing demand for its growth.
To ensure the land and the native people were cared for, as they produced the palm hearts, he helped local farmers develop a sustainable strategy for future generations, and educated them on exportation. Aware of deforestation, Atala bought an area of the rainforest where 30 to 40 families live in peace. Occasionally he visits to forage and fish in the area; to continue with his research.
As the ambassador of Brazilian food, he is constantly driven in the search for new flavours. He sees a future where Brazilian produce becomes as commonplace on people’s shelves as pasta. This dream is already coming into fruition, both D.O.M. and Atala’s latest restaurant, Dalva e Dito, are highlights on the nation’s culinary map.
Alex Atala’s name is synonymous with the Cook it Raw philosophy. The event brings together the world’s leading chefs who are committed to the exploration of cultures, and breaking down boundaries. Held annually, past Cook it Raw events have been held in Copenhagen, Italy, Lapland and Japan.
Atala became involved with the Cook it Raw events due to the shared beliefs between him and the other participants. When he first heard about the idea, he was both nervous and excited. He revelled in the idea of cooking food without fire or by using as little as possible.
The one thing that brings together culture and nature is the kitchen, food is such a large part of society and society needs to be sustained. What the chefs at Cook it Raw try and achieve is to change mindsets and encourage massive conservation. To make people think before they cook.
Alex Atala’s quest for D.O.M.’s Brazilian vocation takes in one of the biggest natural resources; the Amazon rainforest. In the rainforest there is a wide range of products yet to be discovered and studied. Already there are over three hundred vegetable varieties that have been domesticated from the local culture and cultivated for use in food. But there are plenty more that haven’t been discovered, which shows a huge potential for gastronomic research.
“Almost all ingredients are unique and local to the restaurant. For example, the fragrant Amazonian root called “priprioca”. The indigenous people use it as a scent, rather than a food. I developed its use as an edible essence, so with help from a perfumier, I created an extract that I can use in both savoury and sweet dishes. Following this development I was asked to write a piece on its use in gastronomy by the scientific publication ‘Gastronomy and Food Science’.
We also use three different kinds of edible ants and wild herbs - working in collaboration with biologists and anthropologists. Every year we discover new/forgotten/unknown ingredients that we showcase on our tasting menu.”
Find out about Alex Atala's career here.