Spice ofSão Paulo

One day in 2011, a friend brought me to have lunch at Epice in São Paulo. It had been open for a mere week or so, but he, who is in the restaurant business, insisted that I should see what this young chef, new on the scene, was doing. The meal was revelatory. It struck me deeply, in a way that I hadn’t felt since my first tasting menu at Maní, years before. Alberto Landgraf was a complete unknown, but even at that very early stage in his solo career, to me his talent was crystal clear.

The pork belly he served that day—a perfect square, impossibly crisp on top and melting in the centre—took him five days to prepare. Wet brine, dry brine, pressing to compact the layers of meat and fat… quite the ordeal. The charcuterie platter, a rarity in Brazil, was impeccable, reminiscent of something I’d expect at one of Alain Ducasse’s Parisian bistros. Such was my surprise that I decided to return that same night for dinner, just to make sure I hadn’t overestimated him. Another bullseye! The following day I wrote about the discovery. “I confess I expected less of a boy with a relatively short trajectory. Even if just beginning, one notices the precision in the execution of incredibly refined dishes, like the thin-as-veil salmon slices served with a trembling, soft-yolk egg, and a brunoise of mushrooms underneath. “I do simple cooking,” he said, as he sat at my table for an impromptu interview. Nothing further from the truth.”

Since then, Landgraf’s cooking has changed and evolved. “It’s my first restaurant, so, naturally, it took me some time to [get to] know myself better as a cook, to understand the São Paulo market and my clientele. I began to see what I was better at, and that narrowed down the focus.” He gradually distanced himself from the influences of chefs that he’d worked with in the past, and opened new paths with his team.

And what chefs! Landgraf, who comes from Maringá, a city in Southern Brazil, has a stellar CV. He spent five years in London, working for, among other chefs, Tom Aikens and Gordon Ramsay (Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road). After that, he did a stage with the great Pierre Gagnaire in France. Aikens, especially, was hugely influential. “I was there as he opened his restaurant, and you could feel that it was very much in evidence, and that many young and talented chefs wanted to work there. For example, Isaac McHale (The Clove Club) and James Lowe (Lyle’s) were working there at the time. I was lucky to be there at that time, to see how Tom handled the opening, the pressure from the media, and the early mistakes,” he says.

Before returning to Brazil, Landgraf also worked at Allens of Mayfair, London’s oldest butchers, which gave him an edge on preparing meats. In fact, his deep knowledge of animal anatomy—including fish—is one of the main things that sets him apart from his peers in Brazil. While most local chefs stick to rib-eye, filet mignon and pre-cleaned fish, Landgraf makes a point of buying whole animals as much as possible, and cutting them up in his own kitchen, making (great) use of lesser-known bits such as lamb neck and fish cheeks.

When Landgraf returned from Europe, in 2005, he did a stint running the kitchens of a small chain of brasseries and bars—definitely not his thing. Eventually he found two partners and kicked off Epice. In the beginning, things were tough. He struggled with the difficulty in getting decent produce, especially fish. “Brazil has a gigantic coastline, so the problem isn’t finding fresh fish. The problem is how badly that fish is handled along the supply chain and the sorry state [it is in] when it arrives at the market.”

Not one to back away from obstacles, Alberto would drive to Ceasa, the city’s wholesale market, the biggest in the country, at 3am, twice a week, to grab the best of what came in. Since then, he’s developed close ties with suppliers of Japanese descent (who control this trade and get the cream of the crop) and manages to secure top-quality fish, but he still makes the trek to the weekly organic market to buy vegetables. “I don’t send my staff, it’s something I believe I must do myself.” He is one of a very few….

Alex Atala, chef-owner of D.O.M. restaurant in São Paulo, is the undisputed ambassador of Brazilian cuisine abroad. Such is his renown that other chefs in Brazil seem somewhat eclipsed by him. Slowly, though, a new and greatly talented generation is making itself heard. Landgraf spearheads the small crop of young chefs running successful restaurants and making it big. “I only wish I had that much talent when I was his age,” says Atala of his fellow São Paulo chef.

Epice is a small restaurant with only 38 seats, where the simplicity of the décor and the informality of the service could mislead you into thinking that the food is also casual. Nothing could be further from the truth: it is not only delicious but very ambitious. Studious and driven, Landgraf demands perfection in every dish from his team. Presentations are simple, in a style he likes to call “contemporary naturalism,” but each and every element on the plate is thoroughly thought out. Specialties include sardine on a brioche, reminiscent of a niguiri sushi, and dry-aged duck with kale, banana and long beans vinaigrette.

In 2014, Landgraf opened a second and more casual restaurant called Beato. The menu focuses on traditional Brazilian dishes and snacks, which are done in a lighter version with a prettily presentation. The bar, with craft cocktails created by Kennedy Nascimento, one of the stars of a burgeoning mixology scene, plays an important role. Landgraf develops the menus and supervises the cooks, but chooses to focus most of his energy on the mothership: “Beato wasn’t something I planned. My partners offered the opportunity and I decided to jump at it.”

Within two years of opening, Epice was already being hailed one of the best in town. Veja São Paulo magazine, in its very influential annual food guide, elected it the best contemporary restaurant in the city, ahead of D.O.M. and Maní. This successful run was recently capped off by a star in the first edition of the Michelin Brazil Guide. He was surprised by the effect the star had on business: “ I started to get Brazilian customers that had never heard of my restaurant. It’s not that we got a whole lot more people walking in, but definitely we got a new set of customers. The number of foreigners making online reservations also jumped up.”

Today, Epice is hailed as one of Brazil’s top tables. The cuisine has shifted more and more towards contemporary Brazilian. Landgraf is proud to say that: “the only imported items in the kitchen are chocolate, salt and olive oil.” Several of the delicious morsels on his tasting menu feature ingredients that can’t be found elsewhere—or certainly not in Europe. They include raw Brazil nuts (the base of his signature dessert, an ice cream with coconut shavings)—os shavings sao de castanha tambem, artisanal cornmeal called biju and honey produced by tiny native bees in the tropical forest.

Ever so humble and dedicated to his craft, Landgraf seldom leaves his tiny kitchen, where all 12 cooks started as stagiers, keeping a close watch. He has become a celebrity, featured in TV ads and with a legion of followers on Instagram, yet the buzz doesn’t touch his core. Instead of making grandiose plans, he chooses to keep a low profile and perfect his flagship. The dining room has recently been refurbished, and much work is being done to improve the service, yet he isn’t content just yet. Landgraf, the sage, declares: “I don’t need to go anywhere else or open anything else. I want to build upon what I’ve already got.” Wise words.

Find out more about the culinary career of Alberto