“The work in the kitchen is an incredible learning process of coexistence, generosity and mutual respect”

21 Nov 2014
4 min read
She was a model who became the best female chef in the world. Behind the fragile image of Helena Rizzo hides the complex personality of a powerful woman, ready to change the rules of fine dining — with food, poetry and graffiti, writes Luciana Bianchi in FOUR’s latest Autumn edition…

It was 1996 and high-end cuisine was taking a new direction. This was the year in which Joël Robuchon described Ferran Adrià as the best chef in the world, launching the Catalan genius to international recognition.

Avant-garde cuisine was taking its first steps into a world where science, art and food were forming a strong partnership. It was a new era for chefs and many of them decided to commit their lives to a new yet demanding career, some of them becoming successful against all the odds.

In Brazil, Helena Rizzo, at the age of 18, then an architecture student and model, dropped out of university in Porto Alegre and moved to São Paulo to pursue her modelling career. But the future had other plans for her in the kitchen. “I always loved to cook, but cooking professionally was initially not in my plans,” says Maní’s head chef and co-proprietor.

In São Paulo, the gastronomic capital of Brazil, she worked with renowned chefs, but decided to travel to Europe to improve her skills and to experience different approaches to cooking: “I realised it was time to see and experience more. I loved the job, but I wanted to learn from new perspectives.” She was first in Italy, where she had a few months experience at La Torre in Spilimbergo and Sadler in Milan. In 2002, however, she moved to Spain, working in various restaurants. The last one though, would change her future. It was El Celler de Can Roca, a place that opened her mind to a new world of possibilities and where she met her future husband, chef Daniel Redondo.

After a year in Girona, her final stop in Europe was Roca Moo of the Roca brothers in Barcelona. In 2004, it was time to return home. Daniel followed her a little later.

In 2006, the couple opened Maní, a restaurant that immediately won the heart of food lovers in the country, and today is considered by many as the best restaurant in Brazil. It is important to remember that when they met, Daniel was already a strong member of the Roca team, with 12 years experience in their kitchen, while Helena was still an apprentice. Helena developed to become a talented, humble and hard-working chef, yet the success of Maní is a result of her partnership with Daniel Redondo, not an individual achievement. Maní is a four hands cuisine restaurant, in all matters. Rizzo and Redondo managed to create a cuisine in which both of them had their vital input, with their individual strengths, different cultures and expertise.

In a profession dominated by men, Helena, with her gentle manners and Zen attitude, reflects: “I never felt discriminated in the kitchen for being a woman. Respect is something that you conquer with your attitude, independent of gender.”

In 2013, Maní was awarded the fifth position in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in Lima, and Helena was declared the Best Female Chef in Latin America. 2014 came with another big surprise—Maní was voted 36th position in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and Helena was given the Veuve Clicquot award of Best Female Chef in the world.

Things like this change the lives of many chefs but Helena keeps her feet on the ground: “We keep working in the same way, focusing on our everyday tasks, trying to improve ourselves as much as possible. With prizes the expectation grows. But we are trying to keep our focus.”

Maní is a little oasis in the middle of busy São Paulo. It has a personal touch in every corner. You understand a lot more about Helena’s personality after your first visit. The restaurant feels like a country house, with a casual atmosphere and even a backyard garden with tables surrounded by trees and pebbles on the ground.

In the entrance corridor, you will see graffiti, Helena’s new hobby: “I always loved drawing and living in São Paulo made me pay more attention to urban art. I decided then to buy some spray cans, and I began to paint—in the first place the walls in my own house. I love to do that when I have free time.”

Maní is an extension of the couple’s home. They have learned from the Roca brothers the importance of making the working space pleasurable and to treat their staff as a family. They used to practice yoga together after work, a session run by a professional yoga teacher next door at Manioca, Maní’s event space. But Helena has changed that now for long walks. She also likes to write poetry and always keeps a notebook by her side.

It seems that while most top chefs are spending their time travelling around the globe to conferences and leaving their kitchens more frequently, Helena and Daniel are doing the opposite. Here are two chefs who cook every day and are seemingly oblivious to stardom and fame.

“The work in the kitchen is an incredible learning process of coexistence, generosity and mutual respect. We make mistakes, we learn, and we do a few things right every day.” And that seems to be all that matters to them.

“Cooking involves many senses, and flavours and smells can trigger memories. At Maní we try to offer food and experiences. We want to make the guests feel free to use their imagination. However, we also need to feel happy and free to offer that experience to them.”

Many of the dishes at Maní are becoming emblematic dishes of the new Brazilian cuisine: the deconstructed feijoada —playing with the concept of the Brazilian national dish of black beans stew; the mandioquinha (a type of yellow parsnip) gnocchi with tucupi (cassava juice, an Amazonian delicacy) and herbs; jabuticaba berry soup with cachaça-steamed prawns and pickles and maniocas—a rustic root vegetable dish—to mention a few.

Rizzo and Redondo are soon to open Padoca do Maní in the same street as the restaurant. It will be an easy going coffee room, Maní-style, serving coffee, homemade cakes, tapas and sandwiches. Another restaurant concept is also on the way, inside Livraria da Cultura. This will be a casual concept where Maní sous chef Marcelo de Almeida will be in the kitchen. Their first book is also coming out in a few months.

When asked about finding the balance in her busy life, Helena quotes the artist Tomie Ohtake: “Balance? Why? Imbalance is much more interesting!”