He is seen as one of the most exciting chefs of his generation, and the first Brazilian chef to become well known outside his own country. Alex Atala is a mega-celebrity in Brazil, and his name there is a synonym for fine food.
He was a punk and a DJ, with tattoos and an irreverent attitude, working in a night club in São Paulo. He was restless, curious, and wanted to see the world. When he was 18 years old he saved a little money, sold his records and left his country to backpack through Europe. In Belgium, he first worked as a wall painter to survive, washed dishes in a restaurant, until he was convinced by a friend to enrol in a catering school. This was not a career choice, but an easy way to get a work permit. He never thought that this accidental choice would give his life a new direction! After graduating, Atala was in Italy, France, and in Belgium where he worked at Jean Pierre Bruneau's Restaurant and with the legendary Chef Bernard Loiseau at the Cote D'Or Hotel. In 1994 he returned to Brazil with a solid foundation in French cuisine, and with a great desire to find his own culinary identity. He developed this identity in the following years after his return. In 1999 he opened the restaurant D.O.M. (an acronym for a Latin phrase meaning “God, the best and greatest”). Thus began a new era in the Brazilian Gastronomy - The New Brazilian Cuisine!
D.O.M.'s new kitchen - "wild food" and Amazonian art
Alex Atala helped not only to reshape the country's haute cuisine, but also became an ambassador of Brazilian flavours and culinary arts around the world.
At Park Hyatt Masters of Food & Wine - Paris 2009. Alex Atala and Jean-François Rouquette
His cuisine has a unique style, but the backbone he says, is similar to the work of Andoni Luiz Aduriz, Massimo Bottura, René Redzepi and some other avant-garde chefs.
Palmito Pupunha & Scallops
In 2009 he opened his second restaurant, Dalva & Dito, in which he paid homage to the food prepared by mothers and grandmothers, with a focus on local produce.
Dalva & Dito
In the same year, he decided to remove Foie Gras and Truffles from his menu at D.O.M., to reinforce his concept of Brazilian culinary identity: “French, Italian, Spanish and Japanese chefs, for example, have their own cuisine and give value to their terroir produce. We have to do the same in Brazil! Our ingredients are exotic now, but can become popular in the near future.”
Jelly of Tomatoes
Atala travelled around his country to many people and regions, so that he could learn more about indigenous products such as those he encountered in the Amazon.
Alex Atala fishing in the Amazon
The experience opened his mind about the lack of knowledge of Brazilian native ingredients both nationally and internationally - a shocking reality. Nowadays Atala is a driving force seeking to organize communities to make better use of local food, and promoting these previously unknown ingredients inside and outside Brazil.
Roasting manioc flour
By adding many “wild” products to his menus, he opened a dialogue around the country, supported by many other chefs. Some of them, including the French chefs Claude Troisgros and Laurent Suaudeau, had already begun a similar movement in the 80s, and over the years had not lost their unconditional passion for Brazilian indigenous produce.
Last year, Atala travelled through the Amazon with chef Pascal Barbot, from L'Astrance, as part of a joint project organised by Brazil and France to research and learn about Amazonian biodiversity and culinary culture.
Alex Atala and Pascal Barbot exploring the Amazon
In previous years, during the International Congress in Brazil Semana Mesa SP/Mesa Tendências, he introduced to the Spanish colleagues a new universe of flavours.
Brazilian Nature with Atala's signature
In Gastronomy events around the world, Atala more recently has cooked with an ingredient called priprioca, up till then used only in the cosmetic and perfume industry.
"Atala & Priprioca" at Lisbon fish & flavours 2010
Crème caramel laced with priprioca, lime and banana ravioli
Priprioca is for Alex Atala more than a novelty. It represents a political statement. His researches and reflections about Brazilian Ingredients have an agenda – he wants to stimulate local farmers, increase the selection of “wild food” available in the supermarkets around his country, and one day he wants to be able to see many more of these products available around the world.
“Yes we have priprioca, he says. “And we have much more!”
Rua Barão de Capanema, 541 - Jardins - Sao Paulo - Brazil
Dalva e Dito
R. Pe. João Manuel, 1115 - Jd. Paulista - Sao Paulo - Brazil
Photos: Press images, Alex Atala personal Archive, and LB.
Photos D.O.M. and dishes by Cassio Vasconcellos
Photo at Lisbon fish & flavours by A. Forbes
Luciana Bianchi is chef de cuisine and food writer, works as International Editor correspondent for the Brazilian gourmet magazine,Prazeres da Mesa, and contributes to several publications in Brazil and Europe.
on Twitter http://twitter.com/LucianaBianchi