Alex Atala is a Brazilian chef, restaurateur and cookbook author. Atala is one of the brightest stars of the culinary world. His restaurant D.O.M. in Sao Paulo has two Michelin stars and is currently rated 16th in the coveted ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ list. In 2013, he was on the cover of the Time magazine along with Chefs Rene Redzepi and David Chang – the headline: ‘Gods of Food’.
Atala’s restaurant D.O.M has helped to build the foundation of ‘modern Brazilian cuisine’. His cooking philosophy is about the discovery of previously unknown Amazonian ingredients combined with a commitment to finding sustainable solutions to sourcing them to the benefit of the Amazon and its people.
Atala recently caught up with Carolina Holzmeister in W.A’s Margaret River region for a one on one chat. We spoke of what he thinks of our native Australian ingredients, the evolution and similarities of Australian and Brazilian cuisine, and the effort he has made with Indigenous communities in Brazil, a shared ambition of Adelaide-based chef Jock Zonfrillo here in Australia.
“Chef Jock Zonfrillo [head chef and owner of Adelaide’s Orana restaurant] has been doing an excellent job for the Aboriginal communities, helping to promote the cultural heritage of traditional Indigenous food culture. We have to encourage the Aboriginal involvement in the emerging native foods industry, which can lead to their greater social-economic inclusion. This offers real benefits. However, offering just money to Indigenous communities often brings more sadness than joy. In Brazil, alcoholism and drug addiction are affecting the Aboriginal communities, they are social diseases that destroy the communities; what we try to do is to restructure the chain, bringing real benefits to these communities.”
CH: Alex, what is your favourite Australian native ingredient?
Chef AA: This is the third time that I’ve come to Margaret River and in this region of Western Australia my favourite ingredient would have to be marron; whoever tries it falls in love! During my first visit in 2012, I had the opportunity to meet the Aboriginal people, walking with them in the bush and learning a lot about their culture and the native ingredients of this region that have long been a part of their traditional diet.
The first time I visited Australia was attending the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival about 10 years ago. My friend Jacques Reymond showed me around Victoria [Reymond is a French chef who owned the acclaimed restaurant ‘Jacques Reymond’ in Melbourne]. Reymond also previously lived in Brazil, where he worked as a chef in the Grand Hotel Tropical Manaus [an iconic hotel located in the capital of the Brazilian Amazon]. He introduced me to an Australia that I had not seen and tasted, including your seafood and native game. At that moment I fell in love with Wallaby meat – before then, I didn’t know the difference between Kangaroo and Wallaby.
During the past year, I’ve briefly visited Sydney for just one night where I came to work at an event at Momofuko Seiobo in Sydney. Chef Paul Carmichael and I cooked some Australian meats that were exceptional, in particular, the Australian Angus meat; the quality of the meat was incredible. I was impressed with the diversity of sea, land and native plants, and decided here is a new world to be explored!
In Brazil, the quality of meat is good – Brazil is the largest beef exporter in the world – and the country has progressed much in its cattle varieties. Traditionally, we have bred Zebu cattle [originally from India] as the main source of our cattle. However, today all major European cattle breeds are being well represented. I was delighted with the high quality of your Australian meat and lamb. Not to mention the seafood produce, Tasmania’s abalone is top-notch. What amazed me is Australia has such a large variety of seafood, meats and native produce.
CH: How can you define Australian cuisine?
Chef AA: It’s definable by being a new world cuisine. In the age of sail, the Americas sent a number of ingredients to Europe that the Western world did not know. Now we are ready to make a second shipment of ingredients from the new world to be discovered, and I’m sure that the same thing applies to Australia, you have a world of ingredients to be discovered here.
CH: Is there a parallel between Brazilian and Australian cuisine?
Chef AA: Our ingredients and flavour profiles are very different. However, the similarities are that both countries have a colonial culinary heritage. This means traditionally native foods and techniques were mostly disregarded since the arrival of the first European settlers in Australia and also in Brazil. The European settlers gave preference to their European ingredients, recipes and cooking methods.
As in Brazil, the Australian native ingredients that were disregarded in the past are now being embraced by chefs and are becoming mainstream. In 2014, Jock Zonfrillo [head chef and owner of highly acclaimed Adelaide’s Orana restaurant] and I travelled to the Amazon together. Jock spent 20 days with me in the Amazon to understand the relationship of native ingredients within the traditional communities. I believe that helping Indigenous communities can be misleading, despite our efforts to help, this can cause damage to the communities. It’s very complicated to interfere in traditional cultures.
Jock has been doing an excellent job for the Aboriginal communities, helping to promote the cultural heritage of traditional Indigenous food culture. We have to encourage the Aboriginal involvement in the emerging native foods industry, which can lead to their greater social-economic inclusion. This offers real benefits. However, offering just money to Indigenous communities often brings more sadness than joy. In Brazil, alcoholism and drug addiction are affecting the Aboriginal communities, they are social diseases that destroy the communities; what we try to do is to restructure the chain, bringing real benefits to these communities.
CH: The other side of the world, it’s astonishing that Jock and yourself have been doing a job so alike…
Chef AA: The work that Jock is doing is very similar to mine. It wouldn’t be too much to say that we inspire each other, however, I have been doing this work for longer and I’m also older.
CH: What is the future of Australian and Brazilian cuisine?
Chef AA: We are young countries, and in order to try to sketch our future we must look inside of us, and live our differences. Brazil will be greater when Brazilian cuisine doesn’t belong to me or to some other chefs, but when it belongs to all Brazilians. The same applies to Australia, who need to understand that you have a unique identity, and we have to make our difference our strength.
Atá, Shortening the Distance Between Man and Food. (1 May 2018). Culinary Interactions. Retrieved from http://culinaryinteraction.com/en/alex-atala