Meet Alex Atala

Meet Alex Atala

Eataly Magazine recently sat down with Alex Atala to discuss the connection between eating, cooking, and Earth.

 Often lauded as a “superstar chef,” Atala has introduced the flavors of the Amazon and his native Brazil into the international culinary conversation through his dishes work at D.O.M., his award-winning restaurant in São Paulo.

Eataly New York had the pleasure of hosting the chef at our Birthday Bash on September 16, a dine-around of our restaurants featuring guest chefs with cuisines across the world. Flying in from Brazil, Chef Atala represented South American cuisine (Eataly opened in São Paulo in May) as he prepared the main course: oxtail with polenta made with tucupi (sauce made with wild manioc root in the Amazon jungle), jambu (a robust fruit from the Amazon), and aromatic pepper.

Scallop, palm heart and citronella_DOM_2015_by_Rubens-Kato_23 D.O.M. dish by Chef Atala: scallop, palm heart, and citronella (photo courtesy of Rubens Kato).

How did your dish for Eataly’s Birthday Bash reveal your food philosophy?

São Paulo is a city with a huge Italian community, so I decided to play with Eataly and the big Italian accent that São Paulo brings – but I could for sure never forget the Amazon. One of the most emblematic ingredients in the Americas is corn. Corn shows up in the traditional Brazilian food culture as porridge, angu before becoming polenta.

We prepared the oxtail with the ancestral polenta – the traditional Brazilian way to cook the porridge – and flavored it with the most important Amazonian ingredients: tucupi, jambu, and aromatic pepper. This flavorful triad shows the Amazonian flavors extremely well.

You founded Atá, an institute focused on “the relation between man and food.” Why is it important to be more aware of the connections between eating, cooking, and nature?

Every time that we talk about the Amazon, Latin America, and Brazilian biodiversity, we think of biodiversity. But when we talk about biodiversity, there is no value; when we eat biodiversity, it gains value. This is one of the most important lessons that Slow Food taught the world, and we follow it here in Brazil.

D.O.M. has been voted among the world’s best restaurants for the last 10 years. To what do you attribute this success?

D.O.M.’s success came from two solid bases. The first one is my team: I can tell you that our room team, our kitchen staff, our office, and our PR are essential. The success of a restaurant is related to its ensemble. The perfect maturity is when the restaurant and its team can work and live without the chef, but the chef is unable to live without his team.

The second one is the mis en place. Taking care of the mis en place is fundamental; after all, it is the preparation for the whole service. Our mis en place doesn’t start inside the restaurant but in the nature, in the field, with the small producers, with the natives communities.

What does the Amazon mean to you? Why do you so carefully source your ingredients from the rain forest?

If we think that one of the most famous and well-known words in the world is Coca Cola (I say that because the whole world has a mental image of the product, recognize its bottle, shape, logo, and gustative memory); I can say for sure that one word as famous as Coca Cola is Amazon. The entire world has its image – but no one knows the flavors.

If I tell you mozzarella, basil, and tomato, our mind goes to Italy. If you hear soy sauce, ginger, and seaweed, we think about Japan. With three flavors, we can identify a country, a culture.

Sharing the Amazon is a double mission: it’s to make the world know the image through its flavors and with this show that protecting the Amazon is not only to protect the river or the forest but is to protect the man who lives in this ecosystem. The food chain is a very powerful weapon to support this people.

If you could give a home cook one piece of advice, what would it be?

If we ask 10 chefs or 10 people what it is to eat well or what we should eat, we may find more than 10 different answers. On the other hand, if we ask what is bad or what we shouldn’t eat, we will find almost the same answers. I believe that the most important thing for a chef – for us as human beings – is not only to buy and use ingredients with good quality but also to refuse to buy ingredients produced in a questionable way – ingredients that are not produced related to our own beliefs and ethics.

alex atala and mario batali at eataly

Grazie, Chef Atala!