There is something interesting cooking in Brazil right now. Traditions are starting to change. The old guard, so keen on replicating the techniques and ingredients of Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States, are being edged out by those more keen to produce something authentically and honestly brasileiro. To add even more importance to this shift, the eyes of the outside world are starting to take notice, as they should be. But some of these eyes are not watching the ‘vem pa rua’ protests, nor are they watching Brazil’s uphill struggle to accommodate the world and its own citizens as it prepares for the Olympics and World Cup. These eyes are watching a man named Alex Atala.
Alex Atala is a celebrity chef. While the label ‘celebrity chef’ more often than not brings to mind images of acerbic and ego-maniacal TV personalities, Atala seems to be a force for good. Through his restaurant D.O.M in Sao Paulo - ranked as the sixth best restaurant in the world by some - Atala has used his new-found fame to push forward an ideology that is centered around the concept of alimento, which can be summed up as a manifesto that ties together environmental and social awareness, things that taste good, and a general sense of well-being.
Atala and his restaurants champion and use only ingredients that are found within Brazil, particularly the Amazonian Basin. Within culinary terms, this is, while not being entirely unique, not the road most travelled. Atala’s approach stands in contrast to the many menus that are flecked with ingredients that have crossed at least an ocean, if not more. While it is enjoyable, if ultimately curious, to be able to experience sushi in New Mexico, quinao in Georgia, or bananas in Alaska, there is something to be said about food that has a sense of place, what the French call terroir. Whereas the idea of terroir was once a superfluous term – of course people ate what was nearby, as there was no way of getting anything else – this idea contributed to the formation of ‘cuisine’ itself. Cuisines formed not because of preference, but because of the availability of resources. Foodstuffs, techniques, and climate all figured into the development of what we now see as cohesive cuisines. Atala pushes against the amorphous ‘global cuisine’ and looks at the ground that supports his feet. Yet even for those who question the importance of food in the human experience, Atala’s manifesto has had tangible socio-economic impacts in parts of Brazil. By using his celebrity, Atala has helped support and publicize small, agricultural ventures. These grassroots organizations often produce exotic and localized foodstuffs, often far away from Brazil’s major metropolitan areas and outside the reach of the nominal market.
Atala’s style of cooking rejects contemporary, scattered cuisine and draws from the greatest culinary tradition of all: that of the marginal. His menus are defined by regionally specific ingredients such as manioc, nameless river fish, ants, and the infinite flora of the Amazonian Basin. But more important than his ingredients are his sources. Atala and his newly formed Instituto ATÁ – an organization about humanity’s relationship to food – seek to enhance the socio-economic and cultural meaning of food by forging partnerships with Amazonian communities, assisting in the development of small-scale agro-businesses, and espousing the larder of the Amazon.
Celebrity chefs are not in short supply; however chefs who are changing the social, economic, and cultural relationships with food are. Atala represents a break from the old guard, from those who reside over an empire of restaurants and guest appearances. But perhaps what is most important to take from Atala is his self-awareness, of his consciousness of the earth that feeds him and of his fervor to pay his respects. Even more so, he seems to perceive the fragile, but essential, string that holds our entire food system together, to go outside what is wrapped in plastic, to forge bonds with people who are not wrapped in plastic, and create art and nourishment that pays tribute to both the land and the honest people who work it. While Brazil no doubt influenced him tremendously, his manifesto is not tied to any particular place, but can be applied where people can see the dirt between their toes. Maybe we should all, from time to time, look down instead of forward to find our next meal.
Here is the manifesto of Instituto ATÁ: