Alex Atala's D.O.M. in Sao Paulo is number seven on San Pellegrino's list of the world's best restaurants. Now that that's out of the way, we can talk about how the 43 year-old chef, one of the most respected in his continent and among his peers across the world, was in Copenhagen over the weekend to present at the inaugural MAD Foodcamp. In the following interview (translated from Spanish), the chef discusses the state of South American cooking and explains how his presentation on insect flavor relates to cooking and to society.
What did you present today?
The idea was to present a topic that would be somewhat controversial for the audience: eating insects. The goal was to use this to analyze the psychological and cultural interpretations of taste.
What do you mean by that?
To some it is disgusting to eat insects. It is something primitive. And it is. But is it more primitive than eating a strawberry yogurt whose color comes from an insect? What is honey? The excrement of an insect. If you actually consciously think about what honey is, it'll disgust you. But we are familiar with it, we have an interpretation of it being sweet. Hell, in English we'll say, "Honey, I love you."
So you brought in ants.
I brought an ant from Amazonas which tastes like lemongrass. When we taste it, we'll note that it tastes like ginger or lemongrass. But the natives of Amazonas, they'll try some lemongrass and say it tastes like an ant.
But a major part of your presentation was about how appreciating those differences in cultural interpretation — appreciating those products — can benefit society. Can you explain that?
Yes, definitely. We work a lot with the natives of Amazonas and we use free trade practices in sourcing ingredients from them; we take from nature, but we also give back.
What do we give back? It's not always money. We develop infrastructure and help the natives build better lives for themselves so they don't have to work in trades that are harmful to nature and to their environment, like deforestation. I've noticed that when you give someone the option to do something better, they immediately go for it.
I'm very happy with the success we've had in developing communities that produce local products like tucupi [a yellow sauce extracted from wild manioc root] and priprioca [an Amazonian root]. These products are really from there. They may seem exotic and even strange to most people, but they are very good. We have to embrace those products.
And it seems that you feel that doing that is a major aspect in developing a cuisine that is authentically Brazilian.
It's crucial. We're here in Denmark because René managed to achieve that, to create a cuisine that was authentically Nordic. For the longest time people looked at Nordic cuisine as something basic, something that wasn't particularly curious or interesting or rich. No one wanted to learn about it. Now we all do.
And I really think that we South Americans can do much — we can do something similar. As I explained in the conference, I worked for several years in Europe. One day I realized that I would never be able to cook French food as well as a French chef. Why? Because I didn't have those flavors deep in my memory. I realized that instead I could do something that many others probably couldn't, which is to develop a brand of Brazilian cuisine that is authentic, with flavors I've known since I was a child. That became my motivation, and it continues to be my motivation. I should say that I consider René a contemporary, someone who is following a parallel path in which the goal is to not do or be the same as everyone else.
How much progress do you think South American chefs have made in that regard?
In some ways, we have, in other ways, we haven't. I'll explain myself: Peru has done very well, and it's an inspiration to all South American cooks who are watching. In the 90s, Peruvian ceviche was only in Peru and to some degree the continent. Now, it has spread. It's similar to carpaccio and Italy. In the 80s, carpaccio was popular pretty much only in Italy. In the 90s, it was all over. But I think there's much more we can show and much more we can talk about.
In your case, what does that mean?
If we look at the world map and think about places that have made contributions to world gastronomy, one of the areas that has yet to spread its offerings is Amazonas. There is so much to do.
Why do you think that remains untapped?
Because no one has tried. This is the moment to try that and to engage those ingredients and to realize that good gastronomy can be a tool for conservation, sustainability, and social organization. It's about opening our minds and knowing that we can do more than just cooking.
At the risk of sounding like Eduardo Galeano, do you feel like South America gets overlooked because it's South America? Do you have to work harder because of that?
It's not the case anymore. Look at where I am today, a congress where chefs and thinkers from around the world have come to speak: there are maybe two Frenchmen, two Americans... and there are two South Americans. We're here.
If we look at the world of gastronomy, it's clear that the perception of South America has changed. It is no longer seen as a primitive or strange cuisine. People are more curious now. I always talk about Peru, but I think this started with Mexico around the 90s. Sure, there's Tex Mex, which isn't really Mexican, but it points to something. And now, there are two Mexican restaurants on the San Pellegrino list. So I think that little by little, it keeps getting better for all of us.
It is just the beginning, and in a way I think that Gaston and I are pioneers. I'm happy to say that the world is starting to notice that South America has mucha salsa.