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Hangover Observations from Semana Mesa in São Paulo


Last week, chefs gathered from all around the world in São Paulo, Brazil, for this year's edition of Semana Mesa SP, an annual food conference celebrating and exploring Brazilian food culture. The theme of this year's event was Roots, a subject that was well mined by visiting chefs such as Magnus Nilsson, Christian Puglisi, and Mauro Colagreco, as well as by various local chefs and non-chef presenters. There was a barn-burner of a speech from Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini and, of course, a keynote of sorts delivered by D.O.M.'s Alex Atala right of the heels of being named a "God of Food" by Time magazine. Here now, some hangover observations from the week:

1. While chef presenters mainly hailed from Brazil, other representing countries included France, Italy, Spain, England, Japan, Argentina, Portugal, and the United States. But there was significant representation from Scandinavia between Sweden's Magnus Nilsson (Faviken) and Denmark's huge crew that included Rosio Sanchez (Noma), Christian Puglisi (Relae), Trine Hahnemann (Hahnemann Projects), Jakob Mielcke (Mielcke & Hurtigkarl), and Anita Klemensen (The Red Cottage).

2. On Wednesday afternoon, the program briefly stopped to acknowledge the passing of chef Charlie Trotter and to honor his legacy in Chicago and beyond. An event organizer on stage asked the audience to pray and pointed out that a lot of top-rated American chefs once worked for Trotter.

3. Chef Jefferson Rueda of the popular newish Attimo (#32 LA50BR) talked about growing up in the Brazilian countryside and coming to São Paulo, where he actively tried to eliminate his country accent. It took a phone call home when his own mother didn't recognize his voice to realize that he needed to stick to his roots (circling back to the conference's theme). Rueda then screened a video tour depicting the foodways of a Brazilian countryside town interspersed with shots of his restaurant's tasting menu. "So you understand how cool it is to be a redneck," he explained.

4. Rueda was also responsible for a big, pork-tastic group lunch on Day Two of the conference. Having brought a few pigs to the university center just after service the night before, Rueda offered a long line of chefs and attendees plates full of pork, beans, and farofa.


5. Englishman and forager Miles Irving kicked off his presentation with a pretty strong rendition of "All Along the Watchtower." On the subject of roots, he talked about how we need to look back to where we came from in order to figure out where we want to go, arguing further that indigenous people and plants need to be brought back to the center. He pointed out, though, that there's been an "absolute reversal of values" in terms of restaurants that are now willing to pay good money for what people in the past have mostly thought of as weeds.

6. Danish chef and food writer Trine Hahnemann talked about the importance of knowing one's own food culture, citing the rye bread topped with fat and salt that her grandfather used to make for her. "Your food culture is as important as it is to learn to walk," she said. She also argued that there's room for both tradition and the future.

7. The Brazilians in the audience were excited for a presentation from Coffee Lab's Isabela Raposeiras. Though she made it clear that she's not opposed to generic-brand coffee (and handed some out along with a sample of her favorite Brazilian coffee), she urged the audience of chefs and restaurateurs not to settle for bad coffee if they can afford to do it right. Raposeiras further argued that people ought to support a positive supply chain and said that she doesn't understand why restaurants accept low-quality coffee when they don't accept low-quality wine.

8. Massimo Bottura of Italy's Osteria Francescana was unfortunately unable to attend the conference due to a last-minute conflict, but they did screen his video all the same.

9. A key thread running through the presentations, including that of Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur in France, was an emphasis on biodiversity as opposed to monoculture. Colagreco demo'd a pretty neat hidden egg dish with corn cream and polenta chips.

10. Christian Puglisi talked about opening Relae in a seedy neighborhood of Copenhagen, though joking that after a visit to São Paulo he perhaps has a different definition now for a bad neighborhood. Relae, he said, is not a New Nordic restaurant. While he is a fan of New Nordic (and the local sourcing that is happening in Brazil right now), Puglisi believes the key is to take local ingredients and then decide what direction to go in. Puglisi explained that he was born in Sicily to a Norwegian mother, and he's lived in Denmark, Spain, and France. Beyond that, his staff also comes from all over. So, he said, inspiration comes from everywhere. As he put it, "Roots + inspiration = direction."

11. Noma pastry chef Rosio Sanchez warmed up the audience by telling them how jealous her colleagues back in Copenhagen were that she got to travel to São Paulo, then got into some demos of the less savory than sweet desserts that they do at Noma. The kitchen staff there snacks on birch mushroom candy, she said, while they've also developed a ganache with roasted barley that she passed around the audience to try. Sanchez also talked a little bit about her creative process that involves a fair share of trial and error, in particular a potato dessert that eluded her for some time but ended up resulting in a dish that she demo'd and described as "a mindfuck."

12. Faviken chef Magnus Nilsson was one of a few chefs who chose not to demonstrate any dishes, but rather he gave a talk about meat. Nilsson argued that we are all exposed to information that could lead to good decisions when it comes to consumption, but said that it's too easy now to make the wrong decision and take food for granted. People have lost their connection to nature and, when it comes to meat, they don't remember that what they are eating "was a living thing that we selfishly killed for ourselves." Nilsson argued that it should be compulsory — if unrealistic — for meat-eaters to have to raise and kill an animal to ensure that they will never again waste meat. He then screened the horrifying French film depicting animal slaughter, Le Sang Des Betes. Finally, he concluded that he still eats meat and did not come to the decision lightly, saying that what matters most is to respect one another's decisions.

13. Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini received enormous applause from the audience for his passionate speech about cultural colonialism, biodiversity, and more. He got one of the few standing ovations of the entire night and even a baby clad in chef's whites clapped at the end of his presentation. (Unfortunately, there was no Italian-to-English translation available.)


14. The main event of the week was the last: Alex Atala of D.O.M., which is celebrating its 15th year in São Paulo. Atala screened a video about his foundation that works with indigenous groups and demonstrated five new dishes at the restaurant. One of these was sea urchin marinated with lime and topped with, what else, ants. For that dish, he called up some audience members to taste the ants that he said were the Amazon's natural replacement for ginger.

15. Atala also brought up the controversial presentation at MAD Symposium during which he killed a chicken at the manic behest of the crowd there. Atala said he didn't like killing the chicken, but reiterated his point from MAD that "death happens." Back in the day, he said, people would kill animals and use all of their parts while now, urban chefs are so far removed from ingredients that there is so much waste. "The death of my chicken was sad, but not as sad as the death of millions of birds," he said.

16. At the end of his speech, Atala brought up that day's announcement that he — along with David Chang and René Redzepi — had been named a "God of Food" and featured on the cover of Time magazine. Not touching on any of the controversy that later emerged, Atala spoke about how he was scared to be at what seemed to be the top of his career without knowing what lies ahead. Media and fame can be a chef's cocaine, he said, and chefs can be victims of their own success. But, fortunately, Atala says he has a vaccine: the team from D.O.M. He then screened another video depicting what seemed to be every member of the restaurant staff, plus shots of dishes, the Brazilian landscape, his new cookbook, and then a shot of the cover of Time, which drew wild applause. Atala concluded by saying that he hopes he won't become a victim of his own success and that he wanted to pass the torch to the rising generation of Brazilian chefs. The world knows Brazil has many great ingredients, he said, but the world needs to know that Brazil also has many great chefs.

17. Naturally, D.O.M. was one of the hottest reservations in town last week, along with Helena Rizzo's Mani and Jefferson Rueda's Attimo. Atala also held a cookbook launch event during the week, and other events that were part of the festival included film screenings, an insane amount of tastings, and collaboration dinners with the visiting chefs. Thursday's late-night closing party got started at 11p.m. at Dalva e Dito restaurant. Dubbed DiscoXepa (Disco Soup), the premise of the party was to get boozed up while eating dishes that chefs repurposed from food that otherwise would have gone to waste.

· All São Paulo Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Hangover Observations on Eater [-E-]

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