Since opening in 2006, Maní in São Paulo has steadily climbed restaurant rankings, debuting on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list at #46 earlier this year and then landing the fifth position in Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list last August. It is widely regarded as the city's top contemporary restaurant, alongside Alex Atala's D.O.M. Behind it is Helena Rizzo, an ex-model who gave up photo shoots in her late teens to learn to cook and who was named the best female chef in Latin America this year. After stints at reputed São Paulo restaurants, she staged in Europe, including a stop at El Celler de Can Roca. That's where she met her Spanish husband Daniel Redondo, who was at the end of a 13-year run at the Spanish restaurant at the time. She and Redondo then moved to São Paulo to start Maní together.
Now, Rizzo is working on Maní's first book (all dishes are being shot on-site, with natural light, by photographer Romulo Fialdini), to be released next year. "I want it to show our day-to-day routine as it really is," she says, adding that there will be plenty of candid shots included. Other plans include upcoming renovations to reduce the number of seats from 80 to 70, which, she says, "will allow us to kick things up a notch." So from early January to the end of February, the restaurant will relocate temporarily to the events venue next door. Sometime after July, Rizzo is also planning to open a second and more casual restaurant, Manioca, in a high-end shopping mall. Here now, the interview:
Why do you think Maní was ranked fifth best in Latin America last August, and how has that changed the restaurant?
We work very hard and we are dedicated, I think that's why. Not much changed except for the clientele, which seems to be more international. The expectations are also much higher, which is bad, but also unavoidable. We just have to deal with that. We just try to improve every day.
Did you imagine you'd become so successful when you first opened Maní?
To tell you the truth, yes (laughs). Both Daniel and I devoted a lot of time to learning, and to working for others for free. All that because we wanted, at the end, to own an excellent restaurant. Maybe I didn't expect all the awards, but I did imagine Maní would work out, that it would be very good.
El Celler de Can Roca was my greatest school, my most intense cooking experience, and that has stayed with me.
Do you think you are noticeably influenced by El Celler de Can Roca?
For sure. It was my greatest school, my most intense cooking experience, and that has stayed with me. I did stages at other places and they each have their own way of doing things, but the Celler experience was the one that became impregnated in me. Even more so in Daniel, of course: he worked there for 13 years. But we blend that influence with our own things, what we take from our lives here, and from our childhood tastes. We're always searching for authenticity.
Maní, São Paulo. [Photo: Facebook]
How has Maní's cuisine evolved since it opened?
It changed a lot. In the beginning Maní was much more commercial, in the sense that we couldn't take as many risks. The restaurant worked, tables were full, and that gave us the freedom to evolve, to push further, and to do things our way. We opened with 8 people in the kitchen, now we are 24, for example.
Many chefs who reach your stage of fame and success begin to open more restaurants and to take a step back from being in the kitchen every day. Do you see yourself moving in that direction?
I am opening a second restaurant, but even so, I have no desire to leave my kitchen. I love what I do. The awards and the restaurant's popularity only make me want even more to be in my kitchen. They stimulate me and push me to improve my work.
What will the new restaurant be like?
It will be a blend of a restaurant and a café, serving some of our hits from past years. It should be ready sometime after July.
You had plans to open a restaurant in Rio. What happened?
We changed our minds. We'd found an amazing location, and that was the main reason we wanted to do it, but then we realized it would be too complicated and require too much traveling.
The whole feminist talk is tiring. I never positioned myself as a girl, I just tackle my job as any other cook would.
What do you think about the controversy surrounding the recent edition of Time featuring mostly male chefs?
I only saw the cover; I didn't read the magazine. But I don't see a problem with featuring men. It's true that there are many more men than women in kitchens, but so what? Maybe abroad it's not the case, but in Brazil we have a lot of women chefs and they do get recognition in the media. We participate as much as the men in what happens here. The whole feminist talk is tiring. I never positioned myself as a girl, I just tackle my job as any other cook would.
Some chefs and media say that after the Spanish wave and the Nordic wave it's time for Latin America to shine. Do you agree?
I think we have incredible potential. We have an astounding array of ingredients and as a people we tend to embrace rather than reject. So in that sense, yes, but there's still a long way to go.