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Brazilian Chef Alex Atala Is Poised to Take Over 2016

The D.O.M. chef on his new projects — and season two of "Chef's Table."

Rubens Kato, courtesy ATA

It's already been a busy year for Alex Atala: The Brazilian chef — known for his use of native Brazilian ingredients at his restaurant D.O.M., rated number nine on S.Pellegrino's World's 50 Best Restaurants list — is breaking new ground in the Amazon with the Chef's Table crew (he'll be one of the featured chefs in the second season of the Netflix food series) while getting ready to finally inaugurate an area under the curatorship of his institute, ATÁ, in one of the largest food markets of São Paulo. He's also about to open the doors of his new restaurant, Açougue Central (Central Butchery), which, as the name suggests, specializes in steaks. "Beef tongue, cheeks, and bone marrow have already conquered their place in the food scene," Atala says of nose-to-tail dining, which is only now gaining steam in Brazil. "Now, I want to show there is much more from an animal that we can cook and eat. This represents a respect for the death of an animal."

Here, the two-Michelin-starred chef talks to Eater about his many projects that promise to make 2016 a full year.

Ingredients from all over Brazil

One year ago, Atala partnered with the city of São Paulo to manage retail areas inside Mercado de Pinheiros (Pinheiros Market), a traditional food market on the city's west side. Through his three-year-old ATÁ Institute, which focuses on promoting Brazilian food diversity in social and environmental ways, Atala became in charge of bringing products from all the country's biomes to São Paulo, in a consistent and affordable manner. Now, the project is finally taking off: Atala intends to open up the new market areas on January 25 — when the city celebrates its 461st anniversary. "It will be a major gift for São Paulo," he says.

"I want to show that these ingredients don’t need to only be on the menus of high-end restaurants. They need to be accessible for all."

The wheels were set in motion back in December, with the soft-opening of chef Rodrigo Oliveira's Café Mocotó, a small space featuring a shorter version of his celebrated menu at Mocotó (Oliveira's restaurant in the neighborhood of Vila Medeiros, which is on the World's 50 Best Latin America list). Oliveira, whose stand represents the cuisine of Brazil's Northeast region, also offers other snacks like tapioca and quick dishes for lunch (such as Baião de Dois, a famous Sertaneja dish featuring rice and beans mixed with jerked beef, cheese curd, and sausage). The other stands will represent other rich Brazilian food regions, like Cerrado (Midwest), Pampas (South), Atlantic forest, and Amazon. The work of ATÁ is to guarantee that all the ingredients come only from local producers — generating fair trade.

"Thanks to some associations we joined for this project, it will be possible to buy ingredients from all regions that until today were hard to find in São Paulo," Atala says. "Or when you do find them, they cost too much. I want to show that these ingredients don't need to only be on the menus of high-end restaurants. They need to be accessible for all. This is biodiversity."

Atala estimates that dozens of producers will be represented: The market offers the Baniwa spice, which is harvested by Indians in the Amazon forest; the mate herb, from small producers from the Pampas; and the pequi, a very tasteful fruit, sourced from Xingu National Park — where more than 5,000 Indians from 14 different etnias live. "We will have hundreds of special ingredients for sale in the market," Atala says. "The Amazon mushrooms, for instance, are harvested only by Yanomami Indian women, according to their culture."

Atala's agreement with the São Paulo government will last five years. "My main objective is to put Pinheiros Market on the map," he says. "The Mercado Central [Central Market] is one of the main landmarks of the city and one of the top five most visited places. There, one can find foods that represent the gastronomy of the city: From Arabic to Japanese, from Portuguese to Sertaneja, you can find it all. I hope in 10 years Pinheiro Market will be as important as Mercado Central, but representing Brazilian food variety," he says.

Atala photo: Rubens Kato; Mercado photo: institutoata/Instagram

A combination restaurant and butcher shop

While coordinating the opening of Mercado de Pinheiros, Atala is also setting up the details of the menu of his new restaurant, Açougue Central (Central Butchery), to open in February. The chef's new 60-seat restaurant will be located in the Vila Madalena neighborhood. Centered on unusual cuts of meat (such as shank, chuck, and knuckle), the restaurant/butcher shop will boast a large charcoal grill, but also focuses on braised and baked recipes, as many of these meat cuts demand slow cooking.

Broadening customers' dining horizons is part of the "whole-animal" style of butchery that his new restaurant practices. "My main objective is to offer cuts of meat that are not commonly used in the restaurant market," Atala says. "Secondary cuts and trimmings, as long as from good-quality carcasses of selected animals, may be as good as primal cuts." For that, he sought partnership with top-quality producers concerned with environmental issues and animal welfare.

According to Atala, restaurants in Brazil — including casual and fine-dining establishments — only use eight percent of a whole animal. Atala wants to change this percentage and cuts such as round, shank, rump, and those from the knee of the steer. As Açougue Central works as a butcher shop, the customers may choose how much meat is to be cut and prepared at the grill, depending on how hungry they are. They also can buy raw cuts to cook at home. The menu is not finished yet, but Atala anticipates that it will be based on comfort food, rather than the Brazilian steakhouses that have gained fame through America. "We're not going to serve picanha [the famous Brazilian sirloin cap]," he says, though he jokes that "there are many restaurants that offer good ones that I can suggest to you."

"I can’t tell much. Spoilers! You will have to wait and watch."

Chef's Table travels to the Amazon

As if he didn't have enough on his plate already, on January 7, Atala took off to the Amazon with the crew of Netflix's Chef's Table to shoot another round of scenes for the second season of the acclaimed series, in which he is one of the main chefs.

The first part of the shooting took place last year on the Atlantic forest, Vale do Paraíba and, of course, the Pinheiros Market. "We may stay in the Amazon for one week or 10 days, depending on climate conditions. In the Brazilian summer, we have lots of storms, so the logistics are always tough," he says. Atala will show the Amazon ingredients he's working with, and the communities from Alto Rio Negro (the Northwest area of the Amazon) involved in the food chain. "I can't tell much. Spoilers!" he jokes. "You will have to wait and watch."