The Alex Atala episode of Chef’s Table depicts Brazil’s most famous chef as a renaissance man who is equally comfortable foraging in the rainforest as he is cooking in the kitchen of his sophisticated São Paulo restaurant. Like many of the stars of this docuseries, Atala was a lost soul who found a sense of purpose by embracing the culture and cuisine of his homeland. Directed by series fixture Clay Jeter, this episode features captivating shots of Atala cruising along the the Amazon river in motorboat, building fires on the beach, and floating above the jungle in a tiny airplane.
Who is Alex Atala?
Alex Atala is the chef/proprietor of the fine dining restaurant D.O.M. in São Paulo, Brazil, which is currently ranked at number 30 on the World’s 50 Best list. He also operates a casual, all-day cafe called Bio, and a meat-centric restaurant by the name of Açougue Central, both of which are also located in São Paulo. Atala is also the founder of the ATÁ Institute, an organization that aims to promote food diversity by bringing wild ingredients harvested by farmers in the Amazonas state of Brazil to the Pinheiros Market in São Paulo, among other initiatives.
What was Atala’s journey through the culinary world like?
Atala was born in a working-class area of São Paulo. As a young man, his parents took him and his siblings on trips all around Brazil, including the Amazonas. During his teenage years, Atala became obsessed with the local punk rock scene and started dabbling in drugs (“I did bad things,” he explains). Atala eventually decided to move to Europe for a change of pace, and, after a stint as a painter, went to culinary school on the understanding that this would help him get a visa. Atala quickly fell in love with cooking, and started learning French and Italian culinary techniques. While working in Italy, he also fell in love with his future wife, Cristina. When their first son was born, Atala decided it was time to move back home. “Living in Europe made me realize I don’t want to have an Italian son.” He says. “I want to have a Brazilian son.“
The chef started working in fine dining restaurants in his homeland, which were predominantly French and Italian at the time. One of his bosses, a chef named Erick Jacquin, told Alex that although he was a good cook, he would never be the best French chef in the game. This frustrating feedback inspired Atala to embrace his roots and start cooking with Brazilian ingredients. After getting some positive feedback for his new, Brazilian-inspired dishes, Atala decided to open his own restaurant. The chef built a restaurant where every detail — from the food to the music to the decor — was Brazilian.
What was his big break?
D.O.M. got off to a slow start. But interest in Atala, his restaurant, and the Brazilian fine dining scene in general spiked thanks to presentation that the chef made at the Madrid Fusion conference in 2005. Using fresh hearts of palm that he smuggled from Brazil, Atala extolled the virtues of what he referred to as “Amazonic terroir.” The presentation was so inspiring that legendary chef (and event co-organizer) Ferran Adrià joined Atala on stage, much to the surprise of the attendees. Atala views this moment as a turning point for his career. “I went back to Brazil much more Brazilian than I ever could have imagined in my life,” he says.
What are some more of his most quotable moments?
On learning to love nature: “Since my childhood, the possibility to enjoy nature has always fascinated me: appreciating every single leaf, insect, bird, or fish. Going to Amazonas, it is something that comes deep from my heart. But everybody who loves Amazonas, who enjoys Amazonas, who has been to Amazonas, is afraid about the future. Amazonas is under a huge pressure. We might understand the way we have been producing food in South America, in Brazil, is sterilizing entire ecosystems. But indigenous people, they have been living in Amazonas for years — centuries. And they still have a balance. Natural conservation [and] preservation of Amazonas is not only protecting the river or the sea or the forest. It is protecting the men who live inside. And I do believe that we can learn something with them.”
On how we, as diners, process new flavors: “I remember very well my first taste of caviar. I said, ‘I don’t know if that’s good.’ I remember very well the first day that I tasted tucupi, the juice of manioc flour. And I said, ‘Wow, this is a new flavor. I don’t know if I like it.’ But if caviar is fancy, and tucupi is not fancy, it’s just because someone told me. There’s a cultural interpretation of flavors.”
On the moment when he was told he wasn’t going to be a great French chef: “I went back home, and took off my t-shirt. I looked in front of the mirror, and I said, ‘I am a tattooed man. I am an outsider. I am Brazilian.’ This is who I am. If I was different, I wanted to be different. If I’m not able to make a French dinner as good as a French chef, nobody could do a better Brazilian dinner or a Brazilian experience than me. So I started to switch some ingredients. I took flounder and I served it with a passion fruit farofa. And people loved the dish. That was my moment. And I decided to make my own restaurant, which is D.O.M. And I decided to cook only something that comes deep from my heart: Brazilian cuisine. “