For most Americans, Brazilian cuisine usually means feijoada, caipirinha, and steakhouses — the ones with “all the meat you can eat” served by gaucho-style waiters. But this is about to change. In the coming months, two celebrated Brazilian chefs are poised to open restaurants in America’s two largest cities, New York and Los Angeles, bringing with them an ingredient-focused approach to Brazilian food many American diners have yet to experience.
Manoella Buffara, chef of tasting-menu restaurant Manu in Curitiba, Brazil, is putting the final touches on the menu at Ella, her upscale Brazilian restaurant opening in New York City in January. Meanwhile, nationally beloved chef Rodrigo Oliveira is deciding which dishes he intends to take to Los Angeles, where he will open a location of his sought-after São Paulo restaurant Balaio in Hollywood this winter. In the last decade, Brazilian restaurants in the States have been more focused on bringing a taste of home to the Brazilian community living nearly 5,000 miles away than pushing the culinary envelope. But these chefs represent a new moment for Brazilian cuisine in the U.S., and “it couldn’t be a better moment,” says Buffara.
In recent years, Brazil has attracted the attention of the world’s food scene: In 2015, Michelin choose the country to launch the first — and so far only — version of its influential red guide in Latin America, focusing on São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. TV series, such as Netflix’s Chef’s Table and The Final Table, and other media showcase a modern Brazilian cuisine that just isn’t available in the U.S. “I think that today Brazil is beginning to better prepare itself to expose Brazilian ingredients and take the country’s cuisine to other borders,” says Alex Atala, chef of two-Michelin-starred D.O.M. and former Chef’s Table star. He says the arrival of Oliveira and Buffara to the U.S. is proof. “They are two great ambassadors of Brazilian cuisine, with the ability to show other nuances of our cuisine.”
For decades, churrascarias were the dominant representation of Brazilian food in the U.S. The Brazilian steakhouses swept the country from the 1990s, when chains like Fogo de Chão and Texas de Brazil opened offering rodízio (or all-you-can-eat) dining, a business model that became popular from coast to coast. At the time, these steakhouses were groundbreaking — presenting an essentially Brazilian cuisine to a broad American audience for the first time — and fundamental to setting the stage for the Brazilian restaurant models that came later.
Brazilian-owned, churrasco-focused chain Pampas Grill opened its first location in a Los Angeles farmers market in 2001. The restaurant, now with three locations, focuses on Brazilian barbecue served and priced by the pound, a common restaurant model in Brazil. Pampas catering manager Gabriela Kruschewsky says that back when it opened, there weren’t many Brazilian restaurants in the city. “And there definitely weren’t fast-casual options for those who wanted to eat Brazilian churrasco without walking into an all-you-can-eat establishment,” she says. “Brazilian food in the U.S. was defined by the churrascaria experience.”
In the last few years, Kruschewsky has noticed that customers are more open to trying Brazilian food in a variety of formats. “We see so much newness pop up all the time now,” she says. “Brazilian food in mall food courts, food trucks, or cafes that offer pastries and appetizer-driven selections, not to mention the craze we’re experiencing with acai bowls.”
After the Brazilian steakhouse boom in the 1990s, Brazilian-owned restaurants began to serve hearty cuisine that wasn’t just about cuts of meat on gleaming skewers. These new restaurants offered a more diverse sample of what Brazilians ate at home. When Henrique Stangorlini opened his Brazilian bar and restaurant Beco in Brooklyn in 2009, the comfort foods that shaped his childhood in Brazil were a must, including moqueca (a seafood stew) and, of course, feijoada, the traditional Brazilian stew. “I wanted to create a place with the feeling of being invited to a friend’s home, like it is in all botecos [no-frills, Brazilian bars],” Stangorlini says. “And feijoada has always meant that to me.”
But the restaurants from Oliveira and Buffara are going beyond homey comfort foods to highlight a different kind of Brazilian food: a refined and modern cuisine that prioritizes native ingredients in an attempt to update traditional recipes and techniques. And although there’s nothing like it in the U.S. today, there is precedent for Brazilian fine dining in the States: In 1994, a French-born chef tried to introduce a glimpse of real Brazilian cuisine to New Yorkers. That year, Claude Troisgros, who became a renowned chef in Brazil, opened C.T. Restaurant close to Madison Square Park.
It was, at the time, “one of the most remarkable restaurants” to open in New York City, according to Ruth Reichl’s three-star New York Times review. Although the restaurant was well received by the public and critics, Troisgros sold it in 1996 to focus on projects in Brazil. “I gave myself three years to stay in NYC. When I accomplished my goal, I came back to Brazil,” Troisgros, who is a member of France’s renowned Troisgros family, said to a local Brazilian newspaper at the time.
Now, chefs Buffara and Oliveira are taking up the torch. Oliveira runs two of the most acclaimed restaurants in São Paulo: Mocotó, focused on northeastern Brazilian cuisine (and where every international chef dines when they arrive in the city) and the newer Balaio, where Oliveira serves updated regional dishes from a modern building inside a cultural center on the city’s most important avenue.
In LA, Oliveira is partnering with restaurateur Bill Chait to open a branch of Balaio at the upcoming Thompson Hollywood hotel. He plans to make some changes to the concept and menu to make Brazilian cuisine more relatable to the American audience, “but without being caricatured,” he says, adding that other Brazilian restaurants in the U.S. have tried to show Brazilian food only as “ethnic, and exotic, which it’s not.” Like Balaio in Brazil, LA’s Balaio will likely serve a vegetarian moqueca and vegan bobó, as well as Brazilian snacks like coxinhas, pasteis, and Oliveira’s famous dadinhos de tapioca (cubes of tapioca and curd cheese).
At Manu in Curitiba, Buffara explores the rich vegetable biodiversity of Paraná, the state where she put down roots after working in world-renowned restaurants like Noma and Alinea. At her new New York restaurant, Ella, Buffara will merge Brazilian cooking techniques with locally sourced ingredients, showcasing a modern approach to Brazilian fine dining. Among the ingredients that Buffara is likely to present to New Yorkers — and to the crowds of tourists visiting the area around Chelsea Market, where her restaurant will be located — are fermented cassava, pupunha palm heart, and dried mushrooms from Paraná. “I want to show my guests unique techniques and dishes,” she says. “We have much more than feijoada and churrasco to offer.”
The chef says that she was initially hesitant to open a restaurant abroad, but that when New York City entrepreneurs Michael Satsky and Brian Gefter approached her three years ago, she became convinced opening a New York restaurant would be a good opportunity to challenge stereotypes about her country. “There is a lack of knowledge and information from the foreign public about Brazilian cuisine. We have many interesting ingredients and processes that are very little known: Who knows that we produce one of the best oysters in the world or that we have many tasty wild mushrooms?” Buffara says. “For the first time in history, we will have all this rich food of Brazil being served outside the country in proper restaurants.”
The opening of these two restaurants, almost simultaneously, in the two largest cities in the country marks not an isolated shift, but the beginning of a small movement paving the way for other, similar Brazilian restaurants. This is true even in practical ways — both Buffara and Oliveira say that a third wave of Brazilian restaurants may create a new and rich supply of products directly from the country (it becomes easier to import ingredients in a market where demand for them is higher), in turn making it easier to open ingredient-focused Brazilian restaurants.
“It is important to keep in mind that the world’s great kitchens have only gained prominence in other continents by supporting the production of high-quality ingredients and culture,” Atala points out. Oliveira says that as Balaio develops a supply chain, it will focus mainly on dry ingredients, such as Brazilian spices, dried herbs, and various types of flour, which are the basis for many recipes, such as farofas, a very popular side dish in Brazil made with toasted flour.
Victor Vasconcellos, head chef of Balaio, is already living in Los Angeles to run the project and look for suppliers and local ingredients. “My personal goal is to show a farofa as good as we have in Brazil and make Americans love it as we do,” he says. Vasconcellos thinks it won’t be so hard to please the American patrons, especially in Los Angeles and New York, where he believes diners are open to new flavors and used to strong spices, as evidenced by the popularity of Asian and Mexican cuisines in both cities.
But while those cuisines expanded alongside growing immigrant populations, the new Brazilian restaurants aren’t necessarily catering to the more than 1 million Brazilians living in the U.S. — there are already the churrascarias and other venues to remind them of home. Instead, Buffara and Oliveira want to change the perception of Brazilian cuisine for all New Yorkers and Angelenos. “We are looking forward to this new project and eager to show local diners all the richness of our recipes,” says Oliveira, “It will be an important step for our trajectory.” And certainly for that of Brazilian cuisine as a whole, too.
Rafael Tonon is a Brazilian journalist and food writer based in São Paulo.