The Cuisine of the Bon Savage

Here we offer English-speaking readers a sample article from the latest issue of the Italian magazine Slowfood (number 22).

Hailed as the most exciting Brazilian contemporary chef, Alex Atala has established his territory in the heart of indigenous Brazilian tradition but bridges the Atlantic with his French culinary skills. Truly genuine products of the Brazilian Amazon and the coastal rain forests are handled with knowledge and passion. The kitchen for Alex ‘has the same ingredients as an adventure in the forests: basically adrenaline and control.’

Alex Atala, now 38, was born Milad Alexandre Mack Atala in the state of Goiás, Brazil. He was the sun of Irish immigrants – his father being half-Irish, half-Palestinian – who came to work in the mines of central Brazil. He always appreciated that father and grandfather Mack took him hunting and fishing in the coastal forests of the region of São Paulo. A thirst for adventure soon took him to Belgium, France, Spain, Milan and back to São Paulo, now with a chef’s dolman half covering his many tattoos. He remembers his early kitchen experiences in Europe: ‘I always stood out for my fish cleaning skills when I was starting my career’. In the suitcase he brought back a new dream: to have a restaurant of his own.

Atala inherited hunting guns and a collection of whistles to hunt macuco birds from his grandfather Mack. Atala can imitate the sounds of these birds, male and female, in different situations; when they are coming and when they are going, when they are courting, when they procreate.

Alex is also keen on fly fishing. ‘It is important to know which prey the fish is looking for that day. There are different types of fly – larva, pupa or imago.’ Alex has a collection with sixty different flies.

Atala is working on his second book, more intimate, on food and cuisine. ‘I might leave more questions than answers’. His first book, Alex Atala for a Brazilian Gastronomy (Ed. Beí Comunicação, São Paulo, 2003) is more biographical, with a superb list of genuine ingredients and recipes. Alex also tells us a story of a visit to a Tapirapés tribe. He was hunting with them when, surprisingly, one of the Tapirapés killed a capybara. Traditionally, they don’t appreciate its meat and call it disgusting. As they split open the animal, Alex pointed at the filét-mignon and asked them to put it aside for him to prepare. The next day, after tasting Atala’s meal, they hunted another capybara and asked Atala to show them again where the filét-mignon was.

I talked to Atala at his D.O.M. (Dominus Optimus Maximus) restaurant in São Paulo where he seeks to extract the most out of truly genuine Brazilian products. ‘Our mission is to make culture heritage and products worthwhile.’

What is a chef’s object of desire?
I enjoy eating like I enjoy sex – two vital activities that humankind has transformed into pleasure. Life would be very boring if we had to eat the same thing every day. The beauty of a relationship is to escape from routine, from the obvious. One solitary pleasure or one single taste does not touch my soul. There are two beautiful moments for a cook: the excess of an ingredient or the scarcity of it: on the one hand, the extreme exercise of harmonizing flavors and, on the other, the challenge of extracting it from almost nothing.

What is your view of eco-gastronomy?
Innovation is important when it unites creativity and function. Innovation has to have a function. Contemporary, scientific, recherché, deconstructive … in the end all cuisines are made from a mixture of products and taste memory, like music is made from of a set of notes. Food will always be prepared with products from nature. Today rationality and intellectuality are gaining space in the kitchen. That’s how I understand ‘Slow Food’. It is not only eating slowly, but it is a whole new approach, the pleasure of eating, value culture, the whole umbrella of gastronomy. Intellectuality is a new ingredient for gastronomy.

Is there, still, room for surprises in gastronomy?
My main purpose is to be Brazilian. My cuisine must be Brazilian. I am captured by Brazilians products such as palm hearts, tucupi (traditional sauce made from manioc), herbs and spices, the umbu (Brazilian Slow Food Presidium) – new ingredients with a lot of character –, sometimes difficult to integrate in everyday cooking. I truly believe that to value these products is extremely important to save our forests and ecosystems. The palm heart can be the first major instrument for Brazilian cuisine … ecologically produced, of course. Preserved and exported from South America or southwest Asia, it has been known in Europe for over 30 years. It is a very versatile product with infinite possibilities.

How does the food production chain work for a truly Brazilian style of taste?
Today many gourmets or even professionals do not recognize one fish from the other. Fish is produced on an industrial scale. When I use a fish from the Amazon I look for the same differences an Italian looks for when choosing a truffle from Umbria or from Piedmont, the subtle differences. I have been working for 6 to 7 years in Para and Amapa, relentlessly supporting artisan production and collecting practices in the rain forest, but have received very little support from politicians. The practice starts from the bottom but the financing has to come from the top. I see the need for collectors’ communities to be better paid for their work, associated with the desire to promote quality. The highest standards of gastronomy – a refinement of human culture – continue to be fundamentally dependent on the products of nature.

Do you find consumers aware of their responsibilities in a new eco-gastronomy?
Sometimes we hear people saying ‘I don’t eat red meat’ or ‘Oh, fois-gras!’, but they don’t care about what the soybean industry is doing in our country. The most vicious impact on Brazilian environment is cattle and soybean production that puts in place extremely aggressive practices towards the environment. Don’t you see what they are doing to our seas? The fishing industry in Brazil is also extremely predatory.

How do you rate so-called industrial food safety?
Which is the best manioc flour? The thick one? The bijou? The customer is the one who will choose. Industry may add discipline, systematization. It the case of milk it is extremely important. But in the case of chicken meat, for example, it is ridiculous. It is absurd to work with factory-farmed chicken meat. Legislation allows the production of super-fast grown chicken – grown in 45 days! – and does not allow a free-range chicken market. I don’t work with chicken meat. I would rather serve nothing than serve trash. But I really would like someone to supply us free-range chicken.

What ingredients will you take to your presentation at the Salone Del Gusto?
I am taking palm hearts, tucupi – maybe one of the strongest products of our cuisine –, jaboticaba, Santarém beans, herbs and spices, mandioaquinha. I intend to work with really genuine tastes. Look, one of the best-known names worldwide is Coca-Cola, and most people have a taste memory of Coca-Cola. Now, the name Amazon is known worldwide as well, but almost no one has a flavor associated with this name. When you present tucupi to people this taste is as representative of this Amazonian universe as curry is of India. Of course, Indian cuisine is not only curry and the Amazon is not only tucupi, but they are equally representative. None of the fruits in Camen Miranda’s hat is Brazilian: pineapples, bananas, coconuts, mangos, none of these are genuinely Brazilian.

Homero Vianna is the leader of the Slow Food Tiradentes Convivium, State of Minas Gerais, Brazil.

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