Alex, your biography is very interesting. You went abroad to pursue your dreams and became a chef. Was it by chance, vocation or talent?
I went to Europe when I was eighteen to pursue my musical dreams.
Initially, I worked as a painter to pay the bills, but later I had to enrol in a school to get a visa with permission to stay.
A friend in the same situation was attending a cooking class and so I decided to sign up for the Hotel School in Namur, Belgium.
The beginning was rather “traumatising”. My role was kitchen assistant, I had the task to peel potatoes and wash dishes. I couldn’t imagine myself fitting well in such a synchronised mechanism.
I wanted to give up, but when I started to come into contact with the fish, fresh vegetables, game, truffles and mushrooms… I felt as if the strands of my life were coming together.
You have said that a culinary culture can be identified by three flavours. Which ones represent Brazil?
The idea that you can sum up a universe of flavours, a region or a culture with three flavours is very simple. If I say mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, we think of Italy. If I say shoyu, ginger and seaweed, we think of Japan. But no one knew the Amazon. Preparing dishes with tucupi, chilli essences and the herbs of the Amazon was undoubtedly an important step in raising people’s awareness of Amazonian identity.
You are the first “non” French person to have had the honour of cooking at the Plaza Athénée in Paris run by Chef Alain Ducasse.
What does this recognition mean for Alex Atala and Brazil?
I see my pronounced trajectory as a defence of Brazil, of our ingredients and our flavours, which is now recognised by the gastronomic world and is very respected.
Brazil, which had no international gastronomic tradition, now boasts of two restaurants in the list of the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants”.
How can you explain this phenomenon?
Nothing is accomplished overnight. It is the result of a job carried out very scrupulously, by my efforts and by a team of chefs who defend our style of gastronomy every day, despite all the difficulties that we come up against.
I’m referring to the lack of support from the government and an adequate structure, both in terms of family farming and for the indigenous and river communities that only survive through the cultivation of these ingredients. The government should recognise the importance of the work of a new group of talented chefs, who are our true ambassadors of the brand called Brazil.
Why did you choose the name D.O.M. for your restaurant, which opened in 1999 in São Paulo?
The abbreviation D.O.M. comes from latin, Deo Optimus Maximus, “God is greatest and best” (great in wisdom and best in goodness).
Curiously, this is a name that has always “followed” me.
When I lived in Italy, my home was located in front of a church and I always looked at this acronym on its facade. In addition, this name was always clearly displayed in the various rooms of my ex-wife’s workplace. In short, it showed up in my life many times.
One day I decided to ask the pastor what it meant, and I was fascinated.
What is the main secret behind keeping D.O.M. at the top?
Quality control is absolutely essential. I’ll give you an “exaggerated” example: we don’t want to pay a little, we want to pay a lot, but we are very demanding about every cent that we pay. From the receipt of goods to checking how each process is carried out, for every recipe, being demanding is indispensable. The role of a Chef is always to be extremely demanding while at the same time avoiding being a “pain in the neck”.
The Amazon was the inspiration for your book “Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients.” It is currently only available in English.
Are there plans for a translation into Italian?
At the moment it isn’t part of our plans.
D.O.M., a must for all lovers of haute cuisine, was created from your vision, from your credo “Brazilian gastronomy is a feasible dream.” It is a project that has become a great reality, and is now a source of national pride and a global culinary reference point. Who will be the future
Alex Atala who will give continuity to your project?
I think what led France, Italy and Spain to be global gastronomic references is the fact that they have excellent chefs and good ingredients. We Brazilians can also boast of having these same elements.
Many people may not know that regions such as Belém do Pará, Manaus, Curitiba, Mato Grosso, Espírito Santo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Goiás, have several very talented new chefs. However, these young men and women should be able to fully rely on government support and not only be recognised through the press.
In the future they will go on international journeys carrying the brand known as Brazil in their luggage, a message embedded in their recipes with Brazilian flavors. This is the future of Brazil. Learning, enhancing and spreading Brazilian gastronomical cultural heritage.
To finish off, what is your advice for those who wish to pursue a career as a chef?
I think that the life of a professional with high standards lies in the relentless pursuit of overcoming personal limits, not resting in the belief that we have already done enough. You must have humility.
I’m not at all shy about asking another Chef to teach me something. Equally, I feel flattered when they ask me “Alex, how do you make this recipe?” I simply show and explain, and I think we help each other by doing so.