At 49, Alex Atala, chef and owner of D.O.M., in Sao Paulo, looks like a rock star. Sporting a red beard, prominent tattoos, the man is one of the stars of world gastronomy. His restaurant in Sao Paulo, D.O.M. -Deus Optimus Maximus, “God the Greatest and the Best” – has been ranked among the top ten in the world for four years.
Alex Atala (CreativeCommons image by Lucasdeandrade6)
A prestigious status for someone who left school at 14 to discover the “big city”, became a punk DJ and did more than his share of drugs, as he freely admits.
Milad Alexandre Mack Atala, a descendant of Palestinian immigrants, grew up in Sao Bernardo dos Campos in southeastern Sao Paulo. At 20, he is backpacking through Europe. With empty pockets and a Belgian visa about to expire, he decides to enrol in a cooking school, the “École Hôtelière de Namur”, in order to stay in Europe. He discovers a passion and works at Jean-Pierre Bruneau’s 3-star Michelin restaurant in Brussels. He will then spend 10 years in France, working under Bernard Loiseau at Hôtel de la Côte d’Or in Saulieu, then in Montpellier and finally in Milan.
In 1994, he is back in Brazil and works in Sao Paulo in a Japanese restaurant before being offered a redesign of Filomena’s menu. This earns him the ‘best young chef’ award of the Brazilian Association of Bars and Restaurants. In 1999, Alex Atala opens Namesa, his first business. A few months later, he opens D.O.M. in one of the beautiful neighborhoods of the economic capital of Brazil. In just three years, D.O.M. gains national acclaim and, in 2006, it is included by British magazine “Restaurant” in its list of the world’s 50 greatest restaurants.
The Amazon as a culinary paradise
Alex Atala owes his fame to the Amazon, this “new frontier of flavors” where he draws his inspiration. The region has become his favorite territory, “a universe in its own right with an almost infinite wealth of products”. Atala is an explorer and can spend days in the forest, looking for new ingredients, from which he will create new dishes.
“The Amazon makes up 47% of Brazil, so it is normal that it occupies at least 47% of my culinary research.”
His menu includes insects such as saúva, a large Amazon ant, which tastes of lemongrass and ginger, served on a piece of pineapple. Atala serves pirarucu river fish, pitanga fruit, tucupi, a yellow juice extracted from the traditional cassava root of the Amazon, priprioca, a herb that was previously used in the cosmetics industry, but also flower ceviche with local honey or wild boar.
“The difference between being good, very good and exceptional as a cook,” says Atala, “is in having the flavours in your memory. If I tell you mozzarella tastes of Italy and miso speaks of Japan, then tucupi [fermented manioc juice] and ants are the taste of Brazil.”
A chef with a mission
Recognized as one of the best chefs in the world, Alex Atala has also launched the ATA Institute, which aims to rethink the relationship between man and food. “Far from Facebook, food is the biggest social network on the planet. It is food that connects us with nature on a daily basis,” says the chef, who believes in the power of social transformation of cooking. He now strives to defend regional ingredients, to protect nature and to defend small producers. “Knowing the path food takes to reach our plate already causes change and raises awareness in society.”
His other self-assigned mission is to save traditional knowledge before it is lost and keep alive “the recipes of the great grandmothers”. Atala claims this forgotten heritage, which he considers must be respected and safeguarded in the face of national laws that “aim not for diversity but pasteurization”.
D.O.M.: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients. Alex Atala. Photo © Phaidon.