19 Jun 2013


Amazonian produce meets haute cuisine (for Vertu
‘D.O.M.’ by Alex Atala was voted best restaurant in South America and fourth best in the world by Restaurant Magazine. Following a reception at London’s 10 Downing Street, Atala accepted both rankings on behalf of Brazil’s native population. 
Belying his acute awareness of nature, Atala grew up in Mooca, an industrial suburb of São Paulo. For the past eight years, he helped small producers cultivate once barely-known Brazilian black rice, faster-growing, more productive wild palm ‘pupunha’, and vanilla-like ‘priprioca’ in areas ravaged by deforestation. Indigenous honey from small sting-free bees, for medicinal and culinary use is next. Atala also owns, protects and sensitively forages an area of Amazonia home to 40 families. 
Atala’s arms are mottled with tattoos, continuing over his back and legs. ‘I began in the early ‘80s and never stopped,’ he says, pointing to the first, a fading sprite balancing on one leg. The latest, in squid ink black, depicts a broad fish’s skeleton. ‘It was designed by Pedro, my oldest child, on his 17th birthday,’ he says proudly. 
Formerly a punk DJ, Atala backpacked Europe in his teens, working as a decorator, before enrolling in catering college in Belgium. Last year he honoured tutors by performing at a culinary congress in Ostend. For ‘The Flemish Primitives’, Atala presented an ‘in-flight’ style tray of Brazilian ingredients. These included crisp Amazonian ants. 
‘We think they taste like lemongrass,’ he told the rapt audience, ‘while natives think lemongrass tastes of ants.’ Despite harnessing exotic-seeming ingredients, which also comprise piraíba, a Northern riverfish weighing up to 300kg, and vanilla from pods bigger than bananas, Atala calls his ‘deeply Brazilian’ cooking ‘delicate’, not freak show. ‘We try to cherish our customers,’ he insists. Signature dishes include: fettuccine with palm heart and carbonara; skatefish pan-fried in manteiga de garrafa; and lemon thyme with smoked mandioquinha, broccoli and peanut foam. 
At the 50-cover restaurant, where glass tabletops are poised atop huge, legally-sourced, century old rainforest stumps, Atala celebrates the tension between the contemporary and the primitive. ‘I use European techniques to build recipes with native Brazilian ingredients.’ 
Atala hopes to secure funding to realise a personal project: to station a ‘cinema crew’ at the Columbian/Venuzuelan border, recording the occurrence of a rare mushroom with potential parity to a Japanese variety. ‘Following a ceremony, a tribe fells a black tree and soaks it in water for two months,’ he says, English improving in line with his building passion. ‘Six months later, in just one night, the black log turns white with mushrooms!’ 
Although flavours are important, Atala insists at least five ingredients which could help transform ‘maybe thousands of lives’ should come to the fore now given the right backing. Stroking coarse red beard, he says: ‘We’ve got to scream about these awards, to inspire fellow Brazilian chefs, private companies and my government to document new products from the Amazon...’
For Vertu