8 Jul 2013


Leading avant-garde chef: Brazilian roots, Spanish technique (Vertu
HELENA Rizzo may be the only chef to prescribe her team massages and yoga, testament, perhaps to the unconventional journey she took to the professional kitchen. Although acclaimed as ‘Chef of the Future’ by the Académie Internationale de la Gastronomie, she studied architecture - ‘like my father and grandfather.’ Rizzo smoothes her colourful bandanna then laughs. ‘But after six months, aged 18, I stopped studying and followed my friend from Porto Alegre in Southern Brazil to our largest city, Sao Paulo, and became a model.’
However glamorous catwalk aspirations may have seemed to the young Rizzo, the craft of cooking bore deeper roots. ‘As a child I loved cooking food for my mum to sell at my school,’ she recalls. Rizzo’s culinary curiosity soon led her to stage at a friend’s restaurant. To gain perspective, she subsequently travelled to kitchens in Spilimbergo, northern Italy then Milan. But what Rizzo describes as her ‘real schooling’ occurred at the three Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca, northeast Catalonia, ‘which is where I met my partner to be.’ As she talks of Catalan chef, Daniel Redondo, Rizzo blushes. ‘We worked and studied together and ultimately opened our Brazilian-Spanish restaurant, Maní in Sao Paolo in 2006.’
Maní takes its name from the Amazonian legend of Manioc, a food said to sprout from the grave of the daughter of a Tupy chief. The story goes she was disgraced for conceiving a child despite protestations of chastity.
Although Rizzo renounced formal study of architecture, an appreciation of aesthetics informs it. Both Rizzo’s home and Maní are located in Sao Paolo’s low, green Jardim Paulistano district, close to an art gallery, design shops and architects’ practices. ‘Although all food is architectural, having grown up with architects, I learnt the importance of form and function: the proportions of individual components effect on overall flavour.’
Served in a low lit dining room resembling a village of casas blancas with cosy whimsy of terracotta tiles and branch pergolas, dishes include foie gras truffles with guava jelly and Port, egg with palm foam, and Waldorf salad with mace jelly and Gorgonzola emulsion. Although Rizzo accepts criticisms that it may seem passé to some, she clearly isn’t averse to foams and mousses, ‘which can deliver a lot of flavour without crowding the plate.’
Considering the breadth of international influences which appeal to a ‘very eclectic customer bases, including a lot of vegetarians and women’ (Rizzo recently led an event called Girls Night Out with Gordon Ramsay’s leading chef, Clare Smyth), Rizzo is keen to point out that she is not a culinary envoy. ‘I’m definitely not an ambassador of Brazil’s cuisine: I’m not nationalistic, nor am I a politician. I just like different cultures and living in the present...’ 
For Vertu