Brazilian chef Alex Atala, of two-Michelin-starred restaurant D.O.M. in Sao Paulo, still remembers the first time he ventured into the Amazon rainforest as a child in the 1970s.
One day, his mother, a seamstress, and his father, who worked in the rubber industry, packed up their dusty old car and drove 4,000 kilometers from Sao Paulo to “the middle of nowhere” in Amazonas, “just to discover the place,” he says.
“It’s the adventurous spirit that my family has always had — the feeling of going somewhere where you have no idea what to expect. But we had tents, and we knew we could get food to feed ourselves. As a boy, I was completely fascinated,” Atala recalls, describing trees laden with fruit and meals shared with native tribes. “Eating is a way to discover where you are.”
This idea has been a guiding principle for Atala, a lavishly tattooed former DJ known for hauling 200-kilogram pirarucu fish from the murky depths of the Amazon River and slaughtering chickens with his bare hands. The first chef to put Brazilian gastronomy in the global spotlight, Atala is prone to provocative statements and speaks like a modern-day shaman. He’s built his career — which spans 30 years and includes a small empire of restaurants, as well as the Instituto ATA, a nongovernmental organization that promotes the sustainable development of distribution systems — on the exploration of the country’s complex food culture.
Despite the fame, he wears his celebrity as lightly as he wears his chef’s jacket — with a tailored formality befitting his position as leader of the brigade, but with enough give in the arms for him to greet you with a proper bear hug. On the first evening of his six-night pop-up at the Cook Japan Project, a series of guest-chef events in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi neighborhood, Atala walks through the kitchen, joking with the staff while dispensing feedback: “The pepper is too long,” he says, pointing to an amuse bouche of aromatic chili sorbet topped with sea urchin from Ainoshima, Fukuoka Prefecture, before sampling a batch of stock: “Missing some salt.”
The result is an elegant menu demonstrating the diversity of Brazil’s vast landscape and varied traditions. Prior to his arrival in Tokyo, Atala traveled to the southern island of Kyushu, eating sushi in Fukuoka, grilling squid on the beach and seeking out Japanese products.
Ingredients from both countries achieved beautiful cultural harmony in dishes, such as the confetti of local blossoms rendered as ceviche laced with acidity and sweetened with honey from stingless Brazilian bees and morsels of sweet Hokkaido crab encased in sliced Yanomami mushrooms from the Amazon rainforest, afloat in a concentrated broth of dried mushrooms and konbu kelp. Smoky Akita-nishiki beef was served with baroa sweet potato puree, scented with toffee and wild vanilla, which Atala’s Instituto ATA has helped to cultivate.
The saplings are raised by women in the Quilombola hinterland community, descendants of slaves in central Brazil, and the organization teaches them how to care for the fruit in order to maintain the quality of the banana-sized vanilla pods, which give off complex aromas of sweet pipe tobacco.
Like many of the world’s greatest chefs, Atala cites Japan as a source of inspiration.
“Ever since the very first time I came to Japan 13 years ago, what continues to fascinate me is the way that Japanese chefs cook with such intense focus and concentration,” he observes. “In my country, when you ask a cook to clean a fish, it’s a mess. Japanese chefs do it in one smooth, beautiful movement. It’s respectful, with no waste of resources or energy.”
When asked what the Japanese can learn from Brazilians, without skipping a beat he says “improvisation.”
“When something deviates from the schedule, it causes Japanese chefs so much stress. We in Brazil are always dealing with last-minute changes, so we find ways of being creative and rolling with things. If we could find a way to bring these strengths into balance, it would be amazing for both cultures.”
The Cook Japan Project runs through January 2020. For more information, visit cookjapanproject.com.