In a constantly changing market, where restaurants open and close every day, reaching 20 years of existence is a great landmark. When he opened D.O.M. in 1999, Brazilian trailblazer chef Alex Atala had no idea he would go that far.
Today, two decades later, he looks back to the story that he created with the most famous Brazilian restaurant in the world — and one of the most prominent in Latin America — and says he can't explain how his fine dining take on using traditional Brazilian ingredients worked so well. “For me, D.O.M is like a beetle,” Atala says, referring to the fact that it is hard to explain how the heavy and small-winged insect can fly.
Photo Ricardo D'Angelo
20 years in operation was not all roses and the chef admits he had a hard time keeping the restaurant running. The name of the restaurant, D.O.M., stands for Dominus Optimus Maximus, a Latin expression of religious origin that can be translated as “the best and most representative”.
When D.O.M. came up in the Brazilian food scene, Ferran Adrià's molecular cuisine was at its peak, influencing all the chefs of the era, including Atala. Over the years, the focus on local ingredients and the chef's proximity to nature and farmers has come to dominate the spectrum of world gastronomy, making the Brazilian restaurant an exponent in this relationship.
Atala has traveled to the Amazon to bring ingredients such as the famous leaf-cutter ants that taste like lemongrass and he has visited other Brazilian regions to learn cooking techniques from the indigenous peoples, Over time the chef has embraced more traditional Brazilian cooking, setting aside famous haute cuisine ingredients such as foie gras for more authentic and local flavors like manioc, local fish and tropical fruits.
For the 20th anniversary menu, Atala explores the diversity of the regions across Brazil, using ingredients and techniques from the era before the Portuguese arrival in 1500. Dishes include pirarucu fish in mullet broth, pupunha palm heart ravioli, and tapioca moshi.
There are also lots of changes for the future, D.O.M. is about to start a new partnership with an investment group and Atala will transform the restaurant brand into a 35-floor hotel to be inaugurated in São Paulo in 2023 — the works have been delayed due to City Hall approvals, but it is now scheduled to start this month. The hotel will feature multiple restaurants and foodservice from Atala’s team and will expand the brand beyond the restaurant.
Photo Ricardo D'Angelo
Fine Dining Lovers talked to Atala, who is hosting the third edition of his food symposium FRUTO in São Paulo, January 24-26, about what it's like to run a restaurant for two decades, his expectations for the future and how he sees fine dining evolving over the next 20 years.
What is it like to reach 20 years of life in a market where restaurants open and close every day?
Maintaining the stability of a food business is very difficult, trends and variations in this market make restaurants a very susceptible business. So it is a tremendous achievement to be able to complete 20 years of life, even though it is very important to emphasize that it was not only two decades of success, we went through very difficult times and I believe that the next decades will be exactly like this: an alternation of joys and successes and moments to keep the feet on the ground, with perseverance.
How do you see the changes and evolutions of D.O.M. in those 20 years?
Gastronomy has changed a lot in the last two decades. But I think it has always changed for the better. It was a slightly more restricted, less plural universe, and today gastronomy has been gaining new and different facets that were once more limited in this market. From my point of view, from where I stand, I see that Brazilian cuisine has blossomed and I believe it is undeniable to say that D.O.M. made a big contribution to that.
Photo Ricardo D'Angelo
When you opened the restaurant, the gastronomy scene was at a very different moment, with less press coverage, without social media. Today you have become a world-renowned chef… What has changed in that regard?
I believe we had a more orthodox market, where the chef's relationship with journalists, for example, was very predictable, there couldn't be a friendship or favors between them… The only things people knew about a chef came from the press. Social media has knocked it all over, they have dramatically changed the scenario by allowing people to “get closer” to a chef. Of course, social media has brought pros and cons. It hurts me today to see acclaimed cooks, with an important history in the gastronomy industry, often having less expression than someone who just started his or her story in this market and who has more followers than three food media publications together. There is a reversal of powers that I think may be detrimental to the quality of information for the audience. This is probably my biggest critical point on how social media has transformed things in food. On the other hand, they have made the food world more plural and democratic, which are very positive points.
When you look back, what is the greatest legacy you think D.O.M has left?
I think it's hard to talk about legacy, I prefer to talk about a dream, the dream to showcase that Brazilian cuisine is possible. The only thing we can be sure to say about our history is that D.O.M. managed to thrive solely through Brazilian cuisine and its ingredients and thus reach limits never reached for a Latin American/Brazilian restaurant. We are very proud of it.
Banana ravioli created in 2010 by Alex Atala
You were the first Brazilian chef to have a high international projection and take Brazilian cuisine abroad through events, TV shows, magazines. How do you see the moment of Brazilian gastronomy today?
I think there is a new generation of Brazilian chefs conquering the world [chefs like Manu Buffara and Rodrigo Oliveira, for example, are set to open Brazilian restaurants abroad] and they will have their own road. And I really hope they are able to make their best of every chance they get just like I did.
What do you expect for Brazilian and Latin American cuisine in the upcoming years?
I hope we are more than just a trend. The gastronomy is mutant and suffers a lot from the demands of the market: we have already gone through several phases, such as when Italian cuisine seemed untouchable, when French cuisine was dominant or when Japanese cuisine conquered the world… I hope Brazilian cuisine can live on in this ever-changing market, both in Brazil and abroad, taking advantage of this higher interest in Latin America. Today our continent continues to attract the world's attention and I hope we will be able to produce more content and more information about our traditions and habits to keep this curiosity and continue to conquer palates.
Photo Ricardo D'Angelo
And how do you see the future of fine dining, and restaurants like D.O.M.?
An important step to understand the future is to look at the past. Fine dining has never been mainstream, it has always been a small segment within the hospitality business. So it was and so it will be. It is important to understand that if there ever was a time when fine dining was buzzing and pulsating, with higher interest from media and diners, it was related to a specific moment. Historically, fine dining has always been a niche — an expensive niche, unfortunately. But I believe that fine dining restaurants will never fail to make their contributions to the food world, and we need to remember and emphasize their importance in this scenario. These restaurants have left a very important legacy in the food scene by focusing on better ingredients, on the relationship with farmers and nature and on a better relationship between the people who work in this sector. We have improved a lot in this regard. I think without any doubt fine dining has already left a gigantic legacy for world food for the next ten years. But it will increasingly be a niche market.
In the last two decades, you opened and closed some restaurants, but D.O.M. has always been around. How long do you expect to be able to continue with it?
For me, D.O.M. is like a beetle: science can't quite explain how this heavy, small-winged, poor aerodynamic designed insect can fly. Nor can I explain how we kept on for so long. And if I can't explain its existence in two decades, much less could I predict its future. I believe in perseverance, in our workforce, I believe in the mature team we have managed to form. Today the restaurant is not just about me anymore, I think we have in our staff people who have become as well-known in this market as me, which means the restaurant has become bigger than myself. And that is great. I believe that, as long as D.O.M. exists, it will continue to be a great restaurant, a source of interest and professionals able to get in the market and create their own ways. Not by creating D.O.M. clones, but by finding their own truths. Many of the projected chefs and cooks in the Brazilian market have gone through D.O.M. and my greatest pride is to see them in the market today showing their work, telling new stories.