Armed with a fresh heart of palm almost as thick and long as his forearm, aromatic green peppers from the Amazon and two varieties of Brazilian rice, Alex Atala made his way to the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy.
Atala’s mission was two-fold: he would deliver a speech on rediscovering Brazilian ingredients and cook a four-course dinner later in the evening featuring eggplant ceviche, mini rice with artichokes, heart of palm carbonara and his signature banana ravioli dessert.
As the chef of D.O.M. in Sao Paolo, which ranks sixth in World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Atala had plenty of say about his passion for Amazonian ingredients and why he chose this path in life.
FDL spent the day catching up with the Michelin-starred chef during his recent visit to the university and discovered seven wild reasons why he's cutting edge:
1. He knows how to survive in the wild
Atala owes his love of nature to his grandfather, who took him to the Amazon as a child and taught him how to hunt, fish and butcher animals. “I never met my grandmother but my grandfather taught me how to respect nature.” Being surrounded by trees, rivers and nature makes him feel small. If his days on Earth were numbered, he’d spend them in the Amazon.
2. He doesn’t think killing a chicken on stage is scandalous
During his recent stint at MAD3 Symposium, Atala slaughtered and butchered a kitchen onstage - all while wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘death happens.’ Many people in the crowd were awed by the chef but others criticized him for being cruel to animals. Atala has a different take on this: "Our grandmothers often butchered chickens and we have great memories of that but we’ve reached a point were cooks have lost touch with ingredients in their primal state."
3. He roots for the little guy
A few years ago, a struggling farmer showed up at his restaurant with samples of rice no one wanted to buy. The man introduced the chef to two varieties of his crop: a ‘mini-rice’ which resembles tiny pearls of grain and a black rice varietal similar to Asian forbidden rice. Atala cooked both types of rice and loved their flavor. Soon he began purchasing rice from the farmer and encouraging other chefs to do the same. He now sells the rice through his ATÁ foundation, which supports the indigenous people of the Amazon.
4. He’d like to take vegetarians to the Amazon
If Atala had it his way, he’d invite vegetarians who don’t eat meat for moral reasons to the Amazon.“I’d like for them to see what deforestation really is, its consequences and the motivation behind it. Deforestation doesn’t just kill animals, it sterilizes an entire ecosystem. Those green expanses of land that are leftover are green desserts. They are full of chemicals that run off from the plants into the soil and into the rivers.” Then he’d like them to consider the answer to this question: is drinking soy milk and not eating meat a solution to the problem or part of it?
5. He believes the kitchen has no gender
While he won’t directly comment on the controversy that ensued after Time magazine excluded female chefs in its profile of Gods of Food, when asked if the kitchen was male or female, Atala says: “The kitchen is soul, it has no gender, it’s simply human.”
6. He admits to his mistakes
Wanting to feed malnourished children in the Amazon, Atala began mailing boxes of foods to natives some time ago. He was surprised to come back after a few months and find garbage thrown everywhere. At first, he blamed the natives for being savages and not disposing of the waste properly. During a confrontation with an elderly Amazonian man the chef was accused of being the culprit. The man reminded Atala that fruit has a peel, animals have skin and it’s all biodegradable unlike the packaging of the foodstuff he’d sent. “I realized I was the savage. It was a life lesson.”
7. He compares success to a bottle of fine wine
Being named in Times 100 list of the most influential people in the world was one of the highlights of Atala’s career, an achievement the chef describes as “a beautiful moment.” To him, success is like a good bottle of wine: “You look at the label and it fascinates you, you open the bottle and it’s an experience, you pour in a glass and inhale the aroma, you taste it and it’s even better… but you can’t drink too much because tomorrow you’ll have a hangover.”