AC/DC blasts from the stereo while truffles are cut in delicate strings atop compressed eggplant and cured pork belly bathed in Brazilian nut milk. Highway To Hell ends with an obscene bowl of koshihikari rice, raw chunks of wagyu and trout roe.
“It’s nice to get stars, but to get them for a restaurant that plays Judas Priest, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, that’s really nice,” cackles Alberto Landgraf, head chef at Oteque in Rio de Janeiro, the latest restaurant in Brazil to win two Michelin stars, and ranking 12th on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
This sleek, elegant restaurant is rapidly gaining visibility on the international scene, joining D.O.M., Casa do Porco and Manu in putting Brazil on the food map. Landgraf’s cooking is rock’n’roll, but in a controlled way: precise, with surgical attention to detail, reflecting his German and Japanese heritage.
“What Alberto is doing is micro-creativity - the menu has the same structure, but there are constant tweaks and changes. That’s very Alberto. He has the mind of an athlete, competing against himself more than anything else, always researching, recreating, perfecting,” explains João Grinspum Ferraz, Brazilian food connoisseur and director of the Behind the Plate documentary. “That’s what makes him the best restaurant in Brazil in my opinion.”
Photo courtesy of Oteque
Even though Oteque is not constrained by Michelin norms, Landgraf incorporates luxury ingredients into dishes in a very organic way. Foie gras-sardine brioche, sandperch sashimi in seaweed vinaigrette with caviar, wagyu, truffles.
This eclectic mix-and-match poses the question – is it Brazilian enough? Oteque is not overtly folksy, with heaps of farofa and feijoada, but it does reflect the multi-faceted culture that makes up this vast country.
Brazil has been hit hard by Covid, but you seem to be doing well?
Honestly, it's pretty OK. The numbers are dropping, we don’t have a curfew and people are slowly going back to normal life. We reopened in July, with restrictions – we can only sit 50% of our tables, but even before I never worked to full capacity, so for us, it’s not that huge of a difference. For some reason we are managing to survive and keep our head above the water.
What impact did receiving two stars have on Oteque? Were you expecting it?
It’s too early to say. I think it’s going to have a much bigger impact when the international visitors come back and people are travelling again, but it will be huge. Not only because I have 2 stars, but because we got them really fast for such a conservative institution like Michelin. I think that’s what surprised us and the food world in general.
Be honest – were you actively working for that second star or don’t you give a damn whether you have one or two?
Somewhere in between. Of course I wanted the second star, but as long as it was on my terms. If they like what I do, with the music I play, with the service we do - very casual, no tablecloths, no waiters dressed like penguins - if Michelin finds that enough to give us two or three stars, I will gladly accept it. But if they don’t think it’s up to their standards, it’s ok as well. But I will never format my whole restaurant just to please Michelin.
As a speaker at European Food Summit, your topic was ‘against storytelling’, about simply offering delicious food, rather than a fairytale.
Yes it is. You know what, I was actually tired, bored and didn’t have enough imagination to come up with some stories to tell people. I just thought to myself: what can I do to make this restaurant incredible? Give them the best food that I can with best ingredients, and that would be the storytelling itself. Delicious food in a nice ambience where people feel comfortable.
I heard people say Oteque was not ‘Brazilian enough’. What is ‘Brazilian’ when it comes to fine dining?
It’s very complicated to define Brazil. It’s a cultural melting-pot, so it’s really hard to say what’s Brazilian and what’s not. In food congresses and panels we are trying to define what is Brazilian cuisine, and we just haven’t reached a conclusion. I think it’s whatever is being done in Brazil. I am Brazilian, I employ 25 Brazilians, I buy only from Brazilian suppliers and I’m serving Brazilian customers. How can I not be a Brazilian restaurant?
You are part Japanese, part German. I see precision and clear focus in your cuisine, but what do you bring to the table from both worlds?
Discipline, consistency, concentration, perfectionism is what these cultures have - to do our best whatever it takes, top quality when you talk about cars, design, Japanese minimalism - it goes so much deeper than the plate. You don’t see soy sauce, wasabi, sauerkraut. But it’s definitely there within the concepts I used to develop this place, from the acoustic walls to the discipline I have among the line cooks, and also the light, relaxed style and ambience, which reflects on the food itself.
Your food is luxurious in the best possible sense. Every truffle and caviar pearl serves a purpose. What’s the philosophy or trick behind it?
I just see them as any other ingredient, that’s it. There isn’t a single thing in the dish that you are not supposed to eat – no garnish, leaves, pieces of wood, rocks. Everything serves a purpose. When I think of truffles, caviar or foie gras I think of them in the same way I think of potato – they just happen to cost more. There are restaurants in Brazil that are not using them saying it’s not Brazilian, but then they serve Romanée-Conti. It’s hypocritical. Wine that costs 10,000 euros per bottle I can buy from France, but if I use a truffle, I’m not being Brazilian?
Crayfsh and fish mayonnaise by Alberto Landgraf, photo courtesy of Oteque
When you opened Oteque in 2018 people were saying ‘this is our best restaurant right now’. Was it hard to live up to expectations?
Yes, very hard, and it still is. I had to go to the therapist to get my emotions under control. And there were repercussions in my personal life – I got divorced, I went through some dark moments, because there is a lot of pressure to have that kind of responsibility. It’s still not easy when you hear people saying how Oteque is gonna be the first 3-star restaurant in Brazil. It’s hard enough to live up to expectations of 30 different people eating here every night, expecting to have the best meal of their lives. Now add to that the price tag, media comments, foodie comments. It’s a lot. Success has a price and it’s different to every single person. You just need to find what’s yours.
Is it all worth it?
Up to this point, yes. People sometimes ask me what’s the secret of Oteque’s success. The secret is, I try to balance the satisfaction of the clients and the satisfaction of people that work here. Most restaurants, the guests are very happy, but they don’t care about the staff and treat them like shit. I tried to find a balance. Up until this point, it’s working, because I come to work happy and when I look at my staff, I see they really enjoy working here. That said, if you ask me the same question in 2 years I might not say the same thing (laughs).
Alex Atala was the first chef to showcase Brazilian cuisine and Brazil to the world. What’s his legacy?
I think that was another era. Alex has a legacy that no one will ever come close to. The obligation to carry on that legacy does not lie on one person, but on a whole generation of young chefs. There’s so many nice restaurants in Brazil right now that don’t have the visibility they deserve. Like Corrutela, Evvai, Paulo Shin, Manu… It’s a bit unfair to say that I will be the one who will carry Alex’s legacy towards the future. The biggest legacy he has given us is that every one of us can now show our face to the world. A lot of people measure the importance of a country through international visibility. I don’t agree with that. Brazil has a very strong scene. We don’t need validation of international food congresses or food critics to say our food is special. The validation comes from ourselves.
Where do you see Brazilian cuisine on the Latin American culinary map?
Funny thing – Oteque is better known in Europe and Asia than Latin America. Three reasons for that. Brazil is the only country in Latin America that doesn’t speak Spanish. Culturally, that’s a huge difference. Second reason, other countries invest a lot of money in promoting gastronomy, whereas we’ve never had support to reach that kind of international visibility. And last, when you talk about Peru, it’s Lima. When you talk about Colombia, is Bogota; Argentina, Buenos Aires. But when you talk about Brazil, it’s a big country with a lot of different cities. To go to D.O.M., you have to fly to Sao Paulo, then fly here to eat at Oteque, then take a plane to Curitiba to Manu. You did all that but you would still have to travel much more to get to know Brazil.