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Brazil's Chefs Unite to Defend Their Industry

08 April, 2020
Brazil Chef Corona Virus

Chef Alex Atala said the union of the chefs was essential. “We were able to show the economic and employment strength of our sector, which also demonstrates the voice that the chef today has to lead the food chain. We managed to make this echo in a profound way within the government.”

In times when all professionals in the sector are struggling, from suppliers to restaurateurs, Atala believes the alliance will create new paths to work as a union going forward. “Many employees and employers are not going to survive this crisis," he said. "Solidarity will be our motto. And gastronomy will, more than ever, show its strength of communion.”

Without the possibility to meet because of the social distancing measures, social networks have become the stage for many of the group's actions. They have shared daily messages on social profiles to increase their audience and support for their demands. 

The act of solidarity certainly worked. A provisional measure was approved by government representatives to release 36 billion reais (6,8 billion Euros) to guarantee restaurant and bar workers’ paychecks for at least three months, a much-needed cushion for a sector that was smacked hard when social distancing and then the lockdown was put in place. 

The collective is now focused on banks and campaigning for special conditions for the restaurant industry: lower rates, longer payment periods and supply of working capital credits. The Brazilian Association of Bars and Restaurants (Abrasel) said there has been a decrease of up to 70% in the turnover for restaurants still working with delivery and take-away. Government and financial aid from banks will be the only way to stop major layoffs. 

“It is imperative for us to have chefs with such representation and with great influence on society and the media engaged for the benefit of the entire sector. We were able to align all our requirements and spread them to have a wider reach within governments,” explained Paulo Solmucci Junior, president of Abrasel.

With the largest number of restaurants in the country located in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the only two Brazilian cities included in the Michelin Guide, they are the country’s culinary jewels. Like New York, London or Paris, São Paulo is a city with a great offering of diverse restaurants. With all these businesses closed, the city’s soul and survival are threatened. Rio, on the other hand, is a city where tourism is essential. Foreign visitors alone keep many restaurants open, especially in the fine-dining sector. 

This is very much the case for Lasai in Rio, run by chef Rafa Costa e Silva, one of the most respected restaurants and chefs in the country. “We employ a lot of people and pay a lot of taxes. When we are able to pressure the government as an organized class, we see how much power we have,” he explained. 

Before the government measures were announced, Costa e Silva created a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to pay his entire team for the first few months of closure. In just a few days, the restaurant reached its first goal and is almost finished. Most of this was collected with donations from customers and friends who were offered rewards ranging from T-shirts to private dinners.

It was impossible for Lasai to remain open during a lockdown that has totally closed the country to outside visitors. “Our main guest is the tourist. In the last few days, 93% of the international flights arriving and leaving Rio were canceled. The city suddenly has no tourists at all,” he said.  

Costa e Silva’s perception is happy about the community of chefs in his country and how they banded together, he thinks Lasai will remain closed for at least a few months, even after the pandemic is controlled, people and their patterns will be different. 

“It is touching to see how solidarity and strength of unity grew in these moments. We are now thinking about creating new campaigns to help the purveyors who are struggling to make money. I am happy to have such amazing clients and to be able to take part in actions that can reduce the financial impact that we will all have ahead.” 

The country’s chefs have used this crisis to create a more cohesive community. There have been pivots of business, politics and, perhaps most important, pivots of personality. A collective has formed, one that is fighting to defend and protect Brazil’s rich, diverse and truly delicious dining culture. If the only thing that comes from this is a more united industry, Brazil will surely emerge stronger.

Andrew Wong and Mukta Das

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