More than 80,000 meals have been distributed to the hungry since the start of the pandemic - a number that surprised even the creators of the Quebrada Alimentada project, the chef and owner of Mocotó restaurant (in São Paulo), Rodrigo Oliveira, and his wife, the historian and activist for good food, Adriana Salay.
When all the services and businesses in Brazil, and the wider world, were forced to close their doors, the couple thought they had to do something to help the many Brazilian families who were going to lose their salaries. As it was impossible to serve everyone, they decided to focus on Vila Medeiros, the neighbourhood in which Mocotó is located (one of the most popular on the São Paulo gastronomic scene).
To carry out the task, Oliveira and Salay founded and self-financed the non-profit organisation Quebrada Alimentada, turning Mocotó into a food distribution centre for those who needed to eat. Through this initiative, and with the support of the community and many chefs, they provided more than 100 daily meals and 400 food baskets per month to vulnerable people, families and even the network of local monoculture farmers with whom they work, that were also living in a critical situation.
The project, which began quietly, gained traction with a photo about basket donations going viral. Given this, the couple thought it was time to grow the project, with the aim of getting more help. “A lot of chefs and hospitality folks who had stock standing at restaurants volunteered to help. It was very nice to see all this help, we made alliances, we had the contribution of many of our suppliers,” says Salay.
Because of the impact of the action, the couple have been named winners of The Macallan Icon Award as part of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021: Past and Future. The award recognises people whose work is producing permanent change in the restaurant industry and wider society. The award will be presented on 22 November at a virtual awards ceremony, in a special edition of the 50 Best list, which will reveal a series of live events in cities throughout the Latin American continent.
Mocotó is a restaurant located in the North Zone of São Paulo, in the suburbs where the working class of the city lives. Opened as a small market by Oliveira's father in 1973, the restaurant saw Rodrigo taking the reins in 2002, and it gradually became the Brazilian gastronomic institution that it is today. From his humble origins, the chef has led the appearance of Mocotó in all eight editions of Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants, telling the story of his family through simple ingredients and traditional Brazilian recipes.
Fine Dining Lovers spoke with the couple about the award, the meaning of recognition for the Quebrada Alimentada project, and the social role of restaurants today. Below, the interview follows.
What does the award mean for the Quebrada Alimentada project?
Adriana Salay: We didn't expect it. Our project is very local, we work focused on our community, which is the North Zone of São Paulo. There are much bigger projects in this regard. Rodrigo often says that we didn't even have a project, that it was previously an 'action'. I call Quebrada Alimentada a 'reaction', that is, a reaction without much planning to a crisis, but only because we felt we had to do something. We started and never imagined that this story would gain so much impact and such visibility. On the one hand, we are very happy with the award and all the recognition, but on the other, we are sad because we live in a country that needs projects like this so that people can eat.
What does this award really represent for the reality of Brazil today?
Rodrigo Oliveira: It is proof that our action has some effectiveness, but we have the feeling that we are not solving the problem and, in fact, we are not. We are aware that it is a much bigger problem, we speak of hunger. So we feel the need to do something real, because we can't ask hungry people to wait. Hunger is an emergency. I think everyone's reaction should be to fight so that whoever is next to him never runs out of food. In Brazil, geographically we are very close to hunger, it does not even take us 10 minutes by car to find the communities that suffer from hunger, a problem that affects our entire country. I believe that the greatest significance of the award is to make visible that very local action can have a universal impact, that what we do here can have a much greater impact than we imagine.
How do you see the sector's recognition of the project at a time as difficult as the one we are currently experiencing?
Adriana: It was very nice. At first, the action was supposed to be very small, we did not even want to disclose too much, as we were a little afraid that we could not help everyone who needed it. But one person took a photo and the action went viral and the news spread, so we decided to spread the word. It was amazing because we had a lot, a lot of support, a lot of chefs and hospitality people who had stocks in the restaurants offered to help. It was very beautiful to see all this, we made partnerships, we had the contribution of many of our suppliers. Social projects, in general, are formed from networks, not individuals. If it weren't for this network, it would have been impossible to do what we are doing today.
And how do you think the pandemic is going to change the relationship of restaurants with their environment?
Rodrigo: Beyond the immediacy, I think it reminds us of the social role that the restaurant has, which in my view is to weave relationships, unite people, that is the nature of what we do - think of a more elongated way. So it is a relationship of people, between nature and culture, country and city. A restaurant is a meeting place and, as its name implies, it is a place to restore: people, communities, and it does so through the celebration that is lived around the table. I think the pandemic reminds us of this, the importance of face-to-face meetings that virtual media cannot replace.