Few years before being awarded as the best female chef in Latin America, Roberta Sudbrack resorted to street food as a means to sustain her family, as so many women have done around the world. That was the beginning of a long and successful career, which included a seven-year stint as head chef at the president's residence in Brasilia.
She has also taken a keen interest in studying and preserving her country's regional traditions, while divulging this wealth of culinary identity in such a huge country as Brazil, from her Roberta Sudbrack restaurant in one of the most exclusive areas of Rio de Janeiro. Now she has returned to the city's streets to bring her food closer to the people.
This year you have been granted the Veuve Clicquot award for Latin America’s Best Female Chef. Based on your experience, what development opportunities do women have within this field?
In Brazil, women play an important role in home cooking. In that sense, women have played an essential role in ensuring the evolution of Brazilian cooking until its current situation. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that we are living in the 21st century, the international lists and guides compiled to honor the best chefs and restaurants will not let me lie about the slow economic progress of women within the professional cooking world.
What prompts a chef with your credentials to take to the street with a food truck?
When my grandfather passed away, I started selling hot dogs as a means to support my grandmother and myself. So Sud Dog is closely linked to that backstory. I always wanted to return to that episode and retell it in a present-day context, with the idea of serving quality food. When I was planning this step, I did not want it to be a smaller-scale version of my Roberta Sudbrack restaurant. I wanted a much more laid-back project that would be accessible to many more people, so I suddenly realized that I should take my food out onto the streets! The idea is to help the people of Rio enjoy their city more. I will also open a physical location, for those who wish to enjoy the food in greater comfort.
In many Latin American countries food exists on two extremes, polarized between modernity and tradition. What is the situation in Brazil?
I believe that as a food culture has developed throughout the country, there has also been greater interest in appreciating the cultural identity of our roots and our culinary diversity. We have an Institute for the Preservation of Historic and Artistic Heritage, part of the Ministry of Culture, which has launched an important effort to map our country's immaterial legacy, including its food culture. The goal of this effort has precisely been to document cooking processes. This has represented great progress, but there are still many challenges ahead, such as the need to ensure that traditional cooking methods will not disappear, as well as managing fires and crops. I believe that in the current situation, we require a cuisine that is far from the excesses of ostentation and culinary charlatanism.
In your opinion, which is the greatest challenge faced by your country in this polarized food landscape?
We must work for the survival of traditional farmers and producers, which includes ensuring that their activities are economically viable and thereby granting them a real incentive to continue producing, keeping the memory of those processes and ingredients alive. This is essential to prevent the loss of the memories, sensations, and experiences that surround this intangible heritage. More exchanges and new bonds are required between culture and technique, in order to bring rural products closer to urban consumers.
Your menu at Roberta Sudbrack, reveals a wealth of research into regional cuisines and the natural diversity of your country's territory. How do you achieve that?
I seek to preserve our culinary heritage by translating the influence of classical techniques to our present-day reality. By bringing the past up to date and learning from it, I am able to extract infinite intertwining paths for my own cooking, trying to avoid the banal. With this interplay I seek to avoid the straitjacket of tradition for tradition's sake, while also steering clear of a cult to innovation that only leads to an excess of fusion and fads. The quality, originality, and environmentally friendly nature of the ingredients we use links us to the best possible products, which therefore produce the best results and allow us to offer the best food. I always say that my mise-en-place begins in the farmer’s garden.
In such a large country as Brazil, with such a wealth of ingredients, which are your favorites?
All ingredients have something to say, and so far, the last word has not been said about any of them. This is truly positive because it allows us to continue exploring their qualities and keeps us alert, stimulating our creativity and the quest for new expressions, which is what keeps our coking alive. I tend to favor ingredients that are considered marginal, such as gherkins, okra, chayote, and many others often described as “cultural products,” which are not necessarily native to Brazil but which we adopted by incorporating them into our everyday cooking and tastes. Cooking is a universal language, and that dialogue is fundamental if other cultures are to recognize our food identity.
This week you will travel to Mexico. What is your relationship with the country?
I see some similarities with Brazil, despite the fact that we are different cultures. It is a joyful country with deep traditions and strong indigenous and European influences, which are often stereotyped, especially in the kitchen. Mexico is a desirable destination for anyone, but especially for cooks. I have always been drawn to the pre-Hispanic origin of Mexican cuisine, and I am sure that I will learn a lot about some of its basic ingredients, such as maize and beans, which also feature prominently in Brazilian cuisine but they are used differently. This cultural dialogue always makes cooking tastier.