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When chef Alex Atala thinks about the future of his own cuisine, he imagines giving back to the Brazilian people, to the moment when “those ingredients, those recipes, those concepts are not mine, they’re ours,” he says. He can picture it.
But currently he’s, if you’ll excuse the pun, consumed by an enormous quandry: how on Earth are we going to feed a planet that will be home to 9.7 billion people by 2050?
“How to feed the whole world is a paradox, nobody has the answer,” says the Brazilian, whose two-Michelin-star D.O.M. restaurant in São Paulo currently sits at number 16 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. We meet at the IKRA gastronomic festival just outside Sochi, Russia, where Atala will demonstrate the cooking of the kind of Amazonian ingredients – palm heart, manioc (aka cassava or yucca), river fish – that have seen him lauded as the reviver of national pride in the Brazilian larder.
“As chefs, I believe our first commitment is to delicious food. Once you have a good restaurant, a good team, you want to push your team, your food, to the next level," he says. "But eating and cooking is not only about food: it’s political, it’s social, it’s economical… for me I guess it’s environmental."
Anybody who’s watched Atala’s captivating episode of the Netflix hit Chef’s Table will know his passion for Brazilian ingredients, particularly those of the Amazon. They’ll also be familiar with his backstory: drug-fuelled party boy heads to Europe and falls into cooking by chance as a way to extend his visa, before hearing the calling of Brazil and heading home to essentially put Brazilian gastronomy on the map. And it was through cooking that Atala really got to understand the breath of biodiversity in his homeland and how food can be an important tool for natural conservation, later establishing his own research institute, ATA, on realising that “cooking is the main link between nature and culture,” as he writes in an open letter on the organisation’s website. For him, to talk about biodiversity has no real value, but to taste and know it, well that certainly does.
“8% of protected areas in Brazil are protected through food, through the local food chain,” he says. “Food makes areas stronger and bigger. I don’t think all chefs need to be activists, but if they want, if they can, it should be according to their values and the place they are, their own reality. For example, Massimo Bottura, with the Refettorio [the Italian chef’s Food for Soul project, which sees top chefs cooking gourmet meals for the needy using food waste]. He’s really focused on the social.”
In January, ATA staged, in collaboration with the cultural promoter Felipe Ribenboim, the first ever FRU.TO food symposium in São Paulo to discuss the huge question of "how to feed" – without a cooking demonstration in sight. Instead, the event drew together leading scientists, academics, producers and writers, with Atala making only a brief appearance on stage to open the event. It was, he says, “not about cooking, but much more about humanities,” with speakers, including the likes of Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini and syntropic farming pioneer Ernest Götch, who are “not talking about plans” but actually doing things. These are people, Atala feels, who can be “inspirational models” for us all, who can show us how to change our lives in practical terms.
"I’ve known Carlo Petrini for a long time and seen him speaking probably 10 times in my life,” says Atala, “but his message was so surprising. He talked about new systems and possibilities to work together – alliances between organisations, chefs and cultures. He talks about food in a holistic way, how food can change us, our environment, our behaviour, our relationships.”
From this first edition of FRU.TO 10 ‘seeds’ have emerged – 10 big ideas (see below) for the future, from safeguarding the knowledge of indigenous populations, something ATA already promotes, to resetting how we farm our oceans, which Atala wants to see spread and gain momentum, feeding back into the next FRU.TO. But not just amongst foodies: Atala concedes that at many of the food congresses he's spoken at, in a good way, he is preaching to the converted, people who "know and love what we do," yet he has broader ambitions. “We are trying to push boundaries and help people to understand food in the bigger picture, from a different perspective," he says. "What connects seven billion people? Easy, it’s food.”
1. Humankind is at a dietary crossroads
2. The current production system is killing the planet
3. The challenges are unprecedented and multiple
4. Climate change increases the drama
5. The solutions are also multiple
6. The food producer is an ally, not the villain
7. Traditional populations will be increasingly important
8. The oceans are the next frontier
9. It is necessary to strengthen the local feeding system
10. Reconnect the urban population with the fields and forests