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Chef Manu Buffara achieved something not so easy in a country of continental dimensions as Brazil: she put her restaurant on the Brazilian gastronomic map. Off the Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo grid, where some of the best restaurants in the country are concentrated (and the only cities covered by the local Michelin Guide), she maintains her eponymous restaurant, Manu, in her hometown of Curitiba, in Brazil's southern state of Paraná.
Opened in 2011, her restaurant is well-known for the tasting menus that come alive from a very close partnership she maintains with some loyal farmers of her surroundings, valuing the products of her state like fruits, mushrooms and more. Manu has also been known for the work she does in her city for pollination, better nutrition, and the environment, transforming abandoned parts of the city into more than 80 urban gardens, where the local community can help themselves to the produce, benefiting more than 5,000 families.
Now, Manu, who completed several stints of work at restaurants such as Noma and Alinea, has also attracted international attention: her restaurant won the Miele One To Watch Award for Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants 2018, that will be held next week in Bogotà (Fine Dining Lovers will broadcast the ceremony live). In the following interview, the chef, who is Alex Atala's protégé, talks about her work, what it's like to be recognized internationally, and her plans for the future.
You are a chef working off the main gastronomic grid of Brazil - which is between Rio and São Paulo. How was it possible to draw the gastronomic scene attention to what you do in Manu?
I think my work came to be highlighted by some factors: the simplicity of the ingredients we use, the way we see the cuisine, how we work the produce that arrives in our kitchen daily - we try to find the "best clothes" to dress them, as I say. We care a lot about the products. For example, in the case of cauliflower: we have cauliflower the whole year here, but they are different types that only sprout at each season. And we have to use different cooking techniques for each of them. This knowledge of the ingredient in terms of agriculture was indispensable in order to raise our work. We know the breeds of any animal we use, the origin of everything. Our kitchen is a reflection of the product, the surroundings, the region in which we are located. I think that through all this we have caught the attention of journalists and cooks working in other places. With the awards and accolades, we get a little more voice to show what we do from the beginning.
You also have important work in your environment, with several actions for your city, Curitiba. How important are chefs to embrace these projects, in your opinion?
The local work we do is to transform through food, bringing people closer to what they eat. So that they can plant, cultivate and have more knowledge about what the food. We have an urban garden project in the city, which allows us to grow organic vegetables that we use in the Manu kitchen, but they are also available to the population – as is the case of the distribution we make in children's schools. We also have a project with native bees, in which we have spread 4,000 beehives throughout the city to improve the pollination. As a result, we still have great quality honey to use in our recipes. It is a win-win. I consider my surrounding, other cooks that live in my city, I think it is important to create a movement around food that is as more collective as possible because that is what gives us more strength. The benefit is not only mine but also other cooks, farmers, the city. This is how you transform...
How do you see the close relationship with suppliers in gastronomy today? How important is this relationship?
Since I met Nininho, for example, an agroforestry producer in Guaraqueçaba, I created a partnership with him that transcends the supplier relationship. Much more than local products, he also teaches me methods of preparation and even recipes. It's a relationship that lasts for more seven years. He supplies prawns, crab, and many fish. It is the same with Andrei, who is a stallholder I hired for our team. He is in charge of all the shopping – he used to work on farm markets and now he goes for the best vegetables for us. They know better about the ingredients, so they can not only sell and buy the best ones for me but also tell me about them, their particularities, the best techniques to use them. Today any chef needs to have a closer relationship with his farmers and suppliers.
How do you see the growing interest in the Latin American’s gastronomic scene?
I think we have incredible ingredients in Latin America that have not yet been discovered worldwide, and this perspective also increases gastronomic interest in the region. In my case, for example, the Atlantic Forest maintains one of the greatest biodiversity on the planet - not just in Brazil. It is a biome full of flavor opportunities, many of them already explored by the indigenous people who used to live here. I think, more and more, we need to value our bases, our history, and this is what many cooks have been doing here, as is the case of chefs like Virgilio Martinez from Central, Rodolfo Guzmán from Boragó and Alex Atala, for example. Atala has a very important work with the indigenous tribes, he gave up serving bread in his restaurant to put on his menu tapioca, which has always been the food of our indigenous people in Brazil. We have to seek our roots to bring ingredients that help to tell the culinary history of our countries, showing the world our culture. We need more and more to search for who we are.
You are also a woman who has gained representativeness in the dining scene, even being the mother of two daughters, having to combine family and work. How do you see the growth of female chefs in this scenario?
I think it's very important to be a woman and make a difference – something that we see happening over and over. I am very proud of that. About combining the roles of mother, woman, and chef, I think women simply do it, we have the power to do many things, it’s our nature. The fact of being a woman in gastronomy has never got in my way, on the contrary: I think we have a delicacy, a way of seeing the food in a different way, which only values our work. The food market has opened more its doors, which has shown the world the work of incredible women, such as Helena Rizzo, Roberta Sudbrack and many others to mention only Brazilian chefs.