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The extraordinary thing about Rodrigo Oliveira’s food is its ordinariness. Using simple ingredients and traditional recipes, his Mocotó restaurant in Sao Paulo’s unfashionable Vila Medeiros district has reminded Latin America’s culinary cognoscenti of the power of good honest food.
Among its humble and hearty northern Brazilian specialities, the restaurant’s legendary mocotó – a broth of stewed cow’s foot – has remained a favourite since Oliveira’s father set up a small eatery here some forty years ago. To this day, Mocotó’s affordable and accessible food underpins Oliveira’s philosophy of Democratic Gastronomy.
Fine Dining Lovers had the opportunity to speak with chef Rodrigo Oliveira about opportunity, tradition and the Latin American food renaissance.
What do you mean by the term Democratic Gastronomy?
It's our way of facing our profession here in our restaurants. We strive to practice a home cuisine, based on our roots and cultural values, with the best ingredients that we can have, but without creating it a barrier for people who, after all, made us get to where we are.
If good food should be enjoyed by all, how important is it that people from all backgrounds have the opportunity to become chefs?
Total and complete. Here in our restaurants, all our employees have come from "below the line". When they show vocation and commitment to the kitchen, we help them with aids for studies ranging from 50 to 100%.
Is there too much snobbery in the world of restaurants?
I think so, as in any area that is in evidence. This has happened with journalists, then with advertisers, then with the fashion people. I think the industry is not conceited, the human being is.
Tell us about the dish mocotó – what’s the story behind it, and why is it so special?
It is more than a meal. It's our own history. When we were still a small store across the street, my father, Seu Zé Almeida, cooked our caldo de Mocotó, very close to what we have today, and there were lines of people on the sidewalk. People came from far to taste the "caldo do Seu Zé" served in simple glass cups, accompanied by a good Brazilian cachaça. It's a family recipe that ensured our survival here in the big city, where there weren’t many options for survival. Over the years, I only took care to improve the process, protecting the flavour and unique features of the dish. Even today, it’s one of the emblems of our kitchen - a brand, a reminder that it is possible to do good things from ingredients that are often undervalued. The mocotó tells us that, with belief in what you do, you can win. That is its importance for my family and me.
Why is it so important that chefs stay grounded with simple traditional recipes and ingredients?
I think of the Latin maxim: urbi et orbi. The best way to be relevant is to represent your village, to speak of your home, of the flavours and knowledge that are within your heart. Of course, with time and travel you learn new things - my kitchen today is not the same as when I started - but when you move away from your roots you lose touch with what made you what you are. I am a Brazilian chef from the backlands. My knowledge comes from there. And besides, I think that what are considered simple ingredients are very noble ingredients. That's why I chose them, always.
Latin American food is enjoying a renaissance at the moment – what is the appeal of Latin American food for people around the world?
I think there are cycles. The globalized world is looking for new food - in the broadest sense of the word. Latin America is like a new continent to Europe and the United States. We have a rich and diverse biome, a culinary and cultural wealth still unknown to our own people. I think this creates the perfect conditions for our kitchens to reach a world eager for new tastes and knowledge.
What are your future plans for Mocotó?
Our mantra is: do better today what we did well yesterday. Restaurants depend on competent and creative repetition. Our challenge is to keep doing better each day, that which won us recognition by such important people around the country and the world.