In this edition of My Life in Plates, Élodie Noël speaks to renowned Brazilian chef, Alex Atala about the dishes that loom large in his memory.
Chef and owner of D.O.M. restaurant in São Paulo, Alex Atala’s innovative cuisine has placed a spotlight on Brazilian culture and ingredients. In 2015, he became the first Brazilian chef to win two Michelin stars, but is probably best known for his appearance on the second season of the Netflix series Chef’s Table. We spoke to him about the dishes that have influenced his life and career.
What is your first memory of taste?
It would be my auntie’s corn cake. It’s the first thing I remember tasting in my life and the first time I felt surprised by a flavour. I didn’t see this aunt for years, then one day we met and I asked her to make the cake. She did, and while it was delicious, it wasn't as delicious as I remembered. I think it’s because taste is something that we develop.
Read More: My life in plates: Julien Royer
What is the plate that made you want to be a chef?
My passion was never really cooking, it was really more about the ingredients. I grew up in a family that loved to travel to remote areas, that loved hunting, fishing and cooking. Since I was a tiny boy, my fascination was to have the ingredient in my hand and then to cook it. Fish was my first link to the world of cooking. We used to fish a lot and I remember thinking, this will be delicious! Whatever we’d get, I would cook it to taste it.
What is the dish that could make you cry?
Simple rice and beans! In Brazil, we eat it every day. Sometimes I eat rice and beans when I’m in another country, but it just doesn’t taste the same. I travel quite a lot, and this is the flavour that I miss - it's home for me, it's emotional. The best pizza is in Italy, the best rice and beans is in Brazil!
What is the dish that you don’t understand?
Overly processed food. I can’t understand why people buy fish fingers. I find it scary.
What is the dish you wish you had created?
There are many! I remember a dish I tasted in 1998 or 1999 in elBulli, it was actually a super simple dish, they called it “A travel around the world”. It was three spoons, the first one was Thailand, it was curry, ginger and some chili; the second one was Mexico, it was chili, corn and beans; then finally there was Japan was seaweed, ginger and a piece of fish. I thought, how could I do the same with Brazil? We are a huge country, we have many different cuisines. It was the day I realised Amazonas has a flavour, Bahia has a flavour, Minas Gerais has another flavour. So it was a delicious dish, but it was also a learning experience. For the Amazonas, the spoon would be jambu, a local herb; tucupi, a sauce made with manioc; and a piece of fish.
What is the dish you can’t admit that you love?
There is nothing I can’t admit I love, but I can tell you something I don’t like: yoghurt. I can eat it, but I don’t like it.
What is the dish you could eat every day for the rest of your life?
Rice and beans of course! We have our own way to cook beans in Brazil, we add bacon, bay leaves and garlic. This is the best combination of flavours.
What is the dish you are the proudest of?
Maybe a square piece of pineapple with ham on top. I don’t cook anything, I just put two beautiful ingredients together. It is a recipe that represents quite well what I do and my country. It was a breakthrough because no one would have done that in fine dining, it was pushing boundaries. Once a friend of mine said to me, ‘Alex, if you were a painter, it would be like using a colour that nobody used before’.
What is the dish that reminds you of your mum?
Oxtail. She’d make it as a stew, it’s something I’d ask her to make for me.
What is the last dish you had?
Last night (in Galway) we had very good scallops. They were big, round, perfectly cooked, with beautiful coral beside them.
What is the dish you’d make for the person you love?
Every Sunday I love cooking at home for my family over a barbecue with live fire. I’d cook vegetables over the fire. It’s always a fascination for me how we can change flavours. If you put a tomato on a pan that’s one flavour, if you put it in the oven, that’s another flavour. If you put it on the ember, you have a flavour and an aroma brought by the live fire.
What is your death row dish?
Something simple like bread and butter. Sometimes I love plain flavours.
What is the next dish you have in mind?
I have a thousand ideas! If someone asks me 'can you do a new dish now', it’s hard, because there is a lot of spontaneity that goes with creativity. Everything inspires me. Every recipe is a brainstorm between myself and my chefs. We try to be creative every day. Maybe I’ll start with an idea, and one member of the team will add something to it, and maybe someone else will say we can do it a different way, and then we sit together and we taste it.
Author: Élodie Nöel
Élodie is a French journalist who relocated to Dublin about three years ago. She immediately fell in love with the island and its amazing food and has been writing about it on her blog Lemon Lipstick. You can follow Élodie's food adventures on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.