D.O.M. Restaurante: Rock star chef Alex Atala puts Brazilian gastronomy on the world map

GASTRONOMY / 19 SEP 2016 / BY DIMITRIS PANAGIOTIDIS

ALEX ATALA
Watermelon, cucumber and codium by Alex Atala. Photo by Rubens Kato © D.O.M. Restaurante.
D.O.M. ~ Rua Barão de Capanema, 549 Jardins São Paulo, Brasil / domrestaurante.com.br

Firmly linked to his roots and looking towards the future, Alex Atala is, above all, passionate about Brazil, nature, gastronomy, and life. Driven by challenges and a great sense of indignation, Atala manages, with extreme delicacy and technique, to turn his creative energy into unforgettable experiences for those who have the opportunity to prove his experiments. His aim is to explore all the gastronomic possibilities of domestic ingredients, combining classical basis with current techniques. However, with boldness and vision, Atala surpasses the boundaries of cuisine and acts as a responsible citizen, valuing the small producer, encouraging young professionals, and supporting the third sector. Native ingredients are a hallmark of D.O.M., from jambú, a herb that creates a tingling sensation on the tongue, to Atala’s now world-famous use of ants. Highlights include heart-of-palm fettuccine with butter, sage and popcorn powder and milk pudding flavoured with priprioca, an aromatic root previously used in the cosmetics industry.

What inspired you to get into this business?

Many. I believe that all the great chefs have made at least one plate that has really touched and inspired me somehow. Joel Robuchon with his purée. Bocuse with his vegé soup. Bernard Loiseau with the water-based deglazings (the deglazing itself is something very present in my professional life). Michel Bras with his outstanding gargouille. Ferran Adriá with his Países dish. Definitely, that was a plate that has deeply marked me. Andoni! He is a guy who really inspires me not only by his dishes, but also by the way he thinks and manages to express himself. A few others can be quoted such as The Roca brothers, René Redzepi, David Chang, Daniel Humm. Japan, as a whole context, has always been and always will be an inspiration. Regarding Japan, I have traveled there a few times and, during these periods spent there, the Japanese cuisine managed to captivate me in quite an intense way. My visits were profound and turned to studying purposes. After that period, one word is certain to define my impressions: enchanted. The Arabian cuisine, somehow, too. After all, I am Atala..

It is true, smells and flavours cover the biggest percentage of memory. Would you share with us, a unique, still vivid moment in life?

My grandfather was always a hunter and fisherman, so a simple roasted fish or something similar are always smells and flavors very familiar and dishes that never cease to please me. That wild taste has amazed me ever since my earliest days as a child.

How has your cuisine evolved since you started and how do you think it will change in the future?

I believe that many of the things we created during these last 15 years at D.O.M. Restaurant were marking in both our career and trajectory. It is impossible to talk about marking dishes and not talk about one of the last creations of mine, that inspired chefs worldwide such as throwing ants over a pineapple. Another turning point for all of us here at D.O.M. was starting executing the aligot. We do not make it using French cheese, but we do keep the original French name, after all, we, as a restaurant of Brazilian cuisine, are “borrowing” the recipe. It is one of the plates that help turning the room service at D.O.M. – and the restaurant itself – unique. I believe our mission for the future is keeping up the good quality. That is the great challenge. Surviving in Brazil is a hard endeavor. Obviously, we want to grow, but in a very organic way.

“I believe a chef can help his/her local community and also the global environment by not only buying important things, but, also, by refusing to use and buy ingredients with doubtful quality or origin. Maybe that is the best tactic to create a market demand which can make the larger companies adapt to it.” says Alex Atala.

Every life takes its own direction, influenced by a unique pattern of decisions and circumstances. Yet, we are driven by many different kinds of motives, some self-serving and some aimed at purposes beyond the self. What moves you to make the important choices that shape your behavior and, ultimately, the directions of your life?

Getting people to come out of their comfort zone and sending a message. I believe those are the main goals to our cooking at D.O.M. today. Serving dishes with ants is one example of that. I’m very optimistic about the idea of insects in gastronomy. Without a doubt, the ants that we use at D.O.M. have inspired many chefs to follow this idea – which many people can think is crazy. The ants are an example of the little surprises gastronomy can give us. The main reason for me to use these them is because they are truly full of flavour. I believe tasty insects can and should be served in restaurants. Just as important, though, insects are a font of protein and potentially a dietary supplement for the more than 7 billion people in the world. This is fundamental and a way of transforming how we feed the world.

Peruvian Chef Gaston Acurio believes that the Chefs are the ambassadors of their cuisine in the world. What is your opinion?

Using the ingredients, for sure, the chef already reinforces his/her environment, but I believe we could go a bit beyond. If we ask ten chefs or regular people what it means to eat well, we are most likely to find ten different answers. However, if we ask them what is not good to eat, we will probably find very similar answers. I believe a chef can help his/her local community and also the global environment by not only buying important things, but, also, by refusing to use and buy ingredients with doubtful quality or origin. Maybe that is the best tactic to create a market demand which can make the larger companies adapt to it.

At some point of our younger lives, we imagined ourselves setting goals, for a better tomorrow. Have you fulfilled your dreams?

One thing I usually say is I didn’t choose gastronomy; it was gastronomy that chose me. I ended up in chef school as a way to maintain my visa in Europe when I went there trying to grow as a punk DJ. However, one of the tattoos I have in my arm – I talk about it in the last minutes of the Chef’s Table episode – is a drawing that symbolizes how an angry punk rocker became a happy, happy chef. I still have a lot of energy in me, there are many things I feel I can still accomplish, but I can say for sure I am happy about how things turned out for me.