Chef's Table (2015–…): Season 2, Episode 2 - Alex Atala - full transcript

A look at chef Alex Atala wild spirit and love for the Amazon and his restaurant (D.O.M), in Brazil.

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I don't know if I'll be able to...

tell this history
or be precise in English.

But, um...

in...

in my dark time... [laughs]

one day I took a very strong...

acid.

And during that trip,
I understood the meaning of life.

But, of course, the trip ended

and my knowledge disappeared.

And the question
"What is the meaning of life?"



was annoying me.

One night, I had a dream.

I was walking in the street

like a kid who has
the hands of the father and mother,

someone bigger guiding you.

And I was asking to this big person,
"What was the meaning of life?"

He showed me circles.
Circles of life.

And then he showed me a flower.

Why?

A plant has a circle.

A seed becomes a plant
that has a flower,

transforms into a fruit.
The fruit drops.

There's another seed...

and the seed grows again.
This is a circle.



And I said, uh...

"I see. I understand.
But why did you show me the flower?"

And he said,
"The flower is the moment that we live,

the most beautiful moment of the circle.

The most beautiful moment.

Contemplate this."

[opening theme playing]

[Luiz Américo Camargo in Portuguese]
Twenty years ago, eating out in São Paulo

meant going to a French
or Italian restaurant.

Going to a good restaurant
was something for the wealthy.

It wasn't widespread,
because people ate mainly at home.

Rice, beans, farofa and steak.

Maybe Brazilians didn't want to think
of their cuisine as restaurant food,

as a cuisine that has gastronomic value,

a cuisine worthy
of the ritual of dressing up,

getting ready and going out to eat.

Alex Atala appeared,

bringing the possibility of a more
modern Brazilian cuisine.

[dishes clattering]

[David Chang]
Alex is a supremely gifted individual.

Simple as that.

He is one of the world's best chefs,

and I think what makes him different
than everyone else is, like...

being a chef
is just one part of who he is.

He's some kind of strange, new,
millennial renaissance man.

[Luiz] He's a hunter and angler.

He knows nature.
He knows the jungle.

He went to the Amazon.

He noticed that Amazonic ingredients
were very different from what people knew

in Brazil and abroad.

By combining this Amazonian background
and his jungle knowledge

with classic French techniques,

and also being open
to the European avant-garde,

he made a mix that became
a very strong personal message.

He's just got that Brazilian, like...
swagger.

I mean, Alex does not give a fuck
about expectations from other people.

And he's gonna do what he wants to do.

You see that in the food,
and I admire that tremendously.

[Luiz] From the moment he realized
he needed to be a Brazilian chef,

and that D.O.M. had the potential

to be the first great
modern Brazilian restaurant,

he managed to find his place
in the 21st century.

He is the international ambassador
of Brazilian cuisine.

[Alex in Portuguese]
Do you have a piece of wood?

[man] Yeah. Yeah.

Here you go.
The entire duck skin for you to use.

-Thank you.
-Thank you, too.

[Alex in English]
Behind every dish there is death.

And people only close
their own eyes to it.

One of my first memories...

to taste and also cook,
was with my father and my grandfather.

In the old days, as a kid,

we used to travel
to remote areas in Brazil

and go fishing and hunting in Amazonas,
Pantanal, Atlantic Rainforest...

And it was mandatory...
if you kill a fish, if you kill something,

to clean the fish
and eat the whole entire animal.

It didn't matter what we killed.

This was maybe
my first relation with food,

and cooking as well.

It was a way to respect...

that life...

and teach...

how we might respect
the natural environment

and just take what we need to eat.

We are not God.

We are a tiny, tiny, tiny part...
of nature.

[Alex in Portuguese] Amazing.

[man] Alex, do you know this?
It's known as mint of cabocio.

No, I don't know it.

It is from the same family as the mint,
and the aroma is great.

-Piperaceae.
-Piperaceae.

Amazing. Piperaceae.

[man] What would it go well with?

It's sweet.
This could pair with anything.

-It's an amazing ingredient.
-Let's pick some.

Palmito juçara.

This will make the heart of palm
grow bigger.

This species is very important.
I am happy to see heart of palm here.

[David] When you see Alex,
he will never tell you,

"You have to eat at my restaurant."

It's always,
"Let's get lost in the jungle."

I mean, I think Alex is trying
to save the rainforest.

Showing the value
of all the natural resources,

the farmers, and the indigenous Indians,

all the stories that are not being told,
they're his story.

[Alex] Since my childhood,
the possibility to enjoy nature,

this has always fascinated me.

Appreciating every single leaf,
insect, or a bird, or a fish...

Going to Amazonas,

it is something that comes
deep from my heart.

But everybody who loves Amazonas,
who enjoys Amazonas,

who has been to the Amazonas,
is afraid about the future.

Amazonas is under a huge pressure.

We need to understand

the way that we have been producing food
in South America and Brazil

is sterilizing entire ecosystems.

But indigenous people,

they have been living
in the Amazonas for years.

Centuries.

And they still have a balance.

Natural conservation,
preservation of Amazonas is not only

protecting the river,
or the sea, or the forest.

It is protecting the men who live inside.

And I do believe that
we can learn something from them.

[indistinct chatter]

[in Portuguese]
Manaus! Amazonas! Brazil!

This is where it's at.
Game over. [laughs]

[Alex in English] I remember
very well my first taste of caviar.

I said, "I don't know if that's good."

I remember very well
the first day that I tasted tucupi,

the juice of manioc flour.

And I said, "Wow. This is...

[inhales] this is a new flavor.
I don't know if I like it."

But if caviar is fancy...
and tucupi is not fancy,

it's just because someone told me.

There's a cultural interpretation
of flavors.

Eating insects for our culture
is something not good.

It's linked with misery...
with hunger and starving.

A few years ago, I went to Amazonas,

and I was introduced to the best chef
in a tiny village,

an indigenous woman called Dona Brazi.

And she did a dark sauce
with lots of ants inside.

She gave it to me
and I said, "Wow. Lots of ants."

[sighs] But I was...

So I took the spoon,
and I just take the dark sauce.

I tasted the dark sauce,
and it was beautiful.

A beautiful aroma of ginger
and lemongrass.

And I know that in Amazonas we don't have
lemongrass and ginger.

So I ask Dona Brazi,
"What kind of herb did you put inside?"

And she said, "Ants."

I said, "Okay, I can see the ants.
But there's an herb."

And she said, "Ants."

And I repeated the question,
and she said, "Stop. Taste the ants."

I taste the ants,

and the aroma of ginger
and lemongrass was really strong.

Wow!

It exploded in my mouth, and I said,
"Wow! This is something new."

[David] If you close your eyes,
it tastes delicious.

It tastes like lemongrass. It really does.
It's... it's remarkable.

It shows you good food is really
more than just, sort of, your background.

If you keep an open mind, you can make
delicious food just about out of anything.

[Alex] I'm born and raised
in a workers' area.

It's part of São Paulo.

My father used to work
in the rubber industry

and my mother used to be a seamstress.

My mother and my father
have black hair and dark skin.

My three brothers have
black hair and dark skin.

And for some reason, I was born
slim, white, with a ginger head.

Nobody was like this.

I was the different guy.

I felt alone.

I was trying to understand myself.

I always loved music.
I've always loved rock and roll.

In that time, "hippies" are super trendy,

but I didn't identify really myself
with the hippies.

And one day, I went to a concert,
and that was a punk rock band.

I saw the people and said,
"Wow, this is so cool."

A few of them had ginger hair.

I'm born like this! [chuckles]

I became completely fascinated.
I said, "This is what I want to be."

At that time, I was 14, almost 15.

I was angry.

I decided to leave my family house,
live on my own...

and I started to work in a club.

As a young guy living on my own,
making my own money,

I could do whatever I wanted.

Drugs, sex, everything I wanted to have,
I could... [snaps fingers] like this.

Drugs are not forbidden
because they are bad.

Drugs are forbidden
because they are good...

but fuck you.

So I went maybe too deep in drugs.

And I did, uh, bad things.

This is my dark time.

I was not against nothing...

but I was looking for something.

In 2003, I decided to buy a farm
up north in Amazonas.

That was a crazy idea,
but I decided I want to help people there.

If I start producing tucupi
and sell it in my restaurant,

I can make more money,
and so I can pay more local people.

Everybody gonna be happy.

I was feeling myself...

the fucking clever guy.

I could save Amazonas in that moment.

So I decided to send food for them.

And I went back after six months...

and what I saw was plastic bags...

and cans everywhere.

And I became upset.

And I started to explain to them,
"How can they do this?"

And they became really upset with me.

And we had a big argument.

And one of the oldest men
from this community faced me

and put the finger to my nose and said,

"Alex, this is your fault.
Packaging of fish is a scale.

Packaging of vegetables is skin.
I throw away."

In that moment, I realized who was sending
plastic and cans to them.

Me.

And I started to feel very bad.

Maybe even worse, ignorant.

This was the key to build
a project called ATA.

"Ata" means fire in one of
our native languages, which is Guaraní.

ATA's mantra is to understand better
our relation with food.

Food chain, in this moment,
can be a very powerful weapon

to support natural conservation.

The Baniwa people,
they have more than 70 varieties of chili.

The chili is very meaningful
for the Baniwa people.

Under their own tradition,
when a young girl gets married...

the first gift from her mother
is chili seeds.

And they plant, and they harvest
without over-pressuring nature.

But it's important to understand...

nowadays, women work planting food,
and men work in...

not so good activities,
like illegal mining,

because they didn't have jobs.

And mining takes them
far from their families.

So our first project was the chili powder.

We have built small houses
to process the chili.

We have five already working.

We are building two more.

One of the preparations
that they have with the chili

they call jiquitaia.

Jiquitaia is a variety of chilis, dried.

It's delicious.

We use it in many different ways in D.O.M.

[in Portuguese]
I think it gives us an advantage.

The pepper is ours.

It is part of our culture,
and it can never be taken away.

[Alex in English]
Our thought was to find something

we could bring to São Paulo,

and spread a little bit more
their culture,

and give economic opportunity
to the Baniwa tribes,

and support natural conservation.

I remember I was working in a club.

Fascinated by punk rock,

I started to think, "How was the life,
the punk rock life, in Europe?"

So I save a little money,
and one day, I decided to make my dream.

Go to Europe and see and live.

That culture that was fascinating me.

From my very first step in Europe,
I was living a dream.

Everything was new,
and I decided not to go back to Brazil.

But, in that time, I had two problems.

First one, make money.
So I start to work painting walls.

And the second, get a visa.

One of the guys who was painting walls
was doing chef school.

I said, "Nice way to have a visa."

So I went to chef school.

To be clear...

I didn't decide to be a chef.
[laughing]

My visa pushed me to be a chef.

Can you imagine, the end of '80s,
Brazilian guy, punk rocker...

in a French, or Belgian,
or Italian kitchen? [laughing]

It wasn't easy at all.

But because of my family background,

I knew how to pluck a bird
or clean a fish.

This is something
that I had been doing as a kid.

And it was much more fun
working as a chef...

than painting walls.

Year by year, I started to fall in love
with this profession.

[utensils clattering]

[in Portuguese]
All this work just to get the scale off.

Fuck.

It's a hard pirarucu fish.

Careful with your hand.
The knife is moving fast.

[man] I can only imagine the sensation
of fishing one of these out of the water.

One? I have three at home.

[all laughing]

[indistinct chatter]

[Alex in English]
When we are training to be a chef...

we learn that the most important moments

of our day will be mise en place...

prepping all the ingredients...

to make an amazing dish.

There is a Brazilian chef
called Roberta Sudbrack,

and she used to say something that I love.

"Our mise en place
doesn't start in the kitchen.

It starts on the farm...
and in nature."

If we want to do delicious food,
we need amazing ingredients.

To find those ingredients,
we need to find another person

who loves that ingredient
as much as I love it.

About ten years ago,
I was working in the restaurant,

and someone said,
"Alex, there's a guy outside

who wants to talk with you about rice."

And he said,
"Please, can you taste this?

We are producing a new variety of rice."

And that was the black rice.

[in Portuguese] Is this black rice?

Yes, this is its flower.

[Alex] How beautiful.

[in English] When they decided
to plant black rice,

people started to laugh
and said, "Those guys are nuts.

They are planting black rice

in a country where everybody
only eats white rice."

I saw it and said,
"Wow, this is beautiful. Let's cook it!"

And we cooked it,
and the taste was incredible.

We started to use it,
and they became a kind of, uh...

inspirational model for other producers.

[Alex speaking in Portuguese]

Wow.

[in Portuguese]
This one has some plastic on top

to make it easier for us to open it.

[Alex in English] We have more than
300 different types of bees in Brazil.

The honey's beautiful.

Oh! [laughing]

Tastes are completely different.

But in Brazil we only use European honey
because the water level is quite low,

so it's a stable ingredient.

But our honey is a live ingredient,
as alive as... wine and cheese,

so fermentation happens
and acidity comes up.

So you have a beautiful balance

between flavor, aroma,
acidity, and sweetness.

[man in Portuguese]
You will taste an acid taste

because of the fermentation.

The taste is sensational.

[Alex in English]
There are many ingredients like this

that, as Brazilians,
we should be proud of.

[man in Portuguese] To the bees.

[Alex in English] They are beautiful,
and natural, and native to Brazil.

A chef can be a leader.

Looking for ingredients,

connecting people,

it is the way to build
a better food chain.

[all speaking Portuguese]

[Alex] So after chef school,

I was living in Italy
with a Brazilian girl called Cristiana.

I was working in a kitchen.

And Cristiana got pregnant.

We are living in Milano.

It's an amazing city.

It's beautiful.

But it's not home.
It's not me.

Living in Europe made me realize...

I don't want to have an Italian son.

I want to have a Brazilian son.

My background, my origin, my culture.

Living in Brazil, it is my reality.
It is my soul. It is my truth.

So we decided to go back to Brazil.

We went to the beach,
and I entered with him,

with this tiny, tiny, tiny boy
in the sea.

This is an important thing for me.

My kids need to touch the ground,

recognize the salt of the sea
or the sweetness of the Amazon.

This is part of my life.
This is...

This is stronger than me.

The most meaningful ingredient
from Amazonas is cassava.

Some people call it yuca.
For us Brazilians, mandioca.

In English, manioc.
It is the same ingredient.

The only single ingredient you can find
in all social classes,

the richest and the poorest, is manioc.

Under Brazilian tradition,
what we do is peel it...

[woman speaking Portuguese]

...grate it...

press.

When you press, a kind of milk comes out
and the starch comes down.

In our native language,
the starch of manioc is called tapioca.

It's funny because the whole entire world,
even in Brazil...

when thinking about tapioca,
suppose that it is Asiatic.

No.
Tapioca is Brazilian.

-[speaking Portuguese]
-[woman] Mmm-hmm.

With salt.

-It's good with salt, right?
-Mmm-hmm.

[Alex in English] We have tapioca
and we have the juice.

Fermented, it becomes tucupi.

The pulp becomes manioc flour.

[in Portuguese] It takes a while to roast
and to get it right when it's very dry.

But it is looking pretty.

[Alex in English]
With those three products,

we can start designing many dishes.

I do believe
that I need to keep my eyes open,

ears open, heart open, mind open...

Learning from nature,
local people, the natives...

This is what keeps pushing me.

So I left Europe
and I went back to Brazil,

and I started to work in kitchens
in fine dining places.

And having a tattoo was not so good.

In Brazil and everywhere,
it was shameful.

So I started to work covered.

I was not showing my tattoos.

In that time, important chefs
and important restaurants in Brazil

were only serving
Italian and French cuisine.

French chefs were the gods in Brazil.

Nobody was really interested
in Brazilian cuisine.

We have a kind of inferiority complex.

[speaking indistinctly]

[Alex] So I received a proposition
to work in a new place.

Italian cuisine, very focused on pasta.

But I knew that that food was not as good
as the same recipe tasted in Italy.

It was a very bad adaptation.

The food had no soul.

After four years,
I was working in a French restaurant.

I met a French chef called Erick Jacquin.

One day we were working in the kitchen,
doing a very classical French cuisine.

Erick called me and said,
"Alex, sit with me.

You are a good chef.
You know how to achieve the flavor.

But you're never gonna make French food
as good as I do."

We were talking about
a cultural background.

And I became upset.

I felt very bad.

I went back home
and I took off my T-shirt,

and I looked in the mirror and said,

"I'm a tattooed man. I am an outsider.
I am Brazilian."

This is who I am.

If I was different,
I wanted to be different.

If I'm not able to make a French dinner
as good as a French chef,

nobody could do a better Brazilian dinner
or a Brazilian experience than me.

So I started to switch some ingredients.

I took flounder and I served it
with a passion fruit farofa.

And people loved the dish.

That was my moment.

And I decided to make my own restaurant,
which is D.O.M.

And I decided to cook only something
that comes deep from my heart...

Brazilian cuisine.

When people come to D.O.M.,
we propose to them a Brazilian experience.

[tribal music playing]

So every single detail, music,
decoration, architecture...

It is Brazil.

[Luiz] The menu at D.O.M.

takes you on a journey
through Brazilian cuisine.

People who go to D.O.M.

have to be open
to seeing Brazilian products

treated as delicacies.

[Alex in English]
Our chef's suggestion for lunch time

since the very first day of D.O.M.
is Workers' Food.

[Luiz] The chef has managed
to be subversive.

He managed to make the elite
eat rice and beans.

But the presentation is so sophisticated
and done with context,

people feel authorized to like it.

They don't need to be ashamed
of liking it.

[Alex in English] It is not necessary
to use expensive ingredients.

The luxury is in your hands,
in your ability.

This is luxury.

The human capacity to transform
something into emotions.

[Luiz] There are surprises,
provocations, ruptures.

So it's not a completely safe experience

like it would be
at a traditional restaurant.

[Alex in English]
The idea is to challenge people...

make them feel slightly uncomfortable.

When I serve something that you say,

"I don't think that I'll like this,"
or, "It's so weird..."

[Luiz] This strange feeling

is what makes us push the boundaries
of what it means to be a Brazilian.

[Alex in English] This is to push you
to the edge of flavors.

We don't do that to be delicious.

We do that to be "Wow!"

[indistinct chatter]

When I opened D.O.M.,
a young Brazilian chef

using Brazilian ingredients,
doing Brazilian cuisine,

people started to think,
"Alex, you're crazy."

The very beginning was not easy at all.

The first years of D.O.M...

nobody, really nobody, came to D.O.M.

People didn't respect Brazilian cuisine.

It was a tough moment in my life.

But, I was really believing...

So, in 2005, I decided to go
to Madrid, Spain...

for a chefs' conference
called Madrid Fusión.

[David] Madrid Fusión was the...
the be-all, end-all for chefs, so...

And it was big shit.
Big, big, big, big stuff.

[Alex] I said, "Okay, what message
can I pass to European people

from a young chef
who works with Brazilian ingredients?"

So I started to think,
"What is the flavor from Amazonas?"

I decided to show
a concept that I call Amazonic terroir.

I knew that everybody knew hearts of palm,
but just in cans.

Fresh hearts of palm was
something really new for them.

I took a kind of log
and with a big knife, cleaned it

and showed this beautiful,
white heart of palm.

I was claiming something Brazilian.

People were fascinated.

Ferran Adrià comes up to the stage.

[David] Ferran Adrià is without a doubt
one of the most important chefs ever.

And if he gave you approval,

then the whole world would be like,
"Of course, obviously."

And I think that's sort of what happened.

[Alex] A mythical chef
on my stage during my demo.

I became so proud.

That was the turning point
of my professional life.

[Luiz] At this point,
in Brazilian cuisine, chef Alex Atala

started to play
an important role internationally.

All of this helped Brazilians
feel pride in their own culture.

[Alex] I left Brazil
with a kind of shame to be Brazilian.

And I went back to Brazil

much more Brazilian than I ever
could have imagined in my life.

[David] When I talk to Brazilians
about Alex Atala,

they're just proud that he's done it.

That he's risen to this level,
and he's done it with dignity,

and he's done it in an uncompromising way.

[Luiz] Today, he has an important presence

speaking out for farmers,
landowners, craftsmen...

He's speaking out politically,

so that people can create
a more productive food chain.

[Alex] I don't think that all chefs
must go to the forest or deep in the sea

to understand the ingredient better.

That was my truth.
This was my way.

So I start to understand
the whole chain of food...

is not only the inside of the kitchen.

It is where and how
this food has been produced.

This is the circle.

[fire crackling]

When I was a young guy,

I was just trying
to understand myself better.

But I was looking for something.

And at 47 years old...

I'm still looking for the same.

Now I'm trying to put focus
and all of this energy that I still have,

these emotions, these feelings,
this anger...

to show to Brazil that Brazilian cuisine
is a possible dream,

to show to the world the Brazilian soul.

And I believe that exchange,

learning, being open, it is...

it is the key.

[inaudible]

In the old days,
when we were punk rockers,

we used to carry a pen or something,

or a spray, and painting everywhere
"punk rock."

I really liked to make a drawing
of a crazy punk rocker.

A very angry guy.

Years and years later,
I was writing my first cookbook.

I said, "Fuck, I was a punk
and I became a chef."

This is life.

And I started to draw

the same things I used to draw
when I was a punk rocker,

but instead I drew
a happy, happy, happy chef.

This is the circle.

This is my life.