Alex Atala is an intense guy. “In my kitchen,” he says, “we have three laws: do not run; do not stop; do not talk.” If one were to view only a snapshot of the chef, whose reimagining of Brazilian cuisine has made him a star within the haute food world, these laws might come as a surprise. His tattoos, black jeans, and Converse sneakers suggest a rock and roll past – he is, in fact, a former DJ – and it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine him spray painting a Louvre-worthy mural on the brick wall of an abandoned building. But this would be incorrect. Calm to the point of near meditation, and speaking in a hushed, measured voice that requires one lean in to listen, Atala crackles with the kind of stripped bare creative energy that is at once alarming and alluring.
He devotes that creative energy to food; specifically, his D.O.M. restaurant, recently named No. 6 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and his work with ATA, a non-profit he co-founded to explore and protect indigenous Brazilian ingredients and the environments and communities that produce them.
Atala shares his tales from the Amazon freely. One of his favorites is the story of Dona Brasi, a local chef he met when he began working with Brazil’s native people. “She brings out a small black sauce with lots of ants…. I tasted the sauce and it had beautiful flavors, and I asked what herbs she used. She told me ‘Ants.’” Atala says he thought he’d misunderstood, and asked again, noting that the sauce tasted like lemongrass and ginger. Again, Dona Brasi told him “Ants.”
It was an epiphany for Atala, who until then had not fully grasped the notion of cultural relativism. “For me, the ant tastes like lemongrass and ginger. To native people, lemongrass and ginger taste like ants.”
“I was trying to impose my culture,” he admits, “not understand their culture.”
This epiphany is fundamental to Atala’s work as a chef and a philanthropist. In his view, food is culture, and cuisine is a vital instrument in providing social development, inclusion, and sustainability. It’s why he established ATA, whose main objective is “to support and reorganize and give value to all of the food chain.”
“Food is the main crack to human science,” Atala said. “I started to work with anthropologists and others to understand my relationship with the natives. This relationship is very big. We are transforming many lives.”
Next, Atala talks about his past and his future...