Alex Atala — Amazonas. Chef’s Table, V.2 E.2
Today’s episode features accidental chef Alex Atala, creator of the restaurant D.O.M. and at the head of modern Brazilian cuisine. Check out the last episode, which featured American chef and cancer survivor Grant Achatz. You can find links to all installments in this guide in the Chef’s Table archives.
I enjoyed this episode. I liked Alex’s personality and his mission. And his food is beautiful — I’ve included pictures.
Alex and his restaurant D.O.M. are the face of modern Brazilian cuisine. He works with Brazilian and Amazonian ingredients like no Brazilian chef before him.
His story is somewhat similar to that of Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez from a few episodes ago, although Alex perhaps faced more pushback against his ideas than Virgilio.
THE ACCIDENTAL CHEF
Alex Atala grew up in a working class neighborhood in Sao Paulo, Brazil. His parents both worked full-time jobs to support his family. As a kid, his family took frequent trips to Amazonas, the part of Brazil with the densest rainforest. There, Alex learned to hunt and fish and to make good use out of the food he gathered, all skills that he uses in his restaurant today.
At the age of fourteen, Alex left home and became a DJ in a punk rock club. He describes himself at that time as a “punk rocker.” In his later teenage years, he found himself wondering what the “punk rock life” was like in Europe, and ended up moving overseas. But he needed to obtain a visa. In order to do so, he entered culinary school.
Alex realized, little by little, that he loved the culinary lifestyle, loved being in the kitchen, loved preparing food. With the birth of his first son, he moved back to Brazil, because he wanted his son to be Brazilian, not European.
Back in Brazil…
Alex held a string of jobs at European restaurants, but came to the realization that he both needed and wanted to cook Brazilian food. For fine dining in Brazil at that time, this was a dangerous proposition. Alex opened D.O.M. and began to work towards his vision, but almost no one came to his restaurant in its first year.
At last, he had a breakthrough. After traveling to Madrid for the Madrid Fusion culinary convention, he performed a live demonstration, preparing fresh heart of palm. He received the endorsement of Ferran Adrià of elBulli, which was still open in those days. For more on Ferran and elBulli, read my guide to the episode featuring Albert Adrià, Ferran’s younger brother.
Ferran was the world’s most influential chef. His endorsement led to booming business for D.O.M.
With new resources, Alex became a patron of Brazilian farmers and agriculturalists using sustainable techniques. He also began projects to help the region of Amazonas and further natural conservation for the Amazon region.
LEARNING SOMETHING NEW
Watching this episode, I learned something new. Did you know that tapioca comes from the manioc (yuca) root? I didn’t know this! I thought that tapioca pearls came off a plant just like that… Now that I think about it, it doesn’t make much sense. But, yes, tapioca comes from the manioc root, and that’s why some of Alex’s dishes feature tapioca. Because it’s a native Brazilian ingredient.
I love Brazilian food, too. There’s a large immigrant population from Brazil in my hometown of Medford, and there’s a delicious Brazilian restaurant down the street from my house. They serve the kind of food Alex serves for lunch at D.O.M. — workers’ food. Rice, beans, and steak. Here, Brazilians flock to eat Brazilian food out at a restaurant. In Brazil, they’re just starting to. But Alex’s success has heralded a new generation of Brazilian chefs.
I was curious as to what Alex is up to, with plenty of environmental concerns in Brazil and botched leadership in Brazil. I couldn’t find much news about him, but he did write an article for the Michelin Guide in 2020. You can read that article here.
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