Learning about happiness from the Amazon
Each of these 200 tribes value different things and have different needs. We researched that and created a foundation called the ATÁ Institute.
The ATÁ Institute is the first Brazilian entity to dedicate entirely to the human-food relation. It is the initiative of a never seen before diverse group of civil society and entrepreneurial world leaders, including names as chef Alex Atala, Beto Ricardo (Instituto Socioambiental) and Roberto Smeraldi (Amigos da Terra, Brazilian Amazon). The Institute’s mission is to “bringing together the knowing and the eating, the eating and the cooking, the cooking and the making, the making and the environment”. In this picture, it searches to value and strengthen the territorial and knowledge diversity, the act of feeding as part of culture, the best sustainability practices serving the production and consuming, waste limitation, quality and identity of cuisines in Brazil and around the world, nutritional safety, technology and innovation on production, food transformation and distribution and raise the value of family and communitarian business.
There are currently seven projects underway pertaining to specific ingredients. Each region has a minimum of one anthropologist to indicate what kind of support should be provided. Whether it’s a chili producing region or a wild mushroom producing one, each area has distinct characteristics. We connect with them through food.
Procuring, cooking, serving, and tasting food like this is a political act in its own way. By buying good ingredients and making good food, I believe we can make big changes to the society and environment.
One of my major objectives is to get the indigenous people to regain their pride.
Many young indigenous people come to Sao Paulo longing for the city life. However, since the color of their skin, their culture, their build, and their language is so different, they are looked down upon. They can’t find good jobs and end up with low self-esteem.
But in my restaurant, the ingredients grown and gathered by them garner praise from all over the world. Some of them are even interviewed.
This can bring back their indigenous pride.
I never tell them how many kilos of something I need. I just use the ingredients they bring in. This is because nature is not something you can control. In modern society, we can get perfectly-shaped strawberries in any season. The Amazon is different. Nature is not a machine. That’s what I learnt after interacting with the people of the Amazon.
Although we have been carefully handling each ingredient for 5 years, compared to the long history of the Amazon, that 5 years is virtually meaningless. 5 years of this project is too short to yield results. We would need at least 50. No matter how long it takes, we have to work together and forge on.
It sounds like you are thinking in the long-term. Are you planning to pass on this project to the next generation?
Of course. Maybe my children might take over. I don’t know yet. If that doesn’t work out, it can’t be helped. We pay the anthropologists, we make facilities in the villages. This fund is costly. I might have to end up asking companies to contribute.
I asked the Brazilian government for help, but they refused. That doesn’t mean that all of us should have the same attitude. If nobody does it, I’ll do it. That is why I hope for this foundation to continue on.
Through this project, I acquire special ingredients that interest people from all around the world and I promote them. That makes me happy. Since we were young, we were taught that earning lots of money can make us happy. Is that really true?
Apart from the money I need to survive, I want to spend everything else on things that make me truly happy, like this project in the Amazon.
Chasing dreams and nurturing a future for Brazilian cuisine
A lot of chefs who have worked under you have gone solo to create a new generation of chefs. How do you select the people who work with you?
I first them have them come for training. During the training period, I observe everything. Some people don’t fit in with our style and they end up leaving.
I let them choose. I don’t persuade them to stay. I want to work with people who I resonate with naturally, people who don’t want to work for money, but who I share a common philosophy with.
It’s amazing to feel part of the professional journey of such talented chefs.
Of course I pay them salaries, but the years they work for me count as the years they supported my dreams. I support their dreams in return, whether it’s opening a restaurant, becoming a supplier, or starting a recycling business. Dreams come in many forms.
If they do become suppliers, i check the quality first. If it works out, I start buying from them. It’s difficult to find clients when you first start a business. They can start with us, and then reach out to more and more customers. We help them in the ways we can until they have estabilished themselves in the market.
For your own dream, it’s rumored that you are planning to open a new hotel.
Yes, that’s my latest undertaking. I’m planning to open a hotel five blocks from the current location in 2021. D.O.M will also move there. Just like the ryokan inns in Japan, I want to be a place where people can experience Brazilian culture. Ever since I opened D.O.M, I incorporated Brazilian design and used Brazilian music. I want to take that concept into the hotel as well.
What does the future hold for Brazil’s restaurant scene?
Young chefs are currently working very hard. In the past, they studied Italian, French, or Japanese cuisine, but now there are plenty of chefs experimenting with Brazilian cuisine using local ingredients in both fine dining and casual restaurants. I also exchange information with these youngsters through food events. I want to support them. I think there’s a beautiful future waiting for Brazilian cuisine.
(Interview, article, and photographs by: Kyoko Nakayama)