A childhood captivated by nature. Dreams of becoming a biologist.
Did you always want to be a chef?
Not at all. When I was a child, my dream was to become a biologist. I was born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil. My father worked in the rubber industry while my mother sewed and took care of the household. I was the third of four siblings. I had a brother and two sisters.
In the weekends, we usually went to the sea or rivers for fishing. Our family rule was that we had to catch and clean the fish ourselves before taking it into the kitchen. I still have memories of catching tiny fish and cleaning it myself. After taking it into the kitchen, my mother or grandmother would make simple, but delicious dishes like fried fish or stews.
Even now, I often go fishing with my kids. My daughter isn’t really into it, but my two sons Pedro and Tomas love it. It’s more of a family tradition rather than a Brazilian tradition.
What kind of child were you?
I think I was a difficult kid. I hated school. I didn’t like adhering to the system nor did I enjoy studying English, Portuguese, or Math. However, I was interested in biology and geography.
Music paves the way to a career in gastronomy
What made you leave Brazil?
When I was around 17, I wanted to backpack around the globe. At the time, I was crazy about American bands like the Ramones and Stiff Little Fingers. I couldn’t find much information about them in Brazil, so I went off to England.
From England, I made my way to France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium. I was totally captivated by the foreign culture. Everything was so different. The turning point in my life was when I was painting walls in construction sites in Belgium to earn a living. A part-timer there told me that I could get a visa to stay in Europe if I went to culinary school. It’s not like I wanted to cook; I just wanted a visa. That’s how I stepped into gastronomy.
At first, I didn’t really like it. After graduating culinary school in Belgium, I had to train as a stage. I worked at a retirement home for three months, making food for elderly people who had problems with digestion or their teeth. Following that, I apprenticed at a catering company for three months.
After that, I worked under Jean-Pierre Bruneau of Bruneau, the three-star Michelin restaurant in Belgium which just closed down last year.
Working in a professional kitchen for the first time, I learned all the things that have become a part of my foundations now. Things like building close relationships with suppliers to get the best ingredients or the importance of service, so that customers get the most out of their culinary experience. It was the first place I learned all of these things.
After that, I worked in the three star French restaurant Bernard Loiseau. Chef Loiseau taught me that it’s important to maintain discipline and understand the flavors of each ingredient.
In those days, fine French cooking was like the military. It was culturally tough for a laidback foreigner like me to be in such a different and demanding environment. Every French chef valued the ingredients and seasons. I was told that if I wanted to succeed, I had to give it my all. These restaurants handled everything from fresh fish to wild game meat. For me, it was just like being a biologist.
In 1991, I moved to Italy. We had to go there for my wife Cristiana to finish her master’s course. Since we were newly married, I decided to work at an ordinary restaurant rather than fine dining.
The quality of the ingredients is very important for Italians. In both Bruneau and Bernard Loiseau, the cooking was high quality, but here it was more rustic. The cooking was simple and simple dishes are difficult. You can’t hide mistakes. Those two years were a valuable learning period for me.
We moved back to Brazil in 1994 when our son Pedro was born. Cristiana and I wanted our child to grow up where our family was and raise him as a Brazilian.
Gaining fame using Brazilian ingredients in Mediterranean cooking
When I went back to Brazil, I started working as a chef in an Italian restaurant. Back then, there weren’t many chefs who had experience working in Europe. I was invited to work at Filomena, a luxury Mediterranean restaurant with a French chef.
However, Brazil was at the opposite end of the earth and it was hard to procure Mediterranean ingredients. From around 1995, we started using Brazilian ingredients.
There are difficult aspects to using local ingredients, right? Regardless of the taste, did you find people saying that authentic ingredients are better than locally-sourced ones.
Initially, people were confused. After a while though, the style started getting popular and there were more and more restaurants incorporating Brazilian ingredients into French cooking.
The first dish I made was a combination of flounder and passion fruit. In Brazil, we have a traditional topping called farofa made with cassava flour and onions. I used corn flour, and added bits of passion fruit in addition to the butter and onion. This topping was then sprinkled on the flounder.
Seeing many people enjoy the dish made me decide to go solo. In 1998, I opened a small restaurant with only 16 seats. There was no one in the kitchen but me and my sous chef, Geovane. Even though I didn’t have a lot of money, I was urged to open a larger restaurant. I found the place D.O.M is currently located in, and moved there in 1999. Back then and even now, the restaurant has 45 seats.