The seventh best chef in the world is in need of a smoke. Alex Atala’s restaurant DOM in Sao Paolo has occupied a doughty spot in the World’s Best list for fifteen years. Now he’s come to Tasmania as the last guest in the 2018 Great Chefs Series, which sees international names working with students from TAFE colleges.
I’m meeting him at Josef Chromy Winery, where he will mastermind a seven course dinner for almost two hundred diners, working alongside the students and staff there. I’m at the tail end of his press call, and he’s heading for the patio, rolling his own as he goes. He’s smaller and more wiry than he appears on film, and looks as though he could handle himself in a fight. ‘You like to be outside?’ I gesture obligingly. He answers with gravelly South American vowels and a maximum wattage smile, fixes me with brown spaniel eyes and a firm handshake, greets me by name. His manner is insanely genial and completely absent of ego. I am immediately smitten.
What does one ask a man who is credited with bringing native Brazilian cuisine on Michelin starred plates and is also, as evidenced by Instagram, a scary ju-jitsu master, in ten minutes? Why do you put a single gold encrusted ant on top of your desserts? And has somebody warned you about Tasmanian jack-jumpers?
We settle onto patio benches and I place my business cards before him. I’m a freelance writer but also a farmer, and I want him to know this. Atala is a respecter of farmers. He sees our logo, a Saddleback pig, and falls into a rhapsody about the Italian Cinta Senese, also rare and black with a white saddle. ‘And they are very famous to do Lardo Colonatta,’ he says, referring to the Tuscan tradition of cured back-fat. My husband makes that and leaves it in jars in my fridge, I tell him, and we chuckle companionably. We have found common ground, over lard. He lights up.
One of his guiding principles, I’ve read, is that mise en place and all ingredients begin on the farm and in nature. So what is in his mise en place today? ‘Everything that I taste and experience here,’ he says. ‘I bring a few ingredients from Brazil of course, but we come with open mind.’
In Brazil, he works with Amazonian tribes, has taken the native ingredient of manioc and the staples which derive from it – stocks, sauces and flour – and plated high art made from them. For the past three days he has been shown the pickings of farms, land and sea in Tasmania and will now show, he explains in his charming and workmanlike English, that ‘even if we was in the opposite parts of the world, a recipe can put the strengths together in harmony.’ His simple aim tonight is to show Australian people ‘the deliciousness of my country, and also the possibilities that you guys have’.
Visiting a venison farm the previous day, he was struck by the deep consideration the farmer showed for his livestock. ‘The way that the man treat the animals, even to the death, to the abattoir, that is someone who really respect the animal.’ This is at the heart of good farming. Every farmer knows it, and Atala knows it too. ‘That really touch me,’ he says, his voice quiet with emotion. Told that everyone wants back-strap because it’s the best cut, he took the back leg instead, had the students remove all the membranes, and will serve venison tartare as an appetiser.
Is there a balance between giving people food they will be excited by, and also making them think about its origins, I want to know. It turns out this is why he puts ants on the menu. The indigenous people of the Amazon make a soup from ants. As a city born boy, he found it as confronting as the rest of us when first he tried it. But convinced of the need for us to change the way we feed the world, he is well on board with the idea that insects may figure large in our dietary future. Getting us to think about food origins and futures is his mission in life. ‘This is a commitment that a chef can take nowadays. Because chefs maybe are the strongest voice in the food chain.’
There are pauses as he expounds his theory, his gaze combing the landscape as he brings his argument together. Whilst he’s on social media, he holds no truck with it, and sees food as the original, powerful connector. Facebook, he says, has a billion and a half users. He leans in. ‘But what connects seven, eight billions on planet earth, is food.’ He sees food as a leveller. ‘I’m not impressed, that many peoples in my country never taste my food, or the ingredients that I use.’ What scares him, he says, and ‘froze his heart’ is that people are so disconnected from food that they may not recognise something so fundamental as an orange tree without its fruit. ‘I’m not talking about something fancy, I’m talking about something which has been introduced in our life since we was a kid,’ he says. People are disconnected from food, he says, and if chefs are the strongest voice, it’s up to them to make the reconnection.
Unsurprisingly, the single thing he wants most to pass on to the students this week is respect for the ingredient, whatever that may be. On Flinders Island a day or two before, he has been spear fishing and caught crays, taking only as many as were needed for those assembled for dinner. Nothing should be valued more than the food that we take from nature. ‘Our culture gives lots of value to money. We have been educated to accumulate goods and money and so many didn’t throw away any single coin. Why we throw away food? Why we disrespect that animal who pass away?’
His conscience and concern extends beyond this fundamental respect for what is provided, to our squandering of the environment. Flinders is ‘the only single place on the planet’ that he has seen completely free of plastic waste, and he is blown away by this. ‘Once you have the opportunity to walk on the shore, or go diving, or go to the bush and hunt, with no plastic, no cans, no garbage, this give you a new point of view of the food that you’re going to put inside of you.’
We’ve already been allowed eleven minutes instead of ten by Christopher McGimpsey, architect of the Great Chefs Series. ‘No no no, ta ta ta!’ Atala interjects, grinning as McGimpsey tries to round things up. ‘We have time!’ As we stroll up the path towards the restaurant, he seems in no hurry and I could easily spend the afternoon shooting the breeze and smoking with this humble, thoughtful man. We take in the slopes of the vineyard together. And then he’s inside, surrounded by the pack, being buttoned into pristine chef’s whites. But as someone ties him into his apron from behind, his brown eyes gaze past us all, still fixed on the landscape.
The next morning he’s at Harvest Launceston farmers’ market. A constellation of managers, minders and food critics drifts past my own farm’s stall with the sun at the centre. We’ve already seen Brearley and Lethlean orbiting, sourdough baguettes tucked nonchalantly under one arm. As Atala is plied with cultured butter and Leatherwood honey, I’m lining up a word with his sous chef through a translator. Then he sees me – reunited! Arms are thrown wide, husky greetings given, my hand kissed solicitously. Then he scampers over to our stall to seduce my husband as well. ‘Ah, the man who make lard!’ There’s a rattle of Portugese as he shows his sous chef the pictures of our Saddlebacks. Then it’s English again as we ask how dinner went, and he tells us about the lamb dish, ‘a kind of puree, with the brain, and we used the saddle, and the kidneys.’ It was, he says ‘very animal’. We have mere moments before he is swept away, because Bruny Island awaits. But like the highest of ambassadors, he carefully shakes both our hands again, gives a Namaste bow to my twelve year old son. I want to come to Brazil and eat at DOM, I tell him. ‘Please, come!’ he commands, grinning. And then, this ambassador for a nation’s cuisine, this protector of our food chain, like a shooting star, he is gone.
This piece was commissioned by an Australia publication and remained unused as they are ‘deluged with material’. Such is the way in freelance journalism. Still, my thanks to Christopher McGimpsey, for this glimpse of greatness, it was an unforgettable experience, for us all.