Alex Atala: He who lives, shall see. Quem viver, verá

Milad Alexandre Mack Atala was born in Brazil in 1968 and during his late teens and twenties lived the life of a punk – a redheaded, fair-skinned kid, patched in tattoos, deeply immersed in music, with an appetite for drugs. That was his truth back then – the way of the anarchist – but he now describes that point of view as being too reductive: “I have no doubt that the way punks look at the world is quite singular. I’m just not sure if it is the right one.” In his early twenties, he travelled to Europe and found himself in France. Cooking quickly became a way to subsist; and, training under the best, he poured his active dissent into his cooking.

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“My identification with punk rock during my teenage years came from an inner energy. From the moment I was able to channel that energy to my work and, through working, express myself . . . maybe it became my ace in the hole.”

In 2003, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential artists – the only chef to make the cut. For the past decade his restaurant D.O.M. in São Paulo has consistently made the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, this year sliding in at number 11.

D.O.M., Atala’s first-born restaurant, stands for Deo Optimo Maximo, a Benedictine-era motto meaning ‘To God, The Good, The Great’. Its narrative is around using the native flavours of Brazil, sourced mainly from the Amazon basin. As with any national cuisine that wasn’t French, up until quite recently ‘Brazilian’ and ‘gastronomy’ weren’t two words you would put together. It was commonplace chow that your grandmother, or avó, cooked, and it was quickly being outsold by fast food.

But in Brazil, as elsewhere, local is becoming the flavour du jour, and for good reason. “We have great chefs all around the world today and it is no longer mandatory for a young chef to go to Europe in order to train. It might be good for the ego to see a ‘graduated in Europe’ on your résumé, but that is not what drives me, or the people who work with me. We are driven by belief in our purpose and it’s rewarding to be recognised while doing it.”

Part of D.O.M.’s doctrine is about unashamedly embracing death. Alex considers that behind every dish there is a sacrifice, and people only close their own eyes to it. “Using one hundred per cent of the animal is a common concept at D.O.M. It’s not a new concept, neither to D.O.M., nor to my work as a whole. One of the dishes on the tasting menu at the restaurant is made with fish scales, bones and skin. It shows that, often at D.O.M., we value the secondary parts of the animal, more than the noble ones.” In a world where the default food education for a lot of us is fast food and advertising, Alex sees education as our chalice of hope. “That goes not only for the kitchen, but also when speaking of our relations with the planet, the environment and the future itself.”

Though his days as a bright-eyed idealist are far behind him, Alex has the playfully resolute gaze seen only on people who are in the daily rhythm of living out a mission. He has a near-religious dedication to restoring humanity’s relationship with its most basic need, by connecting the customer with the producer and the environment. “After thirty years working in the kitchen, what excites me the most is to watch myself become more and more certain that this is an endless road. As I put on my uniform every morning, I realise the possibilities are way broader than I could ever have imagined.”

He recently founded an institute, ATÁ (‘fire’ in Guarani). In his words, “ATÁ works by reinforcing the culture and flavours of both indigenous and traditional communities. Work must take place…so knowledge, culture and man are preserved.” For Atala, it’s not just about the environment, but the guardians of that environment. “It is important to remember that protecting nature is not protecting the river, sea and forest, but the people who live in the river, sea and forest.” Among its success stories are insects that taste like lemongrass, a bitter, salty chilli called jiquitaia, a sustainable meat, wild cerrado vanilla, native bee honey and a local algae. Knowledge is power. Saber é poder.

Chef Atala believes the biggest problem facing our farming industry today is our obsession with industrialisation. “It is the monoculture and the excessive use of chemicals. I’m not one hundred per cent anti chemicals, but I’m a hundred per cent in favour of reducing it to the least possible.” I asked if he believed farming with an organic philosophy was a possible answer to this twenty and twenty-first century obsession .“Organics are of huge importance to the human diet. If we choose the best fuel for our car, it is natural that we should choose the best fuel for our body. But when I speak of organics, I also want to include the possibility of wild ingredients, spontaneous harvests and using what nature offers at that moment. I believe that has even more value than organics.”

Hope is the last one to die. A esperança é a última que morre. Portuguese proverbs are like listening to your inner older, wiser self. Stuff you know to be true, but often forget because of the complicated cavort of life. Alex doesn’t just have passing ideas and virtues – he courageously acts upon them and doesn’t get distracted by placing meaningless definitions of his role of a chef. “I’ve always been attracted by extremes. The kitchen brought me amazing things, and the jungle is my everlasting fountain of inspiration. Maybe, if I had to choose, I would rather call myself a hunter of flavours and emotions.”

Photographer: Rubens Kato