Brazilian chef's mission of discovery

Larissa Dubecki
In town for Good Food Month ... Brazilian chef Alex Atala.
In town for Good Food Month ... Brazilian chef Alex Atala. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

Alex Atala's signature dish - filhote river fish with tucupi and tapioca – will not be on the menu when he cooks at Stokehouse Cafe on Tuesday night.

Nor will the indigenous ingredients of the Amazon – the turtle and the ants, the fermented manioc and the cambuca fruit – that have helped push his Sao Paulo restaurant D.O.M to No. 6 in the respected World's 50 Best Restaurants list.

To fly in such culinary exotica would go against the ethos. And Atala, a rugged Brazilian with more than his fair share of tattoos, is enamoured of Australian ingredients such as marron ("I'm absolutely fascinated by the marron – it's better than anything we get in Brazil"), the seaweed and the wild herbs he's been foraging ("They have the fresh green wild flavour quite similar to Brazil").

"I am trying to adapt the Amazon flavour to the local ingredients. It is more than learning, it is opening the mind to new things. Each time here is a possibility to go deeper into Australian culture," he says.

That's him on the cover of the latest Time magazine, cuddled up on the front cover with David Chang and Rene Redzepi under the banner "Gods of Food". The tone is somewhat breathless but the philosophy has a touch of the yesteryear about it.

For Atala, like Redzepi, ingredients should be local and seasonal. Bonus points if they're native. Methods of cooking encompass both the indigenous and the classically European. It's the food equivalent of the environmental slogan "think global – act local".

"Food is the crossroads between nature and culture," says Atala. "Through food we can not only feed people but send a message. Maybe being a chef has been recognised as a trendy profession, but we are living in a new moment where there is not so much competition between chefs but friendship and co-operation, so our message is more powerful."

Atala walks the walk as well as talking the talk (he founded the ATA Institute to support the Amazon's indigenous producers and traditional farming methods, and his book D.O.M – Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients profiles the ingredients, farmers and producers of the Amazon) but he came circuitously to his role as the godfather of new Brazilian food. He cooked French food in France "but I realised that I could never cook it as well as a Frenchman. Then I came home to Brazil and was cooking in an Italian restaurant but we couldn't get the Italian ingredients, so I started adding Brazilian ones as a substitute. We really pushed the boundaries and came up with something new."

And as for that dinner at Stokehouse Cafe, which will double as a book launch? The menu will be a simple one: galinhada, a flame-cooked chicken rice dish that originally came from Brazil's Portuguese colonial masters . "It's something we cook at home after midnight on Saturday for chefs and everyone to get together. In a very positive sense it is not the best food but it is the best party."

Alex Atala will be at the Stokehouse Cafe, St Kilda, on Tuesday from 6.30pm for Good Food Month. See for details.