Alex Atala: The kitchen is like the pitch

Stereotyped by the famous black bean stew dish feijoada and barbecued churrasco beef, there was a time when Brazilian cuisine was regarded as a mere curiosity. The respect that Brazil has now gained in the world of haute cuisine is mostly down to one enterprising chef, Alex Atala, the man behind the Sao Paulo restaurants Dalva e Dito and D.O.M., currently ranked fourth on the esteemed World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

A craftsman in the kitchen, Atala is also wholeheartedly committed to using locally sourced produce and harnessing the amazing variety Brazil has to offer, introducing the rest of the world to the country’s hidden delights and even showing his compatriots a new trick or two. As a leading exponent of Brazil’s distinctive culture, Atala has been invited to attend the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 draw in Sao Paulo on 1 December. In conversation with FIFA.com, he discusses the ties that bind football and cooking, which are more numerous than you might imagine.

FIFA.com: Alex, how did you take the news you’d been invited to assist with the draw for the FIFA Confederations Cup?
Alex Atala: First I got scared and then I started to let it go to my head a bit (laughs). When they told me I said to them, ‘Cooks don’t usually do this kind of stuff.’ Later, I began to feel a bit pleased with myself when they told me David Beckham had done this role for South Africa [2009] (laughs).

With the FIFA Confederations Cup ever closer and the FIFA World Cup™ to follow that, have you noticed any change in people’s perceptions of Brazil?
When I’m outside Brazil, there isn’t a single time when I meet with another chef that they don’t ask me about it, that the subject doesn’t come up. It’s clear that a World Cup has a huge impact on tourism and, as a result, on the restaurant industry too – in a unique way. In every conversation I have with international chefs, the World Cup in Brazil comes up. And everybody wants to come over, to open a pop-up restaurant over here. It’s incredible how fascinated people are by our country.

The hosting of the FIFA Confederations Cup and the FIFA World Cup in Brazil includes a series of parallel projects designed to promote and encourage Brazilian culture – including its cuisine. How big an impact can these events have in that field?
It’s a sensational opportunity to carry out all kinds of initiatives and, above all, use them to generate value. Value does not equal money, it’s about raising awareness of the chain of production. It would be incredible if, in the run-up to the World Cup, we could show people outside Brazil what farofa (toasted manioc flour), couve (cauliflower) and cupuaçu (an Amazonian fruit) is. It would be great if we could get them to try those things and bring them into their lives, and ensure that change in attitude has beneficial effects for producers too. It’s about making people around the world aware of these great products and who produces them. Putting a name on those flavours is fundamental. It’s not just the product that’s important, it’s the person behind it too, and they need to be given their due. Who knows, perhaps via the Confederations Cup and World Cup we can use cooking to promote social and even environmental change?

Back in the '80s, when Sao Paulo thrashed everyone, I used to go to every game and support my Palmeirinha (laughs). I went to games in upstate Sao Paulo too. We’d take the bus and bet on who could go to most state championship games.
Alex Atala

Sweden 1958 went down in history as the moment when Brazil finally shed its so-called ‘mongrel complex’, the sense of inferiority it felt in comparison to European football. Is the same thing happening now with Brazilian cuisine?
We’re taking that first step now, and there’s no question that Brazilian chefs are rejecting the idea of mimicking  other styles of cooking. But the area where I think food and football really have something in common is social inclusion. No other sport involves the disadvantaged quite like football, and cooking has the selfsame potential. Take my right-hand man, who’s a guy who didn’t do that well at school, while most of the people who work for me are migrants from the north-east who had no idea what they were going to do when they came to Sao Paulo. Some of them can now deal with customers in English. That just shows you what this profession can do for people. I’ve been amazed by that side of cooking , where you can have a kid who studied at Le Cordon Bleu, whose father paid for him to go to a good school, and standing right next to him is a kitchen porter who’s turned his hand to cooking. And there in the kitchen, they’re at exactly the same level, which is how it is on the football pitch too.

Brazilian football has a very specific reputation, but can the same be said of its cuisine? Is there one single thing that unites its many varied regional styles?
I think there is, and that’s farinha de mandioca (manioc flour), which you find from north to south. People talk about rice and black beans, but that’s a south-east thing. But flour, well, you find that on any table. I love farofa (flour), every type of it, and I think it’s got this tremendous potential to spread across the world. I see that as essential, and it’s my mission is to be Brazilian when I cook. When I look through a heap of recipes and see at the end that there’s nothing Brazilian in them, I move on to the next one. They’re no good to me. I’m not going to go back on the thing that matters to me most, which is to see people in a restaurant eat and say: ‘Wow, I’m in Brazil. I’ve never tasted anything like that anywhere else.’

You can also experience Brazil’s range of flavours at its stadiums: feijão tropeiro (cattleman’s beans) at the Mineirao, churrasco at the Beira-Rio, not to mention the legendary sanduíche de pernil (fresh ham sandwich).
Absolutely. That’s something I see as vital. In the run-up to the World Cup, street food should be raised to the status it enjoys across the rest of the world and the things that make each state different should be preserved. That’s essential. Food is like a branch of human science. How can people speak about Brazil without talking about food? And how can you talk about food without mentioning what people eat in the street?

Who do you support?
I was a Palmeiras fan, well, I still am (laughs). I’m a Palmeiras fan. I’m a Palmeiras fan. It’s been years since I’ve followed the game as closely as I used to though. Cooking takes up all my time. and I’m not saying ‘I was’ a Palmeiras fan because of the problems the team’s having now. (laughs) By the time the 1990s came around, when Palmeiras were winning everything, I’d stopped going.

Did you used to go a lot?
Me? Back in the '80s, when Sao Paulo thrashed everyone, I used to go to every game and support my Palmeirinha (laughs). I went to games in upstate Sao Paulo too. We’d take the bus and bet on who could go to most state championship games, keeping the tickets as proof. I love the fresh ham sandwiches too. I do that ham at Dalva e Dito, just like they do it at the stadium, and serve it at business lunches. Eating one of those before or after a game is something you just have to try in life.  

Turning to the FIFA World Cup now, what’s your favourite memory of the competition?
I’ll never forget 1982. That was the World Cup of my life. I remember the party in 1970. I was only two but I’ve got these vague memories of the celebrations. I remember my grandfather and how happy people were. 1982 was a real blow to the heart because I was sure Brazil would win. I knew the World Cup music off by heart. '82 really hurt. It’s a complete coincidence, but I’ve only been a father in years when Brazil have won the World Cup. I had one son in 1994 and another in 2002.

Are you planning to have another in 2014 then?
(Laughs) No, no. It’s something to think about, though (laughs). You know it’s funny: I’ve only seen my wife pregnant during World Cups.