Ask a Brazilian to recommend a local speciality and they will most likely respond “feijoada,” a stew created many years ago when slaves combined cheap beans with undesirable cuts of meat and leftovers. Typically feijoada is served with rice, orange slices, couve (kale), and farofa (toasted manioc flour that looks a little like sawdust). Not the sort of lunch to make for a productive afternoon in the office! Admittedly I developed a bit of an addiction to this humble stew during my time in Brazil. With my pasty skin and strawberry hair, I may not look like a Brazilian but I can sure attempt to eat like one (although close friends suggest my rear would not look so out-of-place on Rio’s Ipanema beach).
Excluding my feijoada fetish, I found it extremely difficult to track down a taste of ‘real Brazil’ in Rio with international food such as pizza or sushi often being recommended. I was starting to get concerned that I had allotted a whole month to a country of little foodish interest. Until I realised what I was doing wrong… I had focused too much time romanticising about old recipes and traditions and little time looking at Brazil’s current fine dining revolution and the future it offers. Brazilian cuisine is evolving, in the same way as many other places; first the French brought fine dining, next this was applied to local ingredients and recipes and finally this influences everyday food and casual dining. Roux. Ramsey. Lowe so to speak. I stepped inside three Brazilian kitchens to find out more.
Job #21 – Olympe, Rio de Janeiro with Thomas Troisgros
My Brazilian culinary adventure began at Olympe, a Rio based French fine dining restaurant opened in 1978 by Claude Troisgros. As famous chef families go, these guys are up there with the big dogs. Claude’s father (of Maison Troisgros fame) the only restaurant to hold 3 Michelin stars for more than 40 years. When Claude arrived in Rio, he was the first chef to use French techniques with Brazilian ingredients, inspiring a new generation of chefs including his son Thomas. Thomas is now head Chef at Olympe and is leading the restaurant forward with an even closer fusion of French and Brazilian techniques.
When Thomas became head chef, he wanted to use the success of the past to help establish a modern Brazilian culinary identity. This is clear from the moment you pick up the menu. There are two options. First the ‘traditions’, the recipes of Claude’s generation – French classics with Brazilian ingredients. For example, grilled tenderloin in a rosemary and green pepper crust with potato galette and red wine sauce. Even its presentation follows the ‘classic’ sauce, protein, garnish formation – the 4-4-2 of the French dining world.
In contrast you have ‘creativity’, the other section of the menu where Thomas stamps the mark of his generation and influence. Scallops with dehydrated palm hearts, cane sugar and quinoa with a splatter of doce de leite (a sweet milk sauce). I’m sure there are many turning their noses up at this, but you’d be surprised how well the doce de leite goes with the sweetness of the scallops while the palm heart adds great texture. And as most Brazilians LOVE sweet things, and there can’t be a better example of a dish adapted for Brazilians than this.
Thomas certainly has some balls. Taking over a long-standing successful restaurant from his father must have been an extremely daunting task, requiring him to win over critics, diners and staff alike. Clearly, however, the changes in place at Olympe compliment the zeitgeist of Brazilian fine dining and as such Olympe was recently included in Latin America’s Top 50.
Job #22 Epice – São Paulo – Alberto Landgraf
Anyone with eyes on the São Paulo dining scene, will have noticed a new wave of fine dining sweeping through the city, spurred on by the ongoing economic growth (innovation after all does not come cheap). My next employer, Epice, at only two years old is quickly gaining recognition for championing Brazilian ingredients through inventive techniques. Head chef, Alberto Landgraf, worked under Ramsay and Atiken for many years, before returning to Brazil to use this experience to further Brazilian cuisine. Like Thomas, he considers himself in the second stage of dining evolution as outlined above.
In-between our shifts in the kitchen Alberto and I sat down for a coffee and our conversation soon turned to identity (clearly something Alberto gets asked a lot). He raised two important points. Firstly, Brazil is a very young country with only 500 years of history. Secondly how does one find identity in a country full of immigrants (Alberto is half German, half Japanese). Given this, Alberto wants to focus on two things, ingredients and people.
Alberto’s stunning taster menu really focuses on making the most out of the best possible ingredients, much in same way of New Nordic Cuisine and their commitment to ‘naturalism’. One of the many courses that stood out was the palm hearts, served with Jatai honey made by stingless bees from the Amazon. Here are a few more of their delicious treats…
Alberto also cares greatly about the social aspects of running a restaurant. He cannot forget the everyday hard-working people of Brazil, which is why he goes to great lengths to source ingredients from good producers. As for his own kitchen staff, Alberto only hires junior chefs and trains them up. Not only does this lead to one of the most youthful kitchen’s I’ve worked in, but he also inspires the next generation. If Alberto’s staff one day open a place of their own then he would consider this one of his greatest achievements.
Job #23 CT Boucherie & TT Burger, Rio de Janiero, with Thomas Troisgros
Despite recently having a baby, Thomas found time in his hectic schedule to work with me and show me around some of his newer restaurants. Although my time was split between their Boucherie and Brasserie, it was Thomas’s burger joint that really caught my eye as it fit nicely into the narrative of fine dining gone casual. After eating his way around almost every burger joint in NYC, Thomas came back to Brazil to open TT burger – a gourmet burger joint that specialises in burgers made with only the best Brazilian ingredients. The buns are made from potato, the ketchup from guava and don’t even get me started on the dulche de leite ice cream – pure calories in a cup.
When I first arrived in Brazil the thought of working in fine dining was in all honestly completely unappealing. How could I justify spending time working in restaurants that the majority of Brazil could not afford to eat in? Three weeks on, having spent time with Thomas, Alberto and their many friendly kitchen staff, I can however clearly see their (?)influence and importance in the evolving Brazilian food scene. As Alberto told me on my last day, “we may never have an identity…but we’re getting closer to one everyday”.
Visited Brazil recently? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and opinions. Leave a comment below.
A huge thanks to Thomas, Diedier, Giovana, Jessica, Alberto, Jose, Marcelo, Vini and the rest of the kitchen staff I worked with during my time in Brazil. You were some of the most friendly and hospitable people of my travels to date. You guys truly are the future of Brazilian food – long may your success continue.