“Excellence can only be reached with repertoire. With all the ingredients our country provides, it’s easy to acquire that repertoire,” explained Chef Alex Atala of D.O.M. in São Paulo. At #16 on the 2017 ranking of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Chef Atala explained his approach to cuisine, where he sources inspiration from, the process of creating a new dish, and more.
D.O.M. stands for Deo Optimo Maximo, which translates as 'To God, The Good, The Great'. The Benedictine motto was often used to indicate places where weary pilgrims could eat and rest.
How would you describe the approach and philosophy underpinning D.O.M.?
Creativity with a Brazilian soul. Getting people to come out of their comfort zone and sending a message. I believe those are the main goals to our cooking at D.O.M. today. Serving dishes with ants is one example of that. I’m very optimistic about the idea of insects in gastronomy. Without a doubt, the ants that we use at D.O.M. have inspired many chefs to follow this idea, which many people can think is crazy. The ants are an example of the little surprises gastronomy can give us. The main reason for me to use them is because they are truly full of flavour. I believe tasty insects can and should be served in restaurants. Just as important, though, insects are a source of protein and potentially a dietary supplement for the more than 7 billion people in the world. This is fundamental and a way of transforming how we feed the world.
Where do you draw your inspiration from, and how do you maintain the level of creativity and inspiration necessary to sustain such a high bar of excellence?
I’ve been connected with Amazonian cuisine, ingredients and flavors ever since my earliest childhood. I believe that the richness that comes from the forest and from all other Brazilian biomes is the back bone to all my work.
The length of our territory is so enormous that it creates a huge diversity in many aspects. We have almost a continental size and it creates inside one single country many different ways to deal with food regarding cultural aspect and also gives us a giant variety of ingredients. Excellence can only be reached with repertoire. With all the ingredients our country provides, it’s easy to acquire that repertoire.
Walk me through the process of how a new dish is created, from your mind to the plate. How much of this process is trial and error?
What inspires me is ingredients. Discovering a new flavor always brings me creativity and a wish to create something new from that flavor, something that explores it and makes it notorious, appreciated. Creativity doesn’t exactly mean making something new, but coming up with a new way of doing something that everyone does. Since we practice a products cuisine, we are dealing with new stuff every day. That is one of the major advantages of working with tasting menus.
What are some dishes that have become symbolic for the evolution of D.O.M.?
I believe that many of the things we created during these last 15 years at D.O.M. Restaurant were marking in both our career and trajectory. It is impossible to talk about marking dishes and not talk about one of the latest creations of mine that inspired chefs worldwide such as throwing ants over a pineapple.
Another turning point for all of us here at D.O.M. was starting to execute the aligot—a French dish made from cheese blended into mashed potatoes. We do not make it using French cheese, but we do keep the original French name, after all, we, as a restaurant of Brazilian cuisine, are “borrowing” the recipe. It is one of the plates that makes our room service at D.O.M. and the restaurant itself unique.
Is there such thing as a perfect dish?
I believe that if we ask ten people what eating well means, probably, ten different answers will come up. However, if we ask these same ten people what bad eating means, we will find a common understanding. With that in mind, it becomes possible to trace a path to the answer.
I don’t think people need to be taught how to cook, act or eat. I do believe, though, that people should act more accordingly to their personal ethics. Don’t buy or eat something you don’t agree with. That generates a new demand and the market adjusts to it.
Photo Credits: Rubens Kato and Wellington Nemeth