ALEX ATALA: 'FEEDING THE WORLD IS A PARADOX'
The Brazilian superstar chef wants to plant 10 seeds: 10 big ideas that will help feed an ever more densely populated planet.
If you’re a chef and you want to save the world, you better make sure your house is in order first. And Alex Atala wants to save the world – more precisely, he wants to feed it.
“How to feed the world is a paradox, nobody has the answer,” says the Brazilian, whose two-Michelin-star D.O.M. restaurant in São Paulo currently sits at number 16 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. We meet at the IKRA gastronomic festival just outside Sochi, Russia, where Atala will demonstrate the cooking of the kind of Amazonian ingredients – palm heart, manioc (aka cassava or yucca), river fish – that have seen him lauded as the reviver of national pride in the Brazilian larder.
“As chefs, I believe our first commitment is to delicious food. Once you have a good restaurant, a good team, you want to push your team, your food, to the next level," he says. "But eating and cooking is not only about food: it’s political, it’s social, it’s economical… for me I guess it’s environmental. I don’t think all chefs need to be activists, but if they want, if they can, it should be according to their values and the place they are, their own reality. For example, Massimo Bottura with the Refettorio [the Italian chef’s Food for Soul project, which sees top chefs cooking gourmet meals for the needy using food waste]. He’s really focused on the social.”
Anybody who’s watched Atala’s captivating episode of the Netflix hit Chef’s Table will know his passion for Brazilian ingredients, particularly those of the Amazon. They’ll also be familiar with his backstory: drug-fuelled party boy heads to Europe and falls into cooking by chance as a way to extend his visa, before hearing the calling of Brazil and heading home to essentially put Brazilian gastronomy on the map. And it was through cooking that Atala really got to understand the breath of biodiversity in his homeland and how food can be an “important tool for natural conservation.”
Now, he wants to tackle another, if not the crisis of our times: how to feed a planet that will be home to an estimated 9.7 billion people by 2050. In January, Atala’s ATA institute staged, in collaboration with the cultural promoter Felipe Ribenboim, the first ever FRU.TO food symposium in São Paulo. There wasn’t a cooking demonstration in sight – instead the event drew together scientists, academics, producers and writers, with Atala making only a brief appearance on stage to open the event. It was, he says, “not about cooking, but much more about humanities” with speakers, including the likes of Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini and syntropic farming pioneer Ernest Götch, who are “not talking about plans” but actually doing things. These are people, Atala feels, who can be “inspirational models” for us all, who can show us how to change our lives in practical terms.
“I’ve known Carlo Petrini for a long time and seen him speaking probably 10 times in my life,” says Atala, “but his message was so surprising. He talked about new systems and possibilities to work together – alliances between organisations, chefs and cultures. He talks about food in a holistic way, how food can change us, our environment, our behaviour, our relationships.”
At the heart of FRU.TO are 10 ‘seeds’ – 10 big ideas that hold the key to tackling hunger going forward (see below) Atala feels, from safeguarding the knowledge of indigenous populations, something ATA already promotes, to resetting how we farm our oceans. Atala wants to see them spread and gain momentum, feeding back in to the next Fruto. “We are trying to push boundaries and help people to understand food in the bigger picture, from a different perspective. What connects seven billion people? Easy, it’s food ... I’m optimistic about the future.”
FRU.TO’S 10 SEEDS – READ MORE ABOUT THEM HERE
1. Humankind is at a dietary crossroads
2. The current production system is killing the planet
3. The challenges are unprecedented and multiple
4. Climate change increases the drama
5. The solutions are also multiple
6. The food producer is an ally, not the villain
7. Traditional populations will be increasingly important
8. The oceans are the next frontier
9. It is necessary to strengthen the local feeding system
10. Reconnect the urban population with the fields and forests