Chef Alex Atala on Cooking, Learning, and Staying Positive Through Tough Times
The mastermind behind Brazil’s first two-Michelin-starred restaurant is keeping busy during his downtime by connecting with family and preparing for a future filled with delicious food.
After years cooking in some of Europe’s most prestigious kitchens, chef Alex Atala shook up Brazil’s fine dining scene in 1999 with the opening of D.O.M. in his hometown of São Paulo. Diners immediately loved the restaurant’s focus on unique native ingredients, propelling it into the ranks of the world’s top restaurants—and earning two Michelin stars. With operations on hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, Atala has been taking the opportunity to reconnect with family, even at a distance, and re-learning the value of time itself. Here, he shares his thoughts on everything from finding the right work-life balance to the one food he’s most looking forward to eating when this is all over.
What is Priceless to you?
Being with family, sharing incredible moments, creating new habits, understanding old ones, and bringing new values into your life.
What’s one moment that has impacted your life recently?
The last night at my restaurant, D.O.M., before we had to close due to COVID-19. We had a wonderful night. We were about to face some hard times, but we had a lot of energy because we saw our place full of customers. It made me proud and happy, and it gives me strength to keep going, knowing this will pass.
How has this situation affected you so far?
It’s been a transformation in all parts of my life: personal, professional, even spiritual. Distance is a big lesson, and so is time. I have a son who lives in the U.S. and, somehow, we have never been so close.
What else have you learned?
We used to live with only one objective: work. The obsession with perfection was almost a compulsion. Today, we are working, re-learning, and administrating time better. Meditation has taught me to be present in the moment.
How are you keeping your spirits up while you’re at home?
One of the most important things to remember is to think positively, believe in something, and believe in yourself. I always say that good days and bad days only have two things in common: they begin, and they end. This is a bad phase right now, but it will end.
What advice do you have to help people get through this?
Take five minutes before going to bed at night and five minutes before getting out of the bed in the morning and breathe deeply. Do it 10 times. Try to balance body and soul, stay positive, and know that the people around us are inspired by us. Maintaining a good mood is essential while we are semi-confined.
What’s the first meal you remember cooking?
I have a funny memory of a bad dish I used to make: spaghetti that was invariably undercooked with garlic, oil, and grated packet cheese. There was endless heartburn, but I remember it with great affection and even pride.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a chef?
When I was young, I wanted to move from Brazil to Belgium, but I needed to take a course in order to get a visa. I decided to enroll in a gastronomy course because someone who worked with me painting walls—I was working in construction as a painter at the time—was taking it and I thought it might be fun.
Was it fun?
When I stepped into the kitchen, my first feeling was fear and my second was passion. I was fascinated by this universe from the very first moment. I’ll never forget the experience of getting a fresh fish and transforming it into a meal for the first time.
What’s your favorite comfort food?
Rice and beans, without a doubt. Brazilian people love this combination.
What are six things in your kitchen you can’t live without?
My six favorite things in the kitchen are, not necessarily in this order: olive oil, a good knife, a good cutting board (I hate the bad ones), a good frying pan, good bread, and good fish. I have a real passion for fish.
Do you have a go-to herb or spice?
Herbs and spices have always occupied a big place in my life. I’m a fanatic, especially for herbs. Now I enjoy growing them at home. It’s very rewarding to plant, harvest, and eat the product of your effort and dedication.
What’s your favorite city for dining out?
If I had to choose one city, it would be Tokyo. The diversity of the restaurants, the quality of the products, and the hospitality that Japanese people show make it my favorite.
Any kitchen tips to share?
Organization is essential. Organize the refrigerator and cabinets so you know where all your ingredients are and use them in the order you get them. This is especially important with vegetables. Organization avoids waste, and wasting ingredients is really out of fashion.
What is the first thing you want to do once life returns to normal?
The first thing I want to do is hug my father and mother. We have been talking a lot, but that loving hug only Mom and Dad can give is something I miss.
What are you looking forward to eating again?
Street food. I want to buy a sandwich and eat it on the street without feeling fear and without rushing, just enjoying the moment and the food.
*English subtitles available within the YouTube video.