Alex Atala meets South African cuisine – and loves it
'Not since Pele has the beauty and brilliance of Brazil been shared so magnificently. You are to food what Pele is to football.'
These were the warm words that paid Twitter tribute to Alex Atala moments after he presented for the first time at South Africa’s Design Indaba last week – words Atala clearly appreciated so much he retweeted them to his more than 7000 followers.
The ‘punk who became a happy chef’ is a revered figure in culinary circles, his D.O.M. restaurant in São Paulo regarded by food industry insiders as among the top five in the prestigious 'World’s 50 Best Restaurants' rankings. He is accustomed to his delightfully innovative, authentic Brazilian dishes being enthusiastically received. And as he finished a riveting 30-minute presentation at Design Indaba, he had a new legion of South Africans eating out of his hands, leaving the stage to a rock-star reception and sustained applause after sharing his passion for his beloved Brazilian ingredients and innovative cooking style.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal referenced Atala as 'the most interesting man in the world', and he certainly captured the imagination – and adulation – of South Africans during a visit in which he lit up Design Indaba and launched his new book, Cook it Raw.
It was during an intimate visit to Franschhoek’s Le Quartier Francais restaurant, though, where his good friend Margot Janse is executive chef, that Atala’s fiery passion for food and indigenous ingredients burned brightest.
Eager culinary tourist
He is used to being the subject of eager photographers capturing him at D.O.M., his face, distinctive red beard and tattoos famous all over Brazil. But the tables were turned, and the apron on the other waist, as Atala arrived at Le Quartier Francais. Slinging his camera around his shoulder and enthusiastically snapping away, Atala was every bit the eager culinary tourist, capturing every image and moment of his encounter with the very best of South African cuisine.
Atala and Janse are birds of the same feather – brilliant, creative chefs known for their ability to explore beyond traditional ‘food boundaries’ and for their aversion to bland, safe food.
And as they interacted in Le Quartier’s herb garden, smelling, exploring, touching and tasting the ingredients with which Janse and her team create a sensory cooking ‘paradise’, Atala and Janse were two artists transformed into their own magical world.
Atala’s cooking philosophy is that of a creative chef who believes 'innovation is doing something new no one has done before, something surprising'. It is this approach that sees him use unconventional ingredients to create a menu at D.O.M. that includes palm heart fettuccine; pirarucu with tucupi; and banana ravioli with passion fruit sauce and tangerine sorbet, as well as insects burnished like jewels.
Right at home
He was therefore right at home in the scenic winelands of the Western Cape at one of South Africa’s best-known restaurants, where Janse’s creative imagination and extraordinary cooking skills run wild. The Tasting Room at Le Quartier has a ‘surprise menu’, with diners unaware of what they will be served during an unforgettable dining experience.
For me, there are lots of common points between South Africa and Brazil; we are rediscovering our own identity, culture and flavour.
Janse and Atala transformed Le Quartier’s herb garden into an enchanted forest, foraging for ingredients that included wild marjoram, synonymous with oregano and known to the Greeks and Romans as a symbol of happiness; Eugenia berries, which stem from woody evergreen trees and shrubs known for their attractive glossy foliage; num num – or ‘the Natal plum’ – which is a bright red fruit the size of a plum indigenous to South Africa’s Kwazulu-Natal and Eastern Cape coastlines; as well as the wild indigenous rosemary kapokbos, perfect for roasting.
It was, however, the highly aromatic herb buchu – which means 'good fragrance' – that Atala says he has 'become addicted to' and which for him most symbolises the quintessential South African flavour.
Janse’s herb garden treasure trove was integral to producing a menu tailor-made for Atala, which included such scrumptious dishes as the farmer angus lamb cheek and tongue, aubergine, black garlic and amaranth, which was paired with a 2009 Waterford Cabernet Sauvignon.
Other dishes on the 11-course menu were Paternoster salted farmed kabeljou, black mussel and charcoal, paired with a 2010 Stony Brook Ghost Gum, as well as the beetroot, buttermilk labne, dill and cucumber granite, served with a 2012 Graham Beck Game Reserve Chenin Blanc. A Big Bay oyster, with sour fig, vichyssoise and roasted cos was served with a 2012 Excelsior Viognier, while another Atala favourite was the baobab with coconut, honeybush and caramel, paired with 2008 Ezibusisweni straw wine.
Janse’s surprise menu is a sought-after culinary experience, with the restaurant booked out weeks in advance and a firm favourite for locals and tourists who flock there from the world over, keen to experience the quintessential South African fine-dining experience. And in Atala, in the relaxed role for once of being waited on rather than himself providing memorable service, Janse certainly found a delighted Brazilian ‘customer’ who lapped up, wide-eyed, every second of the experience.
'It was beautiful [a word Atala used all night], especially paired with the wine; it is a beautiful restaurant, with beautiful ambiance. I am super-excited to be here,' said Atala of the South African food, service and hospitality experience at Le Quartier Francais he so clearly cherished.
'So much fun'
'South Africa is so much fun. I’ve been here many times since 2009 and this trip is my second to Cape Town. You guys have some amazing restaurants, nice curries and nice Portuguese cuisine, but I am still missing this kind of thing [the innovative use of herbs such as the ones he encountered in Margot’s garden]. The best thing for a traveller is flavour and buchu is my favourite ingredient that I have come across in South Africa. It’s beautiful, powerful, so fresh,' he said of the popular herb also used in the manufacture of perfume.
'For me, there are lots of common points between South Africa and Brazil; we are rediscovering our own identity, culture and flavour,' said Atala, one of the most influential of thousands of Brazilians who have been drawn to South Africa’s charms in recent years.
And for Janse, having Atala visit Le Quartier was the ultimate culmination of a friendship that began in 2006, when the two first met at the 'World’s 50 Best Restaurants' awards.
'I feel very similar about South Africa and its indigenous produce, as Alex does about Brazil’s,' said Janse, adding that, 'Alex has really been my favourite chef since I ate there [at D.O.M.] in 2007. His food and his philosophy is hugely inspiring. For me to be able to show him what special produce we have in South Africa and how we translate that into our dishes has been a wish for a long time. It was a great evening.'
Category: Food & Wine