Brazilian Food Star Alex Atala Dishes On Rio Restaurants

8 questions with Brazil's most iconic chef, just in time for the Olympics

In honor of the Olympics, this month we're bringing you gold medal coverage of The Best of the Best.

It's nearly impossible to discuss food in Brazil and not invoke the name of Alex Atala. The punk DJ-turned-chef has revolutionized the way Brazilian cooking is seen from abroad, and perhaps even more importantly, the way it is viewed locally, as something to be celebrated.

When Atala isn't at his flagship restaurant, D.O.M., which holds the 11th slot on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list, or his newer restaurant and butchery, Açougue Central, he's often exploring the Amazon, collecting little-known ingredients or meeting with indigenous peoples and learning to cook from them. Inspired by his travels, his tasting menu constantly evolves—although he's perhaps best known for serving ants atop pineapple. But when he's at home, Atala says he keeps things simple with "rice and beans. A classic in the day-to-day life of all Brazilians."

Just in time for the Olympics, we caught up with Atala (mid-travels, of course) to hear how Brazil's culinary scene is evolving, how being on Chef's Table impacted him and where he likes to eat when he's in Rio.

And for those of us who can't make it to Brazil, he shared a recipe for galinhada (see the recipe), a fragrant chicken and rice dish that local chefs used to swing by D.O.M. for after hours.

How has the local culinary scene changed since you started cooking Brazilian food professionally?

"I started doing it in 1997, so I guess it's been 19 years. Ever since that year, Brazilian people started seeing their cuisine in a different way. Before, going out to dinner meant going to a French or Italian restaurant, but during that period, new [places] opened . . . proving that going to a Brazilian restaurant could also be an 'event.'"

You're known for sourcing ingredients from all over Brazil. When you find a new ingredient, how do you decide how to with cook it? Does it come instantly, or does it take time in the kitchen?

"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 appreciated. Creativity doesn't exactly mean making something new, but coming up with a new way of doing something that everyone does. We are dealing with new ingredients every day. That is one of the major advantages of working with tasting menus."

Chef's Table has such a broad reach. How did that episode impact your life and business?

"Chef's Table was amazing in many ways. It was a great opportunity to show the world all the work developed with small producers through ATÁ, but, most importantly, it showed people how they can help us do this work. Many who watched the episode reached out to us searching to help ATÁ, the indigenous people and the small producers."

Thousands of people from abroad are visiting Brazil for the first time for the Olympics. What do you hope they eat and understand about Brazilian food and food culture?

"The world still has no references about our flavors. When you speak of Japanese cuisine, sushi comes to mind. When you speak of Italian cuisine, you imagine cheese, tomatoes and olive oil. When you speak of Peruvian cuisine, ceviche shows up. It's key [to me] that the world knows that tapioca is Brazilian and not Chinese. They must know tucupi, our fruits, our herbs, flours, our fish, the Canastra cheese. . . . We have an enormous variety of flavors that must be discovered."

What are the five dishes no one should leave Brazil without trying?

"Rice and beans, our traditional arroz e feijão; galinhada (see the recipe), or chicken and rice; a dish that I particularly love, acarajé [bean fritter], Geovane Carneiro, the other chef at D.O.M., makes an amazing version of that spectacular dish from Bahia; churrasco, or Brazilian barbecue; and pão de queijo, or cheese bread."

What are your favorite spots to eat in Rio?

"Olympe is as classic as the Troisgos family itself. Lasai is the home of the beloved Rafa Costa e Silva, one of the main characters among the new generation of Brazilian chefs. Roberta Sudbrack is one of the chefs I admire the most. Aconchego Carioca has one of the best samples of comida de boteco, Brazilian bar appetizers. Bar do Alto is a typical boteco, or Brazilian bar, in the charming neighborhood of Santa Teresa. And Braseiro da Gávea: For those who love a great spring chicken, this is the place."

What are your hopes for the future of Brazil's food and restaurants?

"I believe that what led France, Italy and Spain to become gastronomic powerhouses was having both good chefs and ingredients. The world already knows we have awesome ingredients. What many people may not know is that in places such as Belém do Pará, Curitiba, Mato Grosso, Espírito Santo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Goiás, there is a whole legion of incredibly talented young chefs, and these guys need to be recognized."

You seem to always have something in the works. Is there anything you can share about what we will see from you in the coming years?

"After 30 years working in the kitchen, what excites me the most is to watch myself become more and more certain that this is an endless road. Putting my uniform on every morning makes me realize that the possibilities that this road offers are way broader than I have ever imagined."

*This interview has been translated and edited.