São Paulo is home to one of the great markets of South America, Mercado Municipal: a building as large as a city block, filled with stalls brimming with fruits, shops selling jars of pickled peppers and an always-perpetual line for the market's famous grilled mortadella and cheese sandwich at Bar Do Mané.
But in this sprawling Brazilian city, neighborhood markets have historically been where locals shop, Alex Atala, Brazil's most acclaimed chef, explains. Unfortunately, some, like the Mercado de Pinheiros have been almost forgotten. "It's very well located, but for some reason, people didn't use that market anymore," he tells me via FaceTime from the market. "So about eight years ago, I [decided] to try to push São Paulo to revitalize the market."
That project came to life this month. Atala, along with his foundation, ATA—which helps promote Brazil's biodiversity and food traditions—opened up a market within the market that carries ingredients and foods produced across Brazil. "When we talk about biodiversity, there's no value. When you taste it, there's a real value," he explains.
"[For] now, we are selling more frozen and dried ingredients, rice, beans, manioc flour, which are much easier to bring to São Paolo," Atala says. "But step by step, we are starting to bring fresh ingredients from all over Brazil." That includes foods produced and harvested in small villages or even by indigenous tribes in northern Brazil, who Atala says are virtually unknown outside of the region they are from. "In two or three months, we hope to be ready to offer even fresh ingredients, fresh fruits, fresh vegetables," he adds. He's also operating a casual café there called Motoco, which translates to "the foot of cattle," but it's also the name of an iconic stew from northeastern Brazil, which is served at the café's bar.
The market isn't Atala's only pot in the oven right now. He's getting ready to open a restaurant next month that doubles as a butcher shop and highlights secondary or less-popular cuts, which in Brazil includes brisket, the chef says. He's also just back from the Amazon, filming with Netflix's hit series Chef's Table, which drops on May 27. So, we'll likely be hearing a lot more from the chef in the next few months. In the meantime, to the market we go.