Alex Atala and Daniel Patterson were being photographed by a two person crew when I encountered them on the sidewalk in front of the complex that houses the Shangri-La Hotel and Momofuku restaurants in downtown Toronto. How each reacted to the ad hoc shoot reflected their respective personalities. Atala wore a big and full grin through his bushy beard, while Patterson gave a wary smile and a raised eyebrow. Both seem to be telegraphing the ridiculousness of their chefy fame and accepting it with as much good humour as their respective jet lags could muster.
The two were in town together to appear before Alison Fryer for a Q&A put on by the Cookbook Store. Atala and Patterson both have books out this season with the art house publisher Phaidon, which seems to be publishing cookbooks from more and more of the world’s very top rated chefs (including Réne Redzepi and Ferran Adrià). Atala’s restaurant D.O.M., in Sao Paulo, is becoming increasingly known around the world for its use of Amazonian ingredients. Patterson’s flagship restaurant Coi, is one of (if not the) top rated restaurant in San Francisco. Both men are known for their devotion to local ingredients and their willingness to veer away from the techniques and ingredients of Escoffier in order to create (or maybe reflect) a high cuisine that is truly Brazilian or Northern Californian.
After their photo shoot, the three of us retired inside to record an interview, but the lobby bar in the Shangri-La is too filled with sounds from the piano and hum of conversation to use a microphone, so I took notes while chatting to both. To break the ice, I asked Atala about his infamous killing of a chicken at Redzepi’s MAD Food conference this summer. (An account and video of the incident is here.) In gladiator fashion, Atala had asked his audience of top chefs from around the world whether the chicken ought to live or die by a show of thumbs up or down. He told Patterson and me that he was surprised that audience decided to have the chicken killed, and that the act was his way of demonstrating the “paradox of being an omnivore”, which he described as the tension between feeling a connection between a living thing and wanting, or perhaps having, to eat it. Why, Atala, asked, do we think it’s perfectly okay to buy our fish and seafood when it’s alive, but not our chickens? Surely they’d be fresher? The key is, he went on to say, that we relate to an animals face. If we see the face, if the chicken looks at you, then we not inclined to kill it. But if the process is hidden, then we are fine with the animal’s destruction.
At this point, I began to wonder what any of this chicken business might have to do with Atala’s book and his work at D.O.M., until he made the connection. The point, he explained in broken English through a thick and charming Portuguese accent, is that the people and natural world of his beloved Amazonia were hidden from the view of most of Brazil and the world. They were being destroyed thoughtlessly as a result. For Atala, claiming the ingredients and food knowledge of the Amazon and its people was more than finding trendy new flavours, it was about protecting a rich natural (and human) environment.
Patterson waded into the conversation, taking off from Atala’s conservationism in a calm, studied and deliberate way. He said, “Cuisine is the intersection of nature and culture.” He then made a distinction between two kinds of food: chef food and cultural food. He gave American barbecue as an example of cultural food. It’s a cuisine that emerged out of necessity for historical, economical and cultural reasons from a particular people on a particular land. But, to emphasize the difference between what he and Atala serve in their restaurants and write about in their books, he said, “The last thing you want is creative barbecue.”
Each in their distinct, and visually stunning way, the cookbooks Coi: Stories and Recipes and D.O.M.: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients, lay testament to the creativity of the chefs. Patterson explained that his intention for his reader is “not to follow the recipes by rote”, but to be inspired and to discover truths about cuisine in a “sensual and emotional way.” Of the two books, Patterson is perhaps more literate, in the sense that his essays seem more metaphysical. Or, that may simply be a matter of things getting lost in translation, as Atala’s book is also rife with stories and descriptions. For Atala, his home audience, especially of fellow chefs, was paramount. He said he wanted to “show that Brazilian [cuisine] is a possible way.” Patterson added that he enjoyed writing his book since it relieved some of the “pressure to be perfect” put on him as a chef in his restaurant kitchens, since in a book “you can control what you show.”
As our time began to run out, I asked both about their tour and engagements. What was it like, I wondered to be on this level of celebrity chef, flying around the world to talk about your cooking? Both smiled and (I think) shrugged a little. Then, Patterson told an anectdote about their life on the road together. Some years ago, he recounted, they were both at a chefs event in London and answering questions from the audience. A lady singled out Atala and asked how he could cook such fancy food when hunger was such a problem in Brazil? In Toronto, at the table, Atala threw up his hands in a re-enactment of his London answer: “I’m only a chef and do what I can.”
Patterson said, “You have to remember that we were both once just young chefs, and its the idea of hospitality that took us to where we are now: our goal was simply to make the best food we could.” Atala agreed, adding that whatever success he had enjoyed had come from decades of working hard in his kitchen, looking for the best ingredients and trying to please his customers. As I got up and said my good byes to the two top chefs, I thought that sounded like as good a recipe as any.
Malcolm Jolley is a founding editor of Good Food Revolution and Executive Director of Good Food Media, the company that publishes it. Follow him at twitter.com/malcolmjolley