Trying to push open the 20’ doors to the entrance of DOM, made from exotic wood heavier than lead, was a labor of love. But not until I got them open which was somewhat difficult from a five day meat coma. All that week I had hit every churascaria (Brazilian steak house) in the jardins. But there was one more to go. And I knew that I better turn it around if I was going to survive the White Tornado.
The bar in DOM is the huntsman’s meeting place, an intersection where taxidermy jaguars and French rococo black Murano chandeliers meet to decorate this Gothic lodge. And it was there, at the bar, I met Alex Atala. I don’t know if it was the crack of lightning or the sound of the thunder that first turned my head, but whatever it was he was at the center of it. From across the width of the lodge this ferocious chef arrived like a champion. Newly minted gladiator fresh from the kill. Accepting congratulations from his regulars, embracing his fans, carefully eying every detail. I met the White Tornado.
Immediate launch into a the big scene from a recent hunting trip to Argentina, sporting photos on his smart phone, the White Tornado gleamed with enthusiasm. Beef is his passion from hybrid cattle to new technology farming techniques that he’s pioneering in the Brazilian grasslands:
“My job as a chef has changed entirely from 10 years ago,” Chef Atala says with wild eyes. He moves from the science of agriculture to sustainability without taking a breath. He cautions that it used to be easier to be a great chef. Italian or French. Get the best ingredients, throw them together artfully. But over the last 10 years he has taken it to the next level to truly stand out. It requires a dialogue directly with the farmers, rice producers, and cattle ranchers to really understand the ingredients necessary to enhance culinary expression and improve protein sources.
He says, with what appears to be palpable excitement, “ I’m working with cattle ranchers breeding hybrid mix of Australian Angus and Japanese wagyu cattle. The Australian Angus fares better in the Brazilian sun. The domestic Angus suffer as it is too hot (Argentine Angus is different). Australian has had longer exposure to tropical heat and loves the high quality water and grass that Brazil has to offer. Using super soil worm food coupled with rotation grazing, cattle per hectare has increased by a factor of three.” The bragging rights don’t stop there: “the results are decreases: in cost, environmental impact, and pesticides – as rotation cycles interrupt tick problems.”Jumping from soil to animal he claims that shoulder cuts on the hybrid are more tender than prime rib. Now he has gone too far. “I can prove it. A university did an ultrasound. Normally you can’t even eat the shoulder on a Brazilian Angus. My goal is to use the entire animal.” I learned that beef prices are estimated to increase by 30% in the next 10 years. He says a chef’s job is to work with non-traditional cuts. It is easy to serve filet Mignon with sauce Bearnaise. Now we have to focus on creativity, sustainability and efficiency.
I take my leave of him. Or more accurately, a beautiful Brazilian dressed in a futuristic Dr. Seuss outfit comes out of the night and scoops him up. Back to the table with the crew and back up wallet. This palace ain’t cheap. Somehow when I sit down I instantly forget everything that I just learned. I’m too conditioned by Fogo de Chao. I order tournedoes (filet) with aligot (cheese potato mix). It doesn’t arrive. My order was intercepted in the kitchen and turned around for my own good. And what arrives is carbonized herb crusted end back strip steak via vanilla and charcoal oil. It’s rested for 24 hours then served medium rare, but black on the outside. With a perfect accompaniment of mandioca and salted bacalao (cod), egg yolk mayonnaise and onions. There’s something to be said for shame.
Photos by Janina McQuoid