Anatomy of a Plate with Chef Alex Atala

How do chefs create the dishes that they make? What lessons can we learn from them to advance ourselves and the food industry as a whole? With each interview, we examine and dissect the creative processes behind taking a dish from conception, through development, plating, and eventually service to reveal the Anatomy of a Plate.

It’s hard not to be a little in awe when meeting Chef Alex Atala.

His two-star Michelin rated restaurant, D.O.M., is considered the best in South America and is a perpetual fixture on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. He was featured in season two of the Netflix documentary series, “Chef’s Table.” He has a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, he’s an avid spear fisherman, he started a non-profit that advocates for Amazonian tribes, and he looks like King Leonidas. I later found out that he also collects and restores vintage motorcycles. For all intents and purposes, he is the guy from the Dos Equis commercials.

Chef Atala greeted me warmly, when we were introduced at the Leahi Concept Kitchen in the Waikiki Parc Hotel, the location of his two-night pop-up in Hawaii.

His large hands completely enveloped mine when we shook hands. From there, I expected to find a quiet corner from which I could photograph the action in the kitchen, without getting in the way of service.

Instead, Atala invited me to one of the prep stations where he was working on a last minute addition to the menu.

It was a riff on a poke bowl. A red plastic shaved ice cone filled with seasoned poi, and fish that he froze and shaved with a shave ice machine.

“I don’t like it,” he said, “taste this.”

I did as instructed. “More acid,” I said meekly.

Atala squeezed a wedge of lemon into the cone, and tasted it again.

Moments later, he called me over to another part of the kitchen where he offered me a taste of honey harvested from a species of stingless bees in the Amazon.

Honey does not spoil because of its antibacterial properties, yet this was slightly fermented, which gave it almost a bubbly feeling in my mouth. The taste was like no honey I have ever had before, nor likely to ever have again unless I visit the Amazon.

It was citrusy, and had fruit notes that I could not even begin to comprehend. Even Atala had no idea the kinds of plants that the bees visited nor could he explain how the honey ferments within the hive. Whatever it is, the result is delicious.

Less than five minutes in the kitchen with Atala, and I knew that this was going to be an interesting two days.

Its Best Moment

The ingredient that most impressed Chef Atala during his time in Hawaii was by far, Kava, and he was surprised by how underutilized it is by local chefs.

“Uniqueness is luxury,” says Atala during a pre-shift meeting with the Leahi staff. “The only place in the world where you can have Kava is here. This is the challenge of high gastronomy. It’s not working with expensive ingredients; it’s putting one single ingredient in its best moment.”

Chef Atala’s moment for kava came in the form of a shot of kava mixed with orange zest, and Jack Daniel’s whisky, in a smoked glass sealed with plastic wrap, topped with the Amazonian honey, a flour pedal, and served with a cube of yuzu bavarois on the side.

“It is an amazing taste that brings a calm feeling that can only be experienced in Hawaii,” Atala says of kava, however, that didn’t stop him from bringing some home with him, and is one of the ingredients that he plans to explore the Amazon for a Brazilian counterpart.

Atala’s philosophy of creating moments is echoed in another Hawaii inspired course, a Pamonha (Brazilian tamale) made with fresh grated local sweet corn, parmesan cheese and pimento Baniwā.

“I taste the corn, and it is so good,” says Atala remembering his tasting experience from earlier in the week. “I say that this is lightly sandy. If you do a tamale in a fine dining place, you grate the corn, and then you pass it through a tamis, so that you have a very smooth texture. But if I did that, the sandy sensation would be lost, and would no longer be Hawaiian corn. So I decide to leave the texture, and the flavor was still super good.”

So where do chefs begin to conceive the ideas for their dishes? This is the question at the heart of Anatomy of a Plate. When I asked Chef Atala this, his response was emphatically flavor.

“I always say to my guys, that the first commitment of a chef is flavor,” explains Atala, “I am 100% guided by flavor. Once I have the flavor, I have something in my mind.”

Watching Atala work, I get a sense that he holds a very clear vision in his mind of what he wants to, as he put it, compose.

“I use the word compose to compare with musicians. If you give me a guitar, and I try to play something, I don’t know how to play a guitar, so I’m not composing anything. I’m inventing.

“There is a huge difference between creation and invention. Creation is based in knowledge. Invention is based in luck, sometimes it is even by accident.”

We talked at length about the shaved poke dish he was working on for the dinner, and it became clear how his philosophy behind creating a dish also translates into his life.

“The first one was just okay. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad,” says Atala. “So, step by step, we start to think, and we work. We work on the poi, and then work on the sauce. Eating, thinking, being critical, fight through, push, push, and push until we have a better result.”

Atala believes that it is impossible to get a dish right on the first attempt. No matter how good it is on the first try, it can always be refined, and he uses the facial expressions of his collaborators to judge his progress.

“You can see it in their face when they taste it. The chefs start to change their expression from dumb, to appreciation. And then when the surprise comes together with a little smile, that is the sign that we are on the right path.”

Invoke Emotion

Atala is a believer that good food should always accompany a feeling. Whether you like a dish or not, it always invokes some sort of emotional response.

If I took the shaved ice poke, and I served it on a beautiful plate — it can be cool. But it can be even more cooler if it comes in this weird, colorful cone,” says Atala on his choice of serving vessel.

When the cones enter the room, it gives the diners another moment. The cones create an expectation for people who are familiar with shaved ice. This, provokes curiosity for the guests before they get to taste the dish.

“It has nothing to do with flavor. We are pushing people to talk about it,” says Atala, “of course people can criticize it, but they are still talking about it.”

If the Kava at the beginning of the meal was to welcome the guests and give them a sense of calm, then Atala’s main focus for the shaved fish poke, which was the second course of the nine-course dinner, was to make something fun for the guests.

He admits that it was probably more fun than delicious, yet, it best conveyed his experience of having shave ice and poke when he first arrived in Hawaii. He used the emotions from his Hawaiian experience to create something that hopefully invokes that same feeling in the diner.

“It is definitely a beautiful idea,” laments Atala who bought a shaved ice machine to take back with him to Brazil.

“I do believe that we can do something really unexpected with shaved ice. Maybe it will not be shaved ice, it could be shaved fruits as I saw at Aloha Ice (a Waikiki eatery by Chef Michelle Karr-Ueoka). Maybe it can be a fish, maybe it can be a sauce. I don’t know if it will be a savory or a dessert, but I’m going to put lots of thought on it.”

Ingredient vs. Flavor

I had the opportunity to talk with one of the most influential chefs in the world, so of course, I had to ask him about the thing that he is probably most known for — ants.

Much to the disappointment of more than a few diners who attended his Waikiki pop-up, Atala could not bring any of his famous ants with him because of Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture rules.

The story he tells, which I have below in its entirety, perfectly illustrates the difference between an ingredient, and a flavor.

Ingredients are just food that we eat, whereas the concept of flavor is much more complicated, and can be greatly affected by it’s place of origin. When I heard this story, I realized that flavor is based on the perception of the culture in which we inhabit.

Local people in Brazil eat quite a lot of different types of insects. Maybe our culture, eating insects is disgusting. Why? Because our culture says that we only eat insects when we are hungry, we are miserable, we are suffering. Insects are disgusting and nauseating. It’s like eating vomit or shit, all this kind of stuff.
Once you know this, please tell me what it honey? It’s bee vomit.
Everything depends on you background and your culture. So, once I realized that if people in some parts of the world eat insects, and it can be delicious, wow, why not taste.
As a tradition, indigenous people eat insects. Mexico use, China use, and there are parts of Brazil as well.
The Baniwā tribe in Brazil eat those lemongrass ants not as a protein source, but something to savor on foods because the flavor is so strong.
The first time that I went in this area, a very old lady brings me a dark half coconut, with some ants and a very black sauce that they call black tucupi. She gave it to me to taste.
It was scary. So, I just taste the sauce, and a beautiful taste of ginger-lemongrass explode in my mouth. I ask her what was the herb that she used with that beautiful freshness and flavor?
She said, ‘Ants.’
I told her I can see the ants. There’s lots of them, but there’s another herbal taste.
And she said, ‘Ants.’
And I tried to ask again, so she said, ‘Shut up, taste the ants!’
I taste the ants and pow!
My first idea was to bring those ants to my restaurant, and try to explore ways that I can use them. Second was to return to Amazonas. Bring some ginger and lemongrass because they do not have those ingredients there, and cook for that woman.
I invite her to dinner, and the first dish was exactly the same preparation, the same dark bowl. The same black tucupi, but instead of putting ants, I put ginger and lemongrass, and I give it to her to taste. She was so happy that a chef was cooking for her.
She tasted the tucupi and was clearly disappointed.
I ask to her that she did not like? And she said, ‘it tastes like ants.’
She was expecting something new, and I give her a flavor that she has in her backyard. So everything is about perception.
To our culture, ants taste like lemongrass. To them lemongrass taste like ants. In that moment I experienced different cultural interpretations of one flavor.

When I look at shrimps, crabs, and lobsters, and in my head I understand that they are just big bugs. Yet I know that they are delicious, and I have no reaction to handling them, alive or dead. As I write this, I can feel my skin crawl just thinking about touching an insect.

“It is a mental block that we have,” explains Atala. “Shrimps are delicious. It did not scare us because we ate them since we were a kid. Ants do not scare the Baniwā because it is their tradition to eat them.”

There could be a species of ant somewhere on one of the islands of Hawaii that could be delicious. What else is out there that is delicious and we don’t even know it?

Postmortem

The main takeaway from my interview with Chef Atala is a sense of pride for the unique flavors of Hawaii. I appreciate local ingredients, flavors, and cuisine. At the same time, I know that I am guilty of taking them for granted.

It’s easy to get caught up in wanting to do elaborate preparations of exotic ingredients from different parts of the world, and Chef Atala reminded me that in the end, it's all perception.

To him and others from around the world, Hawaii is exotic, however, that doesn’t mean that our ingredients are any better or worse than ants from the Amazon. They are unique, and wherever we are, that uniqueness should always be celebrated in our culture and cuisine.

Chef Atala put it best. “Uniqueness is luxury.”


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