With the World Cup in full swing, we wanted to speak with a chef from Brazil. But we didn’t want them to be living there anymore! How would their background influence their cooking and what tips might they have for us? Enter E. Amélio de Oliveira.
Name: E. Amélio de Oliveira
Profession: Head Chef and General Manager
Restaurant: Ozz Restaurant
Location: London, United Kingdom
Where are you from and what is the food culture like there?
When asked, I usually say I’m from Curitiba, capital of Parana, because my father’s family is from there. But I was born in Ji-Paraná, Rondônia. I grew up in the capital of that state, in the southern plains of the Amazon Forest. My father was born in an Italian colony in the very south of Brazil; my mother is the granddaughter of Spanish immigrants who mingled with the Italians and Portuguese in the highlands of the centre of the continent. All those different cultural backgrounds came together and created an environment of no cultural identification. If your grandparents were German you probably liked sausages. If they were Italians, you ate pasta at home and talked with a funny accent, moving your arms frenetically. All these people, who are descendants of rootless European immigrants migrated to the Amazon, where there were no roads, no houses, no anything.
“Food is culture and I come from a place without any specific cultural root.”
My brothers and I are the very first generation born in Rondônia. That means we don’t really have a proper local culture; we cannot be identified by an accent and we don’t have a local food, or any traditional local cuisine. Food is culture and I come from a place without any specific cultural root. In a way, that “culturelessness”, that lack of traditional chains freed me. I am attached to nothing. At the same time I like everything, as anything is new to me. So when I go to the market looking for something to cook, my mind is open to any possibilities.
One advantage to growing up where I did is to be in constant contact with the complete alien world of the natives. There is an array of ingredients and products that are completely unknown to the rest of the world that otherwise I would have never known. Another advantage is that, in a way, a mix of cultures broke all the ties and knots of the cooking and eating rituals. We mix cold food with hot food, fruits with chicken, wild foraged poisonous leaves with duck, dried salted fish and palm tree hearts served cold alongside hot pasta. Brazilians in general don’t eat starters-mains-desserts. We mix all in one plate, in one go. If you go to a Brazilian restaurant you may struggle to understand what is going on in your neighbour’s plate. In a way, that gives you a kind of freedom. There are no rules and no impossibilities. And that reflects what Brazilians are: a sum of contradictions having to get along together.
How do you use your heritage in your cooking?
First, by not respecting traditions. Banana with parsley? Oxtail with octopus? Why not? I am serving venison haunch (cooked en daube) with puree of adzuki beans, celeriac fondant, butternut squash mousse and redcurrant sauce. They come together beautifully.
Secondly, I also use ingredients in a way Europeans don’t expect. We make ice cream from sweet corn, drink avocado in smoothies, make desserts of pig’s trotters or cow feet, and jam of pumpkin. We have a different way to look at ingredients. Europe is only now discovering the benefits of quinoa or açaí berry, however I grew up on them, as they are natives from that biosphere.
I wish I could use more, and eventually I will. It is extremely difficult to find most of the ingredients. I am trying to import items, but it isn’t an easy task. For example, fruits such as pequi, jabuticaba, pitanga, acerola, açaí, and jaca. And also, ingredients such as mandioquinha, manioc, tucupi, etc. Brazilian chefs in Europe have to settle for whatever European products they can find.
What did you eat last night for dinner?
Last night I had stress for dinner with an angry mouthful of granola, dry. No time to put milk in a bowl; no time for spoons for that matter.
What would you recommend people eat in Brazil?
Brazil is almost a continent. Depending where you go in Brazil you will find particular ingredients and cooking methods. Avoid the resort restaurants; avoid hotel restaurants and go where the people of the town go. If you happen to be in Sao Paulo, you must visit D.O.M and Mani, they are the biggest expressions of the nouveau-Brazilian cuisine, with their avant-garde in European method and the use of South-American native ingredients. My number one has to be chef Manu Buffara’s restaurant, in Curitiba, Manu. Don’t confuse Mani with Manu!
1. Go late. Brazilians eat late. You can walk into a restaurant at 11pm without hesitation. Many restaurants serve food until 2am.
2. Don’t hurry. If you are in a hurry you will get stressed. Brazilians are laid back.
3. Make sure you know what you are ordering. Unlike our European and American counterparts, Brazilians don’t believe “customers are always right”. Far the opposite. If you order something you don’t like, you will have to pay for it regardless if you didn’t even touch it. The house never loses.
What would you recommend people eat in London?
I ate a while ago in a restaurant in Brixton called Upstairs, on Acre Lane. The place is very simple, very few tables and the food was stunning. Again, simple, but performed really well. Also, The Abbeville Kitchen, on Abbeville Road in Clapham (a well hidden treasure, you’ll work hard to find it).The restaurant is very good, comfortable, with great service; when they do serve game they never disappoint me. And the third one but the best from my list is Marianne, in Notting Hill… I won’t say much because there is not much to say, but their chef is going places, and soon.
What would you recommend people do or visit in Brazil?
Avoid the “tourist attractions”. Go to the country. Florianopolis is my favourite city, 32 pristine beaches around a city that spreads from an island to the continent. It’s pretty and hosts amazing parties. Most of all, it doesn’t attract many tourists. It’s an unknown gem reserved for the adventurous few. And there is nearby the fabulous Ilha do Mel. If there is such a thing as paradise, this is it, during the right season. It can get pretty cold in the winter. Yes, we do have terrible weather in the very south of Brazil.
What would you recommend people do or visit in London?
Kew Gardens, Richmond Park, Wimbledon Common. I like forests and rivers. If you like to party, go to Guanabara, in Covent Garden. I also like to go to Ronnie Scott’s, in Soho.
How would you summarise yourself?
Growing up in the Amazon, I always felt I was an outsider; there was an eternal sense of not belonging. My accent was different, my skin, even the music I heard. Only now do I understand most people in my neighbourhood and school must have felt the same way. We were all foreigners or children of foreigners in a forgotten distant land. It’s difficult to explain how isolated Rondônia is. That level of non-belonging and isolation does something to one’s mind. You either grow more and more attached to that land your parents invaded, or you grow wishing not to be there. My case was the latter. I wanted to travel and see the world. I wanted to do the reverse that my ancestors did, coming to Europe and understand what they were made of. I went to Italy, lived there a bit, then France, and Spain. I thought I would see a part of me reflected on those places. I thought that I would find myself in Europe. Only when I finally arrived here I could finally understand how Brazilian I am.