He’s a two-Michelin-star chef, has a brown belt in Brazilian jujitsu, is an avid spear fisherman and restores and collects vintage motorcycles. He’s created a non-profit that advocates for Amazonian tribes. And he looks like King Leonidas. Alex Atala is the most interesting man in the world.
It’s hard not to be a little in awe when meeting Atala. His large hands completely enveloped mine as we were introduced in the kitchen of Kapiolani Community College’s Leahi Concept Kitchen at the Waikiki Parc Hotel, where he would cook two benefit pop-up dinners for the culinary program last week. Atala’s D.O.M. restaurant in Brazil is considered South America’s best; it was featured in season two of the Netflix documentary series “Chef’s Table.”
I expected to find a quiet corner from which I could photograph the action without getting in the way. Instead, Atala invited me to a prep station where he was working on a last-minute addition to the menu. It was a riff on a poke bowl. A red plastic shave ice cone with seasoned poi, and fish that he froze and shaved on a shave ice machine.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “Taste this.”
I did as instructed. “More acid,” I said meekly.
Moments later, he called me over again and offered me a taste of honey harvested from stingless Amazonian bees. Honey does not spoil because of its antibacterial properties, yet this was slightly fermented, which made it taste like nothing I have ever had before.
Less than five minutes in the kitchen with Atala, and I knew that this was going to be an interesting two days. I sat down with him before service to find out what he thought about Hawaii’s cuisine.
What is your impression of Hawaii?
As a tropical country, we [Brazil] have so many points in common, and Hawaii has some very particular flavors. I’ve been really impressed with kava.
It is an amazing taste with an amazing mouth feeling, and brings a calm, which is quite abnormal. It isn’t a drug, but it brings a feeling that can only be had here. I can see that it would be impossible to [truly] bring kava to Brazil and have that same experience.
This is the kind of uniqueness that I am really impressed by in the Hawaiian food and the Hawaiian ingredients. Uniqueness is luxury.
People imagine that Hawaiian food is something with pineapple, and it isn’t. The day that I went to Helena’s, I taste some food, and wow! So simple, so good. Simple does not mean easy. Simple does not mean rubbish. Simple means delicious.
Hawaiian food in my short experience, it is unique. Hawaiian flavors, wow!
Yesterday, I work with local corn that was so good. I tasted mango, herbs, taro, you guys have breadfruit. You have much more than people can imagine. I believe that chefs must promote more the local flavors and local ingredients, and the uniqueness of those ingredients. I really believe in it.
Poke has been getting a lot of attention recently, especially in the U.S. What do you think about keeping it true to its roots, or letting other people riff on it?
I’m not concerned with it being degenerated just because you guys have it so ingrained in your culture. It doesn’t matter the way that people interpret poke in Brazil, or anywhere. Once they come to Hawaii, they will experience the real stuff.
If you imagine what has happened with sushi. Every country has their own interpretation of sushi. Peru has Nikkei cuisine. Hawaii has its interpretation. California and New York have their different interpretations of sushi. However, the Japanese sushi is still the Japanese sushi.
Hawaiian poke will be the same. The only thing we can control is keeping alive poke within the Hawaiian culture. The more people taste poke in different ways, the more value poke has in its traditional form.
Are there any flavors or experiences that you plan to take with you back to Brazil?
We do not have limu in Bazil, so I will try to find some seaweed that is similar to Hawaiian limu.
For example, in Chile they use Cochayuyo, which is a kind of seaweed. In Peru they use others. Spain has their seaweed equivalent. I will try to find a Brazilian limu. It will probably not be the same, but something with a similar taste to limu.
It was amazing to see you creating dishes inspired by your experience in Hawaii. Where do you start when conceiving a dish?
I always say to my guys that the first commitment of a chef is flavor. I would like to do something delicious. Once you have the basic skills to create delicious food, you can start to compose new recipes.
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. So it is a discovery.
I do believe, and these are not my words, ‘The more a chef knows the basic skills, the better he will become in using them.’
Do you start with an ingredient or a flavor?
I’m 100 percent guided by flavor. Once I have the flavor, I have something in my mind.
The idea for shaved poke just popped into my mind because I saw the shaved ice. I never knew that in Hawaii, shaved ice was so popular. I also didn’t know that poke was so popular. So, the idea is to mix two popular recipes into one.
The first one was just okay. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad. So, step by step we start to think and we work and we work on the poi, and then work on the sauce, and then thinking and composing and tasting.
But again, all the Hawaiian culture is so new for me. So, to share with you guys was the possibility to see you guys tasting and say it isn’t good so that I can keep working on it.
The idea for shaved fish poke can be refined even more. We can try other fishes, other sauces, try to use rice instead of poi. So, there’s many possibilities. Or, even freezing and shaving the poi at some point.
I’m quite happy with the result. It was more fun than delicious, but there was still some emotion in that dish, which reflected my first day in Hawaii.
You use plastic shave ice cones for the shaved poke. Do you pick the plate to fit the food, or do you make the food fit the plate?
If I took the shaved ice poke, and I served it on a beautiful plate, I can be cool. But it can be even more cooler if it comes in this weird classical, colorful cone.
When the cones come into the room, it gives them [the diners] another movement. We are pushing people to talk about it. Of course people can criticize it, but they are still talking about it.
How do you choose what accompanies the main item in a dish?
I tasted poke alone, the frozen fish. I taste it with rice, which for me is delicious, but it looks too Japanese for me.
I was looking for something more Hawaiian. Then I taste the poi. I say wow, poi is good. Poi is unique. But poi, it was maybe missing a flavor.
Poi in the Hawaiian culture is something to support a flavor. Nobody is seasoning. The places I went to, I didn’t taste or see anyone seasoning the poi. So, the first idea was seasoning the poi. Since they put sesame oil in the poke sauce, I put sesame oil in the poi and a little bit of sea salt.
This beautiful fermented flavor, which some people love, and some people don’t love, has been lightly complemented by the other flavors.
The last time I taste the whole entire idea in the cone: the seasoned poi, the shaved fish, some scallions, some coriander leaves, some limu. I taste it and I say, it’s missing a noise. It’s missing a crunchiness. So, I decided to put the cassava souffle.
This is a way to play again. Make people say wow, it’s a beautiful shape, it’s crunchy, its unexpected.
Of course the goal was to be delicious, but my first focus was for people to have fun. To say wow, we are in a different place, we are eating something different, this guy is bringing something new.
I don’t care if people like it or don’t like, I just like to provoke emotions.
How do you know when to stop? When is the dish finished?
When the chefs start to change their expression. From the dumb to appreciation. You can see it in their face when they taste it. And then when the surprise comes together with a little smile, that was a sign that we are on the right path.
You found a lot of inspiration during your time here, so what in general inspires you to create?
Local food! Local food because they survive for generations. They survive from any kind of oppression. Commercial oppressors, trend oppressors, cultural oppressors, and they are still alive. So I still love to use traditional foods to guide me.
What is fine dining? Fine dining is put one ingredient in the recipe in its best moment. This is what I try to do.
What’s next for you moving forward from this experience?
I’m going to use this. I don’t know when, I don’t know how, but I’m definitely going to use.
I’m going to put myself to thinking about my Hawaiian experience with shaved ice. I go back to Brazil, look at my ingredients, and find a way to use that.
It is a beautiful idea. It is definitely a beautiful idea.
I do believe that we can do something really unexpected with shaved ice. Maybe it will not be shaved ice, it will be shaved fruits as I saw at Michelle Karr-Ueoka’s.
Maybe it can be a fish, maybe it can be a sauce. I don’t know. I don’t know if it will be a savory or a dessert, but I’m going to put lots of thought on it.
~ ~ ~
Atala was in Hawaii to launch Kapiolani Community College’s Master Chef Series, which benefits the college’s culinary arts program. The next chefs coming to Hawaii for the series are Miami celebrity chef and James Beard Award winner Michelle Bernstein in November, and Kentucky’s Edward Lee of “Top Chef” and “Mind of a Chef” in January 2018.