I’ve just returned from a deeply informative, moving, and delicious event in São Paulo, Brazil, Seminário Fruto. This was the second year the event—put together by chef Alex Atala and event producer Felipe Ribenboim in conjunction with Atala’s ATA Institute—was held.
Many of the topics discussed, conservation, regenerative agriculture, the preservation of indigenous cultures and biodiversity, were familiar. What made the talks especially interesting to me was to see them interpreted in the context of a different culture and worldview.
One example of this was a talk by Eduardo Góes Neves, a professor of archeology at the University of São Paulo, who studies the historical effect of indigenous farming and food cultures on the biodiversity of the rainforest. Anthropomorphic rain forest soil—soil resulting primarily from human activities—dates back to the seventh century, he told us, revealing millennia of human habitation shaping the rain forest. In these “back yards of the Amazon,” Góes Neves explained, communities have left their mark by selecting for Brazil nuts, chestnuts, açai, cocoa, and mapati (a type of Amazonian grape), as well as 56 varieties of sweet potato. “I look at the forests as libraries” filled with knowledge, he said. “We have a lot to learn from them.”
Similarly, paleontologist Max Langer, also from the University of São Paulo, fit our current existential climate crisis into the context of previous “extinction events.” All of them, he noted were related to food, or lack thereof. Rather than wringing our hands and egocentrically trying to save the planet—”make our planet great again”—was his caustic description of this approach, we need to see ourselves as “part of nature,” not the star players in it. “Are we open to conserving nature as part of it, or do we just want to grow a garden we like?” he asked.
Atala’s ATA Institute is trying to nurture a garden that is more wild and inclusive in the way that the two professors advocate, by preserving the biodiversity of the rain forest and its indigenous people. Its main mode of action is to bring sustainably produced products from the Baniwa indigenous culture to market. I sampled native bee honey infused with the scent of giant Amazonian vanilla beans, a potent Jiquitaia chili blend, chocolate, and fresh Brazil nuts served every which way. Some of my favorite Brazil nut preparations of the trip were in a house-made mortadella at Chef Jefferson Rueda’s A Casa do Porco and cloaked in dark chocolate from the market at Alex Atala’s Dalva e Dito.
We heard from members of indigenous communities as well. Raimanda Rodrigues told us about her life in the reserve area of Terra do Meio. Before it became protected land, she said, being at the mercy of large-scale deforestation projects made for “a very sad life, where it was tough to eat and feed from forest.” Now, in control of their own babaçu (a kind of palm fruit) crop, she said proudly of her community, “We don’t eat from the forest, we are the forest. Our food, medicine, everything comes from the forest.”
One of the ways the conference practiced what it preached was that every meal served was made from “wasted” food, or food that would have otherwise been discarded. Discarded manioc from the farmer’s market was turned into bread, too-small eggplants went into a delicious lasagna. Banana peels were ubiquitous: in cake, soft serve, frozen and stuffed. “We have to see ingredients for what they are, not as ‘discards,’” one chef told us. Even the beautiful fruit basket that each attendee received was from a company that rescues imperfect produce.
The most radical re-thinker of waste at the conference was chef Douglas McMaster of Silo Brighton in the UK, whose goal is to create a “preindustrial food system with zero waste.” There are no trash bins in his restaurant, but it does feature a closed-loop organics compost machine. All of McMaster’s food supplies arrive in reusable crates and cans. He mills his own flour for bread, churns his own butter, and makes his own cheese and yogurt. He’s even figured out a way to recycle glass, turning it first to powder, then into an emulsion, and then into beautiful ceramic shapes. Silo doesn’t tackle the problem of waste McMaster says; his restaurant is “a means to prevent the problem from existing, a systemic intervention.”
Before the symposium started, we visited the Santa Julieta Bio organic farm in Santa Cruz da Conceição, where farmer Rafael Coimbra raises more than 130 crops and started the first CSA (community supported agriculture) in the state of Sao Paulo. Atala and the chefs in our group wrapped a giant Amazon pirarucu fish tightly in banana leaves and grilled it over an open fire while we sipped cachaça cocktails and sampled the seductive and aromatic hybrid spirits from Copenhagen’s Empirical Spirits, made with sake’s koji kin (aspergillus oryzae mold), milled barley, Belgian saison yeast and a variety of botanicals from habanero to quince.
Dinner at Atala’s Michelin two-star restaurant D.O.M.—known for the chef’s exploration of indigenous Brazilian ingredients—synthesized what we were learning and seeing around us. Celebrating his 20th anniversary this year, Atala set out to create a “pre-discovery” indigenous menu, including a delicious cashew fruit, scallop and marrow dish, another version of the Amazonian pirarucu fish (cooked in fish broth with paçoca, a ground peanut candy), and an entire course that paid homage to manioc, or cassava, and the many forms it takes in the hands of indigenous cooks.
The trip was a reminder that our global ecosystems are all linked, as are our efforts to strengthen their resilience, mitigate climate change, and preserve indigenous cultures and biodiversity. I’m grateful to have had the extraordinary opportunity of learning from leaders in these movements, and hope their work will inspire you to learn more and take part as well.