Thursday, August 29, 2013


When Alex Atala has a knife in his hand, there’s no question about his profession. The famous Brazilian chef makes cutting up vegetables and preparing meals seem like the highest art. But his influence goes way beyond the kitchen, as Atala is one of the leaders in the “use-local-ingredients” movement.

Alex Atala (second from right) with other chefs.
He and his partners work with indigenous groups in Brazil to source ingredients for haute cuisine, including the meals served at his landmark São Paola restaurant D.O.M. This week he has been in Copenhagen, Denmark, talking about his work and taking part in Copenhagen Cooking – a 10-day festival that has attracted food-lovers and top chefs from all over the world.

One of the dishes at Copenhagen Cooking.
The event’s theme this year is “social food”, which means bringing people together over meals and raising awareness about the environment, according to the organizers. At the festival’s opening, Atala sliced cucumbers faster than the eye could follow, and told food aficionados about how he came to put ants on his menu.

Some years ago, he was visiting the indigenous Baré community in the Amazon when a woman called Dona Brasi offered him a dish. As he ate, he thought he tasted the herb lemongrass. “What did you put in it?” he asked.

“Ants,” Dona Brasi replied. Atala didn’t believe he’d heard right, and asked the question again. The answer was the same. Since then, Atala has been experimenting with insects in his cuisine and has created an institute called ATÁ that has close ties with local farmers and other producers. The ATÁ “manifesto” says that the “relation between man and food must be revised” to maintain biodiversity and protect people and the environment.

“Food can be much more than you can imagine. Food can change our lives, can change the lives of millions of people,” says Atala.

Chef Claus Meyer samples a dish.
In Copenhagen, this has been the mantra during the festival: in a world of constantly rising food prices, we must change our eating habits, reduce waste and think about the environment. The Danish capital is the home of the New Nordic Food Manifesto, which was formulated by Danish chef and businessman Claus Meyer and signed by his counterparts.

The manifesto does not lay out hard and fast rules, but provides a set of core “values” that include using the natural food resources of the Nordic region, such as berries, smoked fish and fruit and vegetables of the particular season.

When he drew up the proposal, Meyer said he found that “being a chef in the modern world meant taking responsibility, caring about the environment, working for biodiversity and being inclusive in your mindset.” That’s also the response he got from his peers in the gastronomy sector.

Since then, Copenhagen has developed a thriving restaurant culture, with about 15 Michelin stars. Noma, the renowned restaurant that Meyer co-founded, has been nominated the world's best restaurant on several occasions.

Both Meyer and Atala adhere to a biodynamic approach to cooking, and the Copenhagen Cooking festival has highlighted the international nature of this movement. Many countries are trying to change their agricultural models, and Denmark itself has plans to increase the share of organic food served in public institutions to 90 percent by 2015.

The organization tasked with making the goal a reality is the Kobenhavn Madhus (Copenhagen House of Food), located in the Danish capital’s old meatpacking district. The Madhus’ mandate is to “ensure that citizens who are part of a public food programme, from daycare to nursing homes, get a healthy and well-prepared meal of high culinary quality” each time they eat. The organization oversees some 900 public kitchens that serve about 60,000 meals each day.

The challenge has been to keep this increase “economically feasible” by not just substituting certain produce but developing a whole style of organic cuisine, according to Rasmus Kjeldahl, chairman of the board of the Madhus.

Rasmus Kjeldahl of KBH Madhus
“The higher we get, the hardest it gets,” Kjeldahl says. “Once you start moving beyond 60 percent of organic ingredients, you need to change the philosophy about how you work in the kitchen and about what kind of raw materials you use. It becomes about gastronomy, seasonality and about skills.”

The Madhus is participating in Copenhagen Cooking with a competition for schoolchildren and a “Market Day” where people can meet and speak with producers and suppliers of organic food. It is also hosting workshops by chefs such as Bjorn Shen of Singapore.

Shen, who’s visiting Europe for the first time, is one of the participants in the “Singapore Street Food” presentation at the festival. He says that using local or organic produce in small, built-up countries can be a challenge, but that cooks need to make the attempt.

“We have to give organic food the awareness that it deserves and also hope that people see that it’s possible to use ingredients grown locally,” he said.

Shen owns a restaurant called Artichoke in Singapore’s historic Bras Basah neighbourhood and has been one of the leaders in the “farm-to-table” movement. He works with the city-state’s small number of organic farmers and producers to source ingredients, and he participates in a scheme called the Edible Garden Project to grow greens in his restaurant’s kitchen garden.

For Lebanese chef Kamal Mousawak, who’s also a key participant in the festival, food can bring people together in a country torn by sectarian violence. Mousawak employs cooks from different religious groups who prepare meals with cross-community appeal at his Souk el Tayeb eatery.

“Our slogan is ‘make food not war’, and I always have in my head what Gandhi said: be the change you want to see,” Mousawak says. - L. MCKENZIE and J.M. DE CLERCQ

(Copenhagen Cooking 2013 ends Sept. 1)