Though raised a city boy in São Bernardo do Campo, Alex Atala often went with his father to fish for dinner in the ocean and pick fruit in the rainforest. He has always been, as he says, an “independent personality,” and at age 14 he left home for good to join São Paolo’s rock and roll scene. After working as a DJ, he took off once again, backpacking through Europe. In Belgium he enrolled in catering school just to get a visa, and there he discovered his calling as a chef.
Atala perfected his skills in some of Europe’s top kitchens before returning to São Paulo and opening a gastronomic table named D.O.M. — Latin for “To God, Best and Greatest.” (In return, the heavens blessed him with the fourth slot on the 2012 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.) At D.O.M. he applies haute cuisine technique to indigenous products such an enormous freshwater fish called pirarucu. More recently he opened Dalva e Dito, a modern take on Brazilian grandmother food.
With his dimpled smile and reddish beard, his torso graced by nipple rings and tattoos peaking out from under his whites, Atala seems to be pure testosterone. But there is a caring nature underneath the he-man physique. He once acquired 57,000 acres of rainforest in order to protect it, and he researches sustainable new food products for the benefit of Amazonian tribes. Priprioca, for example, is a fragrant root normally used in cosmetics; Atala pairs it with chocolate cream.