Joao Alcántara (Vitoria, 1984) is a young Brazilian chef who is passionate about cooking. His charm, cheerfulness and enthusiasm are contagious. And he has a dream that is slowly becoming a reality: to share his country’s cuisine and give people a taste of Brazilian culture. We met up with him just a few days before the opening of his new restaurant, Fogo, in Barcelona’s Eixample district. Sit back and enjoy.
How would you define your cooking style?
I cook culture. I’m from a country that culturally does not have as much culinary baggage as Spain or Europe. I try to tell a story through food.
What kind of a story?
The story of my country. Brazil is enormous, it is a vast universe. Telling the story of Brazil here, in Spain, is like playing in the Champions League. Behind every dish there’s a lovely story. It’s about studying traditional Brazilian cuisine and expressing it in dishes that allow people to taste the country’s culture.
How does one combine Brazilian and Mediterranean cuisine?
They coincide in a lot of ways. Remember, we were colonized by Mediterranean cuisine and learned a great deal from it. Now we have the chance to showcase our own cuisine, and we’re doing so with excellent products. For me, good ingredients make up 70% of a dish, and Brazil provides plenty of sources, including the Amazon and many other areas.
When did you decide to cook professionally?
When I was a kid, my father cooked at home a lot, and I loved it. He always smelled like moqueca (a traditional Brazilian dish). I tried studying other things, but I finally realized that what I really enjoyed was cooking. One day, I told my mother, “Mom, I’m a cook.” And my mother replied, “Yes, I already knew that.” I think I was born to cook.
A chef with diabetes…
That’s right. Diabetes has played a decisive role in my life. It inspired me to learn about food and healthy eating habits and made me realize that there are no limits to cooking.
In other words, we can eat well, healthy and enjoy it…
Of course. If we eat well and have healthy habits, we feel it in our body. The responsibility of a chef is to use healthy ingredients without sacrificing pleasure.
Do you have any role models?
Many. Before you can write your own life story, you need to read good stories, and I did. In Brazil, I’ve always admired Alex Atala and Helena Rizzo, and in Spain, Ferran Adrià and Rafa Peña.
In your opinion, what is the role of wine in gastronomy? And in Brazilian gastronomy, specifically?
I treat wine and food the same way. They are equally important. A bad wine can ruin a great dish. I always remember the wines I’ve had, because of how they connect to moments in my life.
People are going out to dinner more often, they like going to good restaurants and eating well… Have we become more gourmet?
I don’t think so. Food will always be fashionable. What we have is more access to information, and people are taking advantage of it.
Where do you think gastronomy is headed?
Gastronomy will always evolve at society’s pace. Very quickly. But now I think it’s important to stop. To go back to our roots. To examine what we’re doing and analyze what and how we eat. I think eating is a social rather than a biological act. What we eat now will determine what our children will be in ten years.
Tell us about Fogo and how the project developed up to this point.
Fogo began the moment I arrived in Barcelona and started learning from the great masters of Spanish cuisine. Over time, I came to realize that no one here was making Brazilian food, and I decided it was time to introduce the very best of our cuisine. I met a lot of very important people who believed in my dream and gave me the support and encouragement I needed to carry out the project.
The main idea behind Fogo was a portable restaurant concept…
Yes, we decided to start out that way to gain experience and see if people embraced this type of cuisine. Ferran Adrià always said that people did not understand the food he made. I think the same thing is happening with Brazilian food right now. People don’t understand it, and our goal is to change that, to have them know and appreciate it.
What makes a portable restaurant so special?
It breaks down barriers. A growing number of chefs change locations or cook in pairs. Portable dining concepts provide a great learning opportunity.
But now you have a permanent location…
Yes, eventually every clown needs his circus. In addition to the food we serve, the space will be about people, in the broadest sense of the word, and the atmosphere will help convey what we seek to express in our dishes.
Dani Alves is among the important people you’ve met…
Yes, he is an amazing person and a great friend who shared the same dream. Brazil has a rich history, it isn’t just football, caipirinhas and samba. It is so much more, which is what we want to show at Fogo.
What does one learn from an elite athlete like Dani Alves?
Determination. To follow your dreams. The ability to work under pressure. To be very genuine in your professional life.
You love sports…
It’s my passion. If I hadn’t become a chef, I would’ve loved to be a professional athlete, but it’s very complicated. Sports fuel my life, they keep me going.
What advice would you have for a young chef who wants to start his or her own restaurant?
I would recommend they enjoy the ride and not simply focus on the end goal. If you want to be successful, but don’t enjoy the day-to-day, you’re not going to do very well. It is very time-consuming and demanding. You have to love what you do.
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A BRIEF TASTE
Do you like wine?
Yes, I love it.
What is the best moment to enjoy a glass of wine?
Any moment is good.
A song to accompany a good wine.
I like classical music.
A place to get lost in.
If you could be reincarnated, who or what would you be?
What do you do in your free time?
A flaw and a virtue.
I’m disorganized. A virtue? I really believe in people.
What did you want to be as a kid?
And when you’re older?
A better chef.