Brazil more than beans as Michelin probes Latino dishes

Brazilian chef Alex Atala (AFP PHOTO / NELSON ALMEIDA)

Brazilian chef Alex Atala (AFP PHOTO / NELSON ALMEIDA)

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, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

Tickle your palate.

Try some Amazonian ants with pineapple. Or how about some beetroot salad with curds? Brazilian gastronomic fare has far more to offer than the traditional staples of beans and rice with cassava.

So say the experts from the revered Michelin guide, who have edited their first Brazil edition covering the megacities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

The guide reviews 145 restaurants, the first Michelin has ever selected in Latin America. A total of 16 boast one Michelin star -- 10 in business hub Sao Paulo and the other six in tourist mecca Rio.

Just one received the accolade of two stars -- chef Alex Atala's D.O.M. in Sao Paulo, known for its use of Amazonian ingredients such as the ants, which leave a surprising citric aftertaste in the mouth.

Such delicacies require a portly wallet with menu prices of between 242 and 825 reais ($80 to $270).

"As with all fine gastronomy, it's all about the product and in this country, there are fabulous products to be had -- fantastic freshwater fish, fantastic vegetables, meat of extraordinary quality," enthused American Michael Ellis, Michelin's international guides' director.

The guides were first published in France more than a century ago to promote automobile travel.

"The Brazil guide reflects the fact there is a future. I was here back in the '80s when Brazilian cuisine was beans, rice, farofa (cassava flour) and very, very cooked meat. The Brazilians love things well cooked.

"But things have moved on -- 25 years ago we didn't have what we have today," Ellis explained to a group of reporters.

Atala and other young chefs have traveled afar to discover new techniques, new ingredients and new spices that "give Brazil its own culinary signature," said Ellis.

- Taste the emotion -

Even so, to date Brazil still lacks a single three-star establishment, an honor bestowed only on select eateries whose chefs are not just talented but dedicated to the point of boundless obsession with their culinary creations.

"It is the emotion which makes the difference. Three stars mark you out, it's something you'll hopefully retain all your life. It's something organic that happens in your mouth and is very difficult to reproduce," said Ellis.

"And every three-star chef, every artist, has a very personal and different way of producing it from all the rest. Then we're into the realms of emotion."

Michelin, whose hotel and eatery guides cover 24 countries, chose Brazil as its first Latin American target as "it is the most important country in Latin America with a rapidly growing middle class," explained the company's brands executive vice-president Claire Dorland-Clauzel.

She noted that Michelin has been present in Brazil through its tire factories employing thousands since 1927.

The criteria for awarding gastronomic stars are the same around the globe, meaning a one-star rating in Sao Paulo is worth the same as in Paris or Tokyo, for example.

The Michelin inspectors visit the restaurants anonymously and duly pay for what they consume, guaranteeing their independence, the firm stresses.

On occasion, they will identify themselves and ask to talk to the chef and visit the kitchen -- but only after they have settled the check.

The restaurants with one or more stars earn their rating only through repeated visits by different inspectors, who make the decision jointly.

Michelin has been compiling the Brazilian guide for more than a year.

Inspectors from Spain, Portugal and various other countries sampled more than 500 dishes before selecting the 145 restaurants that will feature in the guide's first edition.

In the future, Michelin intends to take on Brazilian inspectors and train them how to rate meals using six criteria -- ingredients, cooking, harmony and taste, chef personality, menu regularity and the relationship between quality and price.

The guides always use local inspectors to produce their rankings -- but never for first editions, owing to the need for extensive inspector training at the outset.

Michelin bosses won't say for now which countries they may include in their next Latin American edition.

But there are plenty of candidates as the importance of gastronomic tourism increases.

"Governors, ministers, mayors come to see us and ask us if we might produce a guide" highlighting local fare," said Dorland-Clauzel.

"Cooking has become an economic tool."


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