Friday, October 11, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: D.O.M: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients by Alex Atala

NOTE: We will be hosting Alex Atala Tuesday October 15th 6:30pm, with Chef Daniel Patterson from Coi, San Francisco, California. Tickets available from The Cookbook Store, 416-920 2665 or, via PayPal at
This is an off site event at George Ignatieff Theatre, 15 Devonshire Place.  

              Every once in a while a cookbook comes along and completely pulls the rug out from under you. Sometimes these surprises are good, and sometimes they can be less than stellar. Upon hearing of Alex Atala’s plan to publish a book chronicling the recipes of his restaurant D.O.M. (short for “Dominus, Optimus, Maximus) in Sao Paulo, needless to say that I was intrigued and excited for its eventual release. To be truthful, I had never really paid any attention to South America as a whole when it came to food and dining; yes I had heard of D.O.M., but my interests were more angled towards America and Europe at the time. My first day in Spain, I was lucky enough to meet Chef Atala himself at the San Sebastian Gastronomika festival. I was woefully jetlagged at the time, so I’m sure I didn’t make the most luminous of first impressions on Mr. Atala, but I do recall the impression he left on me. Alex Atala is a driven man; he is passionate, charismatic and impressive in his ideals and patriotism for the magic of his native Brazil. 

                A former DJ, party animal and self-proclaimed drug addict, Atala, like many cooks, found solace in the work of a kitchen. Having trained for years around Europe, he returned home with the techniques of Alain Passard and other great chefs in his arsenal. Opening D.O.M. was not intended to be his contribution to the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list; Atala realized that what the Amazon may lack in conventional ingredients, it made up for with a catalogue of flavours and textures that were unheard of in the rest of the world. Histories of native peoples and their indigenous foods lay at his feet, a secret to everyone but him.  Whether his current efforts of philanthropy and support of Amazonian culture is repentance for his excessive previous life, we may never know, but Atala has risen to become one of the foremost authorities on his beloved Amazon; a position that offers stipends from government and immense support from his colleagues. 

                As for the book itself, one may assume (correctly, I must admit) that the recipes follow in the trend of the Noma and Mugaritz books that preceded it in terms of offering generally inaccessible recipes. Fortunately, and surprisingly, the vast majority of recipes in this book are shockingly simple (though I must add that I would think twice before attempting the recipe for Ant and Pineapple). Very few recipes require more than 4 sub-recipes and the sub-recipes are almost always 4-6 ingredients in length. Frankly, the longest recipe in the book is still shorter than Andoni  Aduriz’s nightmare recipe for Vegetable Carpaccio (trust me; I lived it for a month). Cynics may scoff at the inclusion of ant salt and the book’s dependence on the cassava root (understandable, seeing as it is the main source of food for the entire continent) but when recipes are so easy to replicate and interpret, the effectiveness of a cookbook grows exponentially. The recipe for oyster mayo, for example, replaces the expected egg yolk with a briny oyster, thereby changing the entire complexity of the recipe, yet still yielding a silky, rich and creamy result.

                Understand that even though there are quite a few ingredients that may seem difficult to find, for the most part they can be sourced with some well-placed phone calls or substituted with a similarly flavoured ingredient. Indigenous Amazonian ingredients are preceded by informative passages detailing the origins of the ingredient as well as its characteristics and flavour profile (useful, if you are unable to find priprioca in dead-of-winter Toronto. Even widely known ingredients like okra and corn have their Amazonian back stories revealed in a successful effort by Atala to produce a cookbook that uses exciting new ingredients and combines them with old-school familiar elements like braising and sauce-making. The reader isn’t expected to be able to exactly replicate the recipes, but by understanding the techniques and thought process of these dishes, Atala is hoping to expand cooking horizons and divert some attention to the truly amazing things that are cooking up in South America.

Review by Kevin Jeung
Former employee at The Cookbook Store and most recently returned from a stint at Mugaritz in Spain

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