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Art, Gastronomy

Food from the Enchanted Forest and from the real Brazil


René Redzepi

Ever since chef René Redzepi, from Denmark’s Noma restaurant, decided to serve dishes with colourful drops and brushstrokes, textured much like Pollock’s drip paintings, more than a dozen chefs around the world began to emulate his creations. When he served an egg in a nest, several inspired copycat dishes and services came up in menus of great haute cuisine restaurants.

I can see great coherence in Redzepi’s work. He may be echoing great painters, but the core concept of his food is clear. His strong connection to his country’s natural environment stands out in his dishes. In Noma, his book with his creations, we see his dishes side by side with pictures of lichens and vegetation from the forest where he goes to get inspiration. There is a strong, deep reason why he plates his dishes the way he does.

Brazilian haute cuisine has also drunk from his source, notably after the UK-based Restaurant magazine began to produce a list of the best restaurants in the world. But here in Brazil, it’s just copying. Among us, some chefs drink from the source of another chef who creates his dishes while roaming the enchanted forests of his native country. Here, his dishes become little more than Parnassian posturing.

In contrast to Danish gastronomy, Brazilian cooking is rife with conflicts. Noma has nothing to do with Brazilian food. We need only go out into the streets of major Brazilian towns to see those conflicts. They are the major force in creating an identity for our food.

When we go into the kitchen to make a dish, we make aesthetic decisions. Even a 12-year-old, when first learning to follow recipes, is making aesthetic decisions. They are drawn from the environment they live in, their social and cultural context, their community. That is why I have misgivings about those importations of Noma’s cuisine into Brazil. It has been forcefully grafted into our reality.

I explain the points above by using the ideas of ‘beautiful’ and ‘sublime’ from Edmund Burke. In his treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful – an 18th-century masterpiece, written when he was 28 –, there is an important discussion about canons of beauty in a work of art when set beside the aesthetic experience of awe and aversion to deformity.

For Burke, the sublime is not a mere hyper-intense form of beauty, but it endows the work of art with an anthropological dimension, be it a picture, a book or simply food. Burke’s “sublime” brings with it fear, disease, agony, despair and death. This is at the heart of my criticism of Brazilian gastronomy and its penchant for “beauty” and “good taste”. Brazilian haute cuisine does not reflect what Brazil really is. Although some restaurants make it a point to announce that they use ingredients brought straight from the deep heart of the country in their creations, they’re mere copies of what pleased their eyes elsewhere.