More than 125 chefs from around the world descended on São Paulo last month for Semana Mesa, Brazil's annual gastronomic extravaganza, where sustainability was this year's theme. Luciana Bianchi reports
Imagine an inspiring gathering such as Madrid Fusion, multiply it by four, and then add tropical weather, exotic fruits and a bit of samba. This is a quick picture of Semana Mesa, the largest gastronomic event in South America, which took place in São Paulo from 25 to 29 October. Some 125 chefs and 80 companies from around the world were involved in this massive annual event, which is divided into three parts: Mesa Tendências, the international chef congress; Prazeres da Mesa ao Vivo, the "non-stop" cooking and tasting show; and the Charity Dinner, where Brazilian and international guest chefs cook together for a selected cause.
Every year a central theme and a guest nation set the direction for Semana Mesa, an event for which people from all parts of Brazil - and from all over the world - travel to São Paulo, a city at the heart of Brazilian gastronomy. It is the home of celebrated chef Alex Atala and of many culinary treasures still unknown internationally - ranging from fine-dining restaurants, chic bars and cafés to trattorias, street food and busy markets. São Paulo is a melting pot of cultures, where urban roughness and poverty meet elegance and wealth - a creative and tolerant city full of contrasts.
Founded in 2007, Semana Mesa is organised by Mariella Lazzaretti, Georges Schnyder and Ricardo Castilho, the journalists behind Prazeres da Mesa, the leading South American gourmet magazine, in partnership with SENAC, one of the oldest and most renowned catering schools in Brazil. The congress really rose to prominence in 2008, when Ferran Adrià and 15 top Spanish chefs took centre stage, while in 2009, a host of French chefs led by Alain Ducasse and Oliver Roellinger developed the theme the evolution of cuisine. This year, the focus was on sustainability and what gastronomy can do for the planet. The guest chefs came with their very own approach to cooking and personal sustainability projects. Some had simple and effective ideas, while others had ambitious plans. A petition signed by the participants is now circulating around the world, asking chefs to take part in the sustainability movement.
It was a truly international gathering, which included many chefs from the UK: Marcus Wareing, Nuno Mendes, Shane Osborn, Atul Kochhar and Marcello Tully. From Italy there were Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Heinz Beck of La Pergola in Rome, and Carlo Petrini, president of Slow Food International, while Ben Roche of Moto, and Thomas Elliot Bowman of Otom, both in Chicago, represented the USA. Other high-profile contributors included French food scientist Hervé This and Japanese chef Yoshihiro Narisawa.
Meanwhile the Brazilian team of chefs was led by Atala and included Helena Rizzo and Daniel Redondo of restaurant Mani, Rodrigo Oliveira of Mocotó, Mara Salles of Tordesilhas, Tsuyoshi Murakami of Kinoshita, Roberta Sudbrack, and Bel Coelho of Dui - all in Sao Paulo. They spoke about forests and deforestation, about the role chefs should play to help to protect the nature around them and about the importance of close relationships with producers. They represented a new generation of Brazilian chefs reshaping the culinary landscape of the country.
"We have talented and passionate professionals in many Brazilian kitchens, each one of them with their very own style and approach to food. But nevertheless many of these young chefs are unified in love for their terroir and for this immense and diverse country," said Atala.
There were many highlights of the event but diversity and different points of view were at the top of the agenda. Wareing's presentation stood out. Brazil had made such a huge impression on him that he decided to change his presentation at the last moment, replacing it with an homage to the country's terroir. Inspired by the local markets and exotic fruits, he created a piece of art using local produce. Meanwhile, Shane Osborn focused on sustainability and education, and the importance of small projects, using Pied à Terre as an example. "Small actions can turn into great results. We have an organic garden on our roof," he said. It is good for the kitchen, for the environment, and makes us truly happy." The presentations of Narisawa and Bottura added an extra layer, using multimedia tools and in-depth treatment of the central theme conveying art, philosophy, nourishment and ecology.
Closing the congress, Petrini delivered a passionate speech about human beings and nature, and sustainability as the driving force to a healthy future of world gastronomy. "We have to protect and support our farmers and producers. Without them there wouldn't be any chefs," he concluded.