This East London restaurant is preparing to reopen for the first time since winning its second Michelin star. Caroline Baldwin speaks to Rafael Cagali about his influences.
Despite his mother having a restaurant in his home of São Paulo in Brazil, the executive chef and co-owner of Da Terra in London (which secured its second Michelin star just this year) didn't grow up with a passion for cooking, instead choosing to study economics at university.
"It wasn't a career to take seriously back then," says Rafael Cagali. "There weren't any chef icons to look up to in Brazil when I was growing up – maybe footballers, but not chefs."
While living in London during his student years, he picked up a part-time kitchen job and his instinctive love for cooking soon kicked in. Since then he has lived in Italy and Spain, and worked in multiple three-Michelin-starred kitchens, including Quique Dacosta in Dénia, Spain, and the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire.
He opened his first restaurant, Da Terra, within the Town Hall hotel in East London with business partner and fellow chef Paulo Airaudo in early 2019. While he works closely with Airaudo on the business and menu ideas, the food in Da Terra is very much Cagali's, as Airaudo is based in Spain.
Cagali describes his food as "modern, but hearty" with a mix of influences from Brazil and also Italy, where his family is originally from. This comes across strongly on the tasting menu (£130 for seven courses or £155 for 10), which, rather than fusing the two cuisines together on one plate, is more of a journey from Brazil to Italy and back again.
A firm staple on the menu is the classic Brazilian fish stew moqueca. Cagali's version originates from the Bahia region in the north east of the country, with the inclusion of coconut milk and bell pepper, while also being heavily influenced with spices brought over from Africa to Portugal.
Cagali sources the fish from the UK but the dende oil extracted from palm fruit, which he uses to bring out the dish's flavour, is shipped over from Brazil, along with the chillies. The stew is made in the traditional manner in a large pot, which is taken to the guest's table before being plated with a modern touch and served alongside palm hearts and farofa – a typical Brazilian side dish of toasted flour. "I then come back and finish the dish in front of [the guests] with a sauce at the table," the chef explains. "I like to educate them."
In a bid to "break down the seriousness of fine dining", Cagali encourages his team of seven chefs to all take their dishes to the table themselves, narrating the story of courses, including scallops with kuri pumpkin and plum umeboshi and a ‘Romeo and Juliette' cheese course with guava.
"I like to guide the guests through the service and encourage my chefs to bring their personality. I say, ‘you produced this dish, you know what's in it. Go and tell the guests'. It takes time for the chefs to feel comfortable about it, because they're used to hiding away in the kitchen. When you produce a dish mise en place, you know better than anyone what's in there."
I like to guide the guests through the service and encourage my chefs to bring their personality
An Italian classic tortellino follows, where Cagali ages a whole duck for two weeks. The legs and thighs are cured and confited for the pasta filling, the skin becomes crumbs and the carcass makes the sauce. Cagali also makes ham from the duck breast, which he tells guests to eat alongside the pasta, which is made with chlorophyll and served with a watercress purée.
The diner is then taken back to Brazil for a classic feijoada – a family staple – made of stewed black beans, which Cagali purées, cooks with different cuts of pork, depending on what the supplier has that day, and serves with banana sweetcorn farofa and Biquinho chillies.
Cagali describes the dish as a moreish, rustic-looking plate, offering a nod to the ethos of the restaurant, which is summed up in its name: Da Terra, meaning from the earth in Portuguese. "My idea was to come up to something from the ground, our roots and our origins."
Da Terra's double-star accolade hasn't gone to Cagali's head, and he doesn't have ambitions to pursue a TV career or consider any further openings in the short term ("one already gives me a lot of headaches"). His focus is simply on reopening Da Terra and sustaining a successful business full of happy guests and making sure this year is a healthy one: "We closed with one star and will be reopening with two, which is surreal."
Da Terra, 8 Patriot Square, London E2 9NF
From the tasting menu
- Scallop: Isle of Mull, kuri pumpkin, plum umeboshi
- Custard: Scottish mussel, trout roe, elderflower
- The chicken: wings, liver, foot, yolk, onion
- Sourdough: bone marrow, cultured butter, olive oil
- Moqueca: wild halibut, palm heart, cassava
- Tortellino: chlorophyll, duck, whey, watercress
- Feijoada: New Forest pork, black beans, farofa
- Romeo & Juliette: cheese, guava
- Caviar: cachaça ice-cream, oscietra, mole
- Figs: sheep's yogurt, 40-year-old balsamic
- Petits fours
Seven courses, £130; 10 courses, £155. Five-course lunch, £78. Wine pairing, £78 for seven courses, or £95 for 10
You need to be a premium member to view this. Subscribe from just 99p per week.
Already subscribed? Log In