Léo Filho was one of the precursors of the "New Brazilian Gastronomy" that is changing the way chefs cook in Brazil, the ingredients and techniques they use, and which is also changing Brazilians' own perceptions of their national cuisine. For twenty years, Filho was chef at São Paulo's Maksoud Plaza Hotel, helming the hotel's French restaurant, Cuisine du Soleil. Today, he is not only a professor at a prestigious gastronomic academy in São Paulo, but also divides chef duties with his partner Walter Cordeiro at E.A.T., their very successful restaurant in São Paulo's upmarket Itaim Bibi district.
Born just over 50 years ago in the small town of Amargosa, in the northeastern state of Bahia, Léo Filho was one of the first black chefs to make it to the top of gastronomic circles in Brazil. Although in many ways, as Brazilians are proud to proclaim, racism is not a large social problem in Brazil, it is not to say that black Brazilians have all the opportunities, especially economic ones, afforded their white or mixed-race compatriots. Statistically, black Brazilians are under-represented in the professions and in upper echelons of the business world, and over-represented in the numbers of unemployed and underemployed.
In this interview with chef Filho, which I've translated from the original Portuguese and which comes from the Brazilian food and cooking magazine Prazeres da Mesa, he looks back at his career and how Brazilian gastronomy has changed during that time. He also speaks about what the future might hold for Brazil in the world of 21st century global gastronomy.
After twenty years as executive chef at Cuisine du Soleil, what did you do after you left there?
In recent years, I decided to remain low profile and dedicate myself to my own catering company and my career as a professor in an institute of gastronomy here in São Paulo. During that time, I traveled extensively around the country, and received many invitations to return to restaurant work. But at Eat, I act on my own as a chef, alongside the promising black chef, Walter Cordeiro. We create and cook with four hands.
It's not very common for a black man to rise to the level of executive chef. Does discrimination exist also in the world of gastronomy?
I haven't felt much discrimination in my own professional life. For that, I thank the Maksoud Plaza Hotel. But I have to say that I had to prove myself more than a white chef might have had to do, just like every black man must prove himself better. The fact is that I had a strong family base, which gave me the incentive to study and fight harder. However, it is clear that there is discrimination is this area, which has as a cause the social conditions and low levels of education of the majority of black Brazilians. As a matter of fact, I have a current project of which I'm very fond - creating a technical culinary course for Brazilians from lower economic classes. I had an invitation to build this project in Angola, but I preferred to make my ideas concrete here, in one of São Paulo's favelas (slums). This is my grand dream which I plan to fulfill, since I love a challenge and a good fight.
With so many activities, what is your greatest professional pleasure?
Besides my family, and especially my grandson Lucca, cooking is my passion, my life.
Is it easier to work today than when you first began?
More than 25 years ago, we felt we were, and in fact were, pathfinders. Brazil had everything it needed in the area of cooking and cuisine. I belong to a generation of chefs, which included Laurent Suaudeau and Claude Troisgros, and which had a mission to shape suppliers, enable restaurant employees, locate products of true quality and create from zero a system of managing all this. Many times, I returned to Brazil laden with truffles, morels, foie gras and kitchen utensils hidden in my luggage.
But clients are better informed gastronomically today, aren't they?
Brazil loves novelty, but unfortunately, gives little value to the classics. Because of this, may chefs follow fads and surf that wave called "gastronomic re-readings" - and sometimes, they don't reread the gastronomic past very well. Of course a chef must today know how to make a foam, but he or she should also know how to make a classic brown sauce. One important French chef once said, "If you just mix ingredients without any critical thought, you run the risk of the result being nothing more than a culinary parade float." It's necessary to respect the taste of things - always.
Are the ingredients as important as the chef's skill in creating a great dish?
I think it's about fifty-fifty. You have to have a balance between the two. I think that kitchen stress and hard-times at the stove are essential if a chef doesn't want to lose his touch. You must study and gain academic knowledge, sure, but you have to continue to practice your art. Some chefs today spend more time giving interviews than they do in the kitchen. And in cooking school, some students are more intent on appearing in a magazine and achieving rapid success than they are on learning their craft. This shocks me: they want to be famous, that's all. You have to climb step by step and respect every stage in the process.
Is the increase in the number of culinary schools a good sign?
I think this growth is natural and a good thing, as long as the schools have the necessary qualities. However, the majority of students in these schools will not remain in the field. When they discover that a true chef has to work up to 15 hours a day, they throw in the towel. But those who have a vocation for cooking remain. And they will triumph, clearly, after a long fight and much personal investment.
And how to you perceive which students have that vocation?
Just by observing. Such a student loves what he or she is doing so much that their eyes shine. It's the way she picks up a knife, the way he cuts a vegetable. The true cook treats food as if it were diamonds. Also, they listen more than speak. And even more, they must love to work in a team, be disciplined, concentrating, and demanding of themselves. I consider my profession an art, and I demand the same of my students. For an artist, concentration is crucial. I work in total silence, and refuse to answer my cell phone when I'm working.
What still remains before Brazil will be recognized as a first-rate power in the world of global gastronomy?
We're getting close. Brazil's the flavor of the month today, and we already have great culinary diversity, great products and material with which to work, and a group of very talented chefs. But we still have to correct one thing: It's not necessary to for us receive accolades from outside Brazil, and only when we do clap our hands here. In other words, we don't need to wait for Madonna or Ferran Adriàto to praise our sapoti, or our piracuru in order for us to recognize their worth and their quality.