DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK. We're about to meet a man who, according to Time magazine, was one of the most influential people in 2013: Alex Atala. His restaurant, D.O.M., is among the top ten in the world, and as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Sao Paolo, Chef Atala is putting a new kind of Brazilian food on the map.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: He has a graying beard, tats, and he openly jokes about his days as a wild youth experimenting with drugs. He grew up in gray Sao Paulo, and came to the culinary world almost by mistake. He needed to extend his visa in Belgium when he was backpacking, so he enrolled in a cooking class. We meet in his restaurant, D.O.M., which stands for Deo Optimo Maximo - or To God, most good, most great - which he opened in 1999.
ALEX ATALA: Lots of people, they probably didn't recognize D.O.M. as a Brazilian cuisine. Lots of people didn't believe.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But he's made converts out of his fiercest critics. These days, Alex Atala is widely regarded as the most accomplished chef in Latin America. When he started out, Brazilian food wasn't in vogue. A long history with colonialism made Brazilians think European cuisine was better, and their native ingredients were looked down on. Now...
ATALA: There's something happening in Brazil.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a new culinary movement here that focuses on regional Brazilian cuisine. And he's at the center of it. Atala showcases ingredients from the vast Amazon region, one of the most famous places in the world. When he began...
ATALA: Whole entire world got image, nobody has the flavor.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Not anymore. People have the flavor now. He uses iridescent rainforest insects in his meals, Amazonian fish, delicate jungle herbs in dishes that are presented in tiny, exquisite portions. His philosophy is simple.
ATALA: It's to put one ingredient or one recipe in their best moment.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Atala believes this region is now at the forefront of gastronomy.
ATALA: I do believe that South America, Latin America and mainly Amazonas is the new frontier in the sense of flavor, in the sense of textures, in the sense of diversity.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Atala doesn't just want to change what people eat, but how people eat. When he was starting out, he was inspired by European chefs growing their own ingredients. He bought some land in the Amazon region and started sourcing his food there. He was inspired to help the local community, whom he said seemed undernourished to him.
ATALA: These changes can be hugely positive, but there is risk on it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The risk was that his help did more harm than good. He sent food to the locals, but the plastic wrappings around the food ended up being littered everywhere. And the kinds of food the locals were eating changed because of what he was giving them.
ATALA: My intention was pure and beautiful. What I was doing, at the end of the day, was damaging.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's when Atala started thinking about the impact of what he does.
ATALA: Behind every dish, there's death. It is not a comfortable way to understand the food chain, but it is a way to provoke reflection.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And provoke he did, when he recently killed a chicken in front of a live audience in Denmark.
ATALA: Why? Why? Our grandmother used to kill chicken every day. The urban chefs nowadays just order chicken wings or rack of lamb or filet mignon. And we have lost our connection with our ingredients in their primary mode.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He adds jokingly...
ATALA: Food's a very powerful weapon.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Atala has opened the ATA institute, whose mission is to look at ways to help the Amazonian region and create sustainability and accountability in the massive food industry here.
ATALA: One of the biggest challenges or paradox for the next generation is how we are going to feed the human population.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: With that in mind, he's also helped found a food cooperative in a rice-making valley in Sao Paulo State. He says Brazil can help change the way things are done.
ATALA: Maybe we are ready to export new culture and new ingredients, as well.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is still a long way to go, but Atala says he's hopeful.
ATALA: There's a new door just opening, just open. And, again, Amazonas is, in my personal opinion, will be the center of this new message.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paolo.