On a recent summer day, the chef of the best restaurant in South America went to tour the pepper fields of a group of female farmers. No culinary idyll, the journey required a two-hour trek through dense jungle and a stop to dig up a bucket of ants for lunch. Halfway there, the roar of a jetliner penetrated the canopy. But this was no plane; it was rain so thoroughly drenching of clothes, shoes and earth that the chef's small group gave up trying to cross over the now raging streams and simply waded through them, boots and all. This, in other words, was rain-forest rain. And for Alex Atala, 45, who at one point during the cascade spread his arms and let the water come down on him like an embrace, it was also part of a regular day's work.
It is commonplace these days for chefs to grow their own vegetables, slaughter their own pigs and forage for ramps in the name of sustainability and terroir. Atala takes those notions to the extreme. In the course of his work, he has been stung by a poisonous ant and spent the night in a monsoon with an overturned canoe his only protection. He has drunk a hallucinogen prepared from tree bark, been threatened at gunpoint by tribesmen and kidnapped twice--once by Slovenian bear hunters. If all that makes him sound more like a superhero than a fine-dining chef, his feats are not the only grounds for comparison. Like Batman/Bruce Wayne or Spider-Man/Peter Parker, Alex Atala has two identities. And he's only recently learned how to unite them peaceably into a force for good.
The better-known Atala spends most evenings tweezing ingredients onto beautifully arranged plates in a gleaming kitchen where absolute silence rules. That Atala is a celebrity in his native Brazil, unable to walk through an airport or market without an eager fan asking for a photograph, and was given the place of honor next to Princess Caroline of Monaco at a dinner to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Monte Carlo's elite restaurant Le Louis XV last November. A brief stint on television and his undeniable good looks have surely contributed to his fame, but mostly his outsize reputation comes from cooking. Not only has Atala taken his elegant little São Paulo restaurant D.O.M. to the upper echelons of the World's 50 Best Restaurants list (it's currently No. 6), but he has also put Brazilian food--a refined, creative version of it--on the culinary map.
Yet beneath the pressed white chef's jacket, there is another Atala. That one channeled childhood mischief into punk rebellion and then, years later, swapped urban jungle for the real thing. With a new English-language cookbook by Atala just out and a book tour that will take him through the U.S. and U.K., the rest of the world is about to learn about the power of the action-figure chef.
When he was a toddler, Atala's first word was land, a clue to what would be a lifelong fascination with nature. "He would go out in the backyard and play with ants," his mother Otavia Mack da Silva recalls. "He would carry them around in his hands, crying because they were biting him, but he wouldn't let them go." Fishing and hunting trips with his father and grandfather cemented his love of the outdoors. A teacher once instructed his class to make gifts for their parents but nixed his idea for a collection of live insects. He handed his mom a jar of bugs anyway.