How often do we truly see ourselves? I mean, truly see ourselves in a way that moves our soul? It might be difficult and scary, but always, it’s illuminating. And, if we know what to then do with that information, it’s a gift.
This came to me as I watched Chef’s Table, Season Two for the first time last week (a little late, I know, as it’s now in its third season). I was mesmerized by the episode on Chef Alex Atala, the famously tattooed chef who put Brazil on the culinary map when he opened his restaurant D.O.M. in Sao Paulo in 1999. It is now the No. 1 restaurant in South America and Atala himself has been voted one of the top 50 chefs in the world.
He has used his fame to champion and change Brazilian cooking. He has done much for the Brazilian farmers and the rainforest through his efforts to awaken people to every bit of the cuisine, including sauva ants which he considers an herb (they are said to taste like lemongrass and ginger). ”I am famous in my little food world,” he said on the show, “But I don’t want to look back in 10 years and think that I didn’t use my voice.”
But his voice wasn’t always so focused. It took a shirtless moment (literally) for him to face a hard truth and pivot from trying to be one type of chef, and become a Brazilian chef. As he explains…
“I went back to Brazil and having a tattoo [as a chef] was not so good. So I started to work covered up. At that time, all the important restaurants in Brazil were only cooking French and Italian cuisine. French chefs were the gods in Brazil. No one was interested in Brazilian cuisine. While working in a French restaurant, I met a chef named Erick Jacquin. He said to me ‘You are a good chef, but you will never make French food as good as I do.’ He was talking about a cultural difference. I was upset. I felt bad. I went back home took off my T-shirt and looked in the mirror.
I am a tattooed man. I am an outsider, I am Brazilian. This is who I am. If I was different I want to BE different.
If I’m not able to make a French dinner a good as a French chef, no one can do a better Brazilian dinner or experience than me. So I started to switch ingredients. I took flounder and served it with a passion fruit farofa. People loved that dish.
That was my moment. I decided to make my own restaurant, which is DOM and I decided to cook only that which comes from my heart – Brazilian cuisine.”
So much truth in that moment. Doing only that which comes from the heart is a powerful way to live.
My Own Shirtless Moment
While the moment I’m about to describe pales in comparison, it was important nonetheless to me and my development as a marketer. Years ago one of my clients, a very accomplished event producer, got a bee in his bonnet about wanting to be on local news. The show was looking for stories on summer drinks by the pool and entertaining on a budget.
His forte was live corporate events with a fund-raising purpose, but those aren’t so easy to explain in a 30-second sound bite. Nor does the audience of a local news show really care unless it’s an event they can attend. Bottom line: the message and the medium just didn’t add up. I didn’t feel it was in his best interest to diminish his talent and veer off course so I stepped aside and he carried on with another firm. He did the drink segments, and the budget entertaining segments. In the end, neither got him business, and both just made him depressed.
That moment helped me understand that marketing to the wrong audience for the sake of a news clip does no one any good. I felt good about my decision then, and continue to be passionate about how I counsel others in this area since then. When we lose sight of who we are who will follow us? Will they be just “an audience,” or will they be our ideal audience?
What I take from Atala’s moment for myself today is we can all afford to take our proverbial “shirts” off from time to time and reconnect with who we are, not who we think we should be, or worse, someone else thinks we should be. Whether it’s a plate of beautiful food, a clever marketing campaign, or disease-curing medicine … it all makes a difference in the world when it comes from the most powerful place of all — the heart.
Green tomato gel with coriander seeds, Peruvian corn and aromatic herbs
Signature Dish: Pineapple and dried saúva ants