Rafael Cagail's guide to São Paulo

His multicultural career having brought the chef patron of two-Michelin- starred Da Terra and new, relaxed Elis to London, Rafael evokes the Brazilian approach to eating and the dizzying pace of his home town.

Rafael Cagail's guide to São Paulo Photo

‘Brazilian with an Italian background’ is a line that pops up a lot when reading about Rafael Cagali, chef at the two-Michelin- starred Da Terra. From profiles to reviews – and even Da Terra’s own website – much is made of his Italian heritage and Brazilian roots. These days, however, it seems Rafael himself has developed a slightly different view.

‘Can I just say I’m 100 per cent Brazilian?’ he asks, with a laugh. ‘Yes, to clarify, obviously I have ancestors – I still have the surname of my great-grandfather, an immigrant from Italy around World Warl–butIwasborninBraziland my parents were born in Brazil.

‘There’s a lot of integration there, a lot of cultures, and that’s what Brazil is, it’s what it’s about. Brazilian culture has developed based on these immigrants. There are Germans in the south, Austrians, Italians, French. My home town, São Paulo, even has the biggest Japanese community outside of Japan. It’s incredible to see and everything has adapted to the Brazilian style of living – and the Brazilian style of eating.’ That’s a subject we’ll return to shortly.

Rafael was born in São Paulo in 1981, and he returns regularly to see his younger brother and parents, who still live there.

‘As a family, we have a strong connection,’ he says. ‘I come from a... Well, I’d say a middle-class family but we’ve gone through good and bad times, stages where we had good money – not rich, but living well – and stages that were downhill.

‘Hospitality has always been part of my life in some ways. My dad had a soft drinks factory, and my mum had a restaurant, so I grew up in this environment, but I never ever imagined this would be part of my life. My mum’s restaurant wasn’t a restaurant like this,’ says Rafael, gesturing around Da Terra. ‘It was what we call a por quilo (‘per kilo’), where food is sold by weight. It’s like our fast food and they’re popular in areas where there are a lot of offices and businesses, because Brazilians love, love, love to eat, so lunch is a thing, and dinner is a thing. It’s not like London, where people have sandwiches. We don’t really have sandwiches, but we like to have a bowl, with rice, salad and a protein in there. My mother’s restaurant was like a buffet basically, a self-service. I think 30 years ago it was one of the first in São Paulo.

‘I’d play football – football is part of me, I will always love it – and after I’d go and see my mum in the restaurant and eat there. I used to go there after school, helping a little bit in the kitchen, doing the croquettes, simple things. It was exciting but, at the same time, I didn’t have a full interest in it.’

It was actually a move to London that saw Rafael begin his restaurant career proper. ‘I went to university to study economics – don’t ask me why! After a year and a half, I knew it wasn’t for me. I needed to find something for myself and, because you could put university on hold for a little bit, there was an opportunity to travel. I wanted to travel and learn English. I came to London for one year, enrolled in an English college but needed a job right away to fund everything. I was living by Fulham Broadway and got a job in a kitchen. I was a pot washer, a commis, working, working, working. But I started learning the passion of cooking, gaining a little more knowledge and I wanted more, so I went to Westminster College.’

The next move was to Italy to work under chef Stefano Baiocco at A Villa Feltrinelli for three years, and then to Spain, returning to England as part of The Fat Duck team, before joining Simon Rogan at Fera, and then Aulis. It’s a CV of influences that have inspired the menus at Da Terra – ‘the food at Da Terra is me’ – and which, in their multicultural way, mean Da Terra remains true to the heart and soul of Brazilian cuisine.

‘It’s hard to define Brazilian cuisine, but I think it’s the way we eat, rather than identification with a dish,’ explains Rafael. ‘For example, if you go to Brazil, you don’t have a pizza like Italians have pizza. In Brazil we have a lot of toppings. It has to look rich, to look big, for people to be able to say it’s value for money. But we eat it differently. If you and I went for a pizza, we wouldn’t have individual ones, we’d have one and share slices – because it’s got so much going on.’

‘We have dishes like beef parmigiana, chicken stroganoff, and they weren’t created by Brazilians, right? It’s European, it’s Russian, but we’ve made it Brazilian: we’d serve it with rice, we’d serve it with batata palha (which is like shredded potato crisps), a classic dish in Brazil.

‘We’re still very much a young country – 500 years old, which is nothing compared with Europe. We’re still evolving, so yeah it’s more the way we eat that defines the cuisine. And applying local produce, like maniocandcassava,to European-style dishes and techniques, that also makes something Brazilian cuisine.

‘Cooking has been part of my life for the past 20 years, and working in different areas, with different people, learning different stuff, getting different flavours, sometimes I felt like I was disconnecting myself from home. At first I didn’t say I missed this dish or that flavour because I was so focused on learning something else. But nowadays I’m trying to pull myself back and explore and say, “You know, I remember this; this is good.” That’s the approach I have now, to play with those memories and flavours.

When I go back home and see my mum, she asks what I want to eat. I think they find it hard to please me, because they think I’m fussy nowadays. But I say, “Keep it simple, just cook whatever, Mum. You know I love chicken stroganoff, a beef parmigiana – and I’m salivating talking about them! These are the kind of things I like to eat when I go home.

‘And pastel... It’s like a little pasty but it’s deep fried and when I go back home, I know I must have one. I always go to the same place – it’s not posh at all, it’s super quick and easy, and it’s located very close to the stadium where my football team, Palmeiras, play. The dough is like a puff pastry, it’s super dry. And the cheese pastel... It’s so simple but I’m obsessed with it.’

Rafael returns home regularly to see his family and his home. Not that he looks at São Paulo through anything like rose- tinted spectacles. ‘As a city, it’s exciting,’ he says. ‘It’s bigger than London, it’s crowded, it’s busy, the traffic is crazy. Unfortunately, yes, there is a big divide in classes, between the poverty and richness, and I think nowadays that’s become even more explicit on the streets. Economically, it’s been tough going for Brazil over the past three to four years, and it’s not going to be easy in the near future, whoever is in power. That’s the economic crisis that we live in, and it’s sad because some people are losing their respect, their unity, they’re becoming impatient.

‘But yes, it’s such a multicultural city, you can find everything. Because it’s so big, I recommend you go with someone local who can take to the right places. As a tourist, if you stop and open a map and try to find places, people will just jump over you – it’s busy, people need to move! But it’s exciting because you know itwillalwaysbeevolving, there’ll always be new things.

‘We love to party, sot here are the bars, and we have masses of restaurants, from the casual to fine dining, and always new things. And coffee is a big thing – you go for coffee and a little pastry. We have bakeries pretty much on every corner, so you can get a couple of fresh breads any time from lunch to dinner.

Rafael laughs. ‘Brazilians. We love to eat. I think that’s the spirit of what we’re trying do at Da Terra. There’s a high level of professionalism and an understanding of what we have achieved and what we want to do next, but we don’t forget that restaurants should be relaxed, they should be pleasurable places to come.

‘We don’t want people to feel awkward, because,’ Rafael smiles again, and continues in that Brazilian spirit, ‘food is to be enjoyed.’


As the name suggests, they only do pork, but from purely Brazilian breeds, with a menu that promotes the use of the whole hog and dishes ranging from snacks to fine dining, plus an in-house butcher’s shop. acasadoporco.com.br

Shaped like the cross-section of a ship’s hull, this five-star hotel is aptly named and its rooftop bar is very popular with São Paulo’s well-heeled drinkers. hotelunique.com

The city is crazy for Japanese food. We always do a Japanese restaurant when I go home, and the counter here is one of the best. junsakamoto.com.br

I’m a fan of chefs Helena Rizzo and Willem Vendeven for their use of proper Brazilian produce and how they work with a lot of things from the Amazon. manimanioca.com.br

Meat on skewers is put it in front of you and you can say yes or no. There’s a big buffet of salads – abundance is important to Brazilians. nbsteak.com.br

A simple bakery near Allianz Parque selling pies and snacks from 9am until 10.30pm. I go there every trip – it’s a taste of home. pastelaria.com.br

ROSEWOOD SÃO PAULO Sensitive to local architecture, this five-star hotel marries
a new vertical garden tower by architect Jean Nouvel with a complex of preserved buildings. rosewoodhotels.com

Words by Neil Davey

This interview was taken from the 25th anniversary issue of Food and Travel Magazine. To subscribe today, click here.

Rafael Cagail's guide to São Paulo Photo

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