Against the storytelling. At the time every fine dining meal almost has to come with a story to “sell”, it requires balls to take the approach Alberto Landgraf is taking.
Forget nose to tail, forget whole duck carcasses on the table, forget edible air and mouldy apples, right now there’s probably nothing more radical than to dive into the competitive world of haute cuisine with no pre-prepared romantic narrative.
Which doesn’t mean Landgraf doesn’t have anything to say – he’s actually an incredibly interesting conversationalist, one that can debate with you on any topic ranging from Einstein to politics, from physics to the art world. But he also thinks silence is underrated. It would be cliché to say he lets his food do the talking. But it would also be the truth.
The show he puts on at Oteque, his sleek, modern, sexy Rio de Janeiro restaurant is an understated one, but extremely convincing and pleasing. Starting with the soundtrack ranging from Morrissey to David Bowie, from Cool Britannia to the latest indie stuff.
Landgraf is like the conductor of a small orchestra of chefs under him, all moving in synch in an almost zen-like focus in the open kitchen, in front of the first row of guests. Everything is controlled, and impeccable, from perfect, luxurious flavour combinations coming out of the kitchen to discreet service and hypnotic ambience.
And yet, there’s also a whole lot of rock’n’roll there. It’s in the pork spine and dry mushroom broth with huge clam and pork skin “pasta”. It’s in the brioche, filled with beef tongue dressed with beef-kombu vinaigrette. It’s in the 100% Brazil nut ice cream, ridiculously, yet surprisingly effectively topped with caviar. It’s in the ever-changing menu where dishes move in and out sometimes daily, but still, feel like there were months of thought process that went into them.
Very hardcore is also the crazy natural wine list that accompanies the dishes that at the same time build heavily on luxury ingredients like caviar, truffles and wagyu. In many other hands, even the most skilled ones, those are usually the superficial traps, set to justify the price tag of the menu. With Landgraf, they always serve a purpose – the truffles, cut in strings, that top compressed eggplant and cured pork belly add the crunchiness to the creaminess of Brazilian nut milk that this absolutely mouthwatering dish bathes in. Caviar that tops practically raw sandperch dressed in seaweed vinaigrette with pine nuts adds that popping texture to the subtle, elegant cold starter.
Is it Brazilian? Depends on your stereotypical notions of what you assume Brazilian is. Oteque is not an in-your-face folksy Brazilian eatery with heaps of farofa and feijoada and banana mash and manioc sides. It’s eclectic, it reflects Landgraf’s mixed heritage, it reflects his worldliness, but also his aversion to giving you that expected “Brazilian experience”. Because it’s there, but it’s subtle, refined – much like his cooking style.
Born in Parana state to a German father and Japanese mother, Landgraf grew into a chef that reflects the two worlds – the German discipline that intertwines with Japanese touch and a more poetic but focused approach to food.
No, he won’t humor you with stories about how he fell in love with cooking in his grandma’s kitchen or when his dad took him fishing or his uncle hunting or when he sucked on his first oyster. No, there’s none of that in Landgraf’s no-bullshit approach. The kitchen for him, somehow, just happened. For purely practical reasons, that turned into a profession.
He was studying and travelling around Europe and he needed a job to keep his visa. The kitchen seemed like a good way to somehow “get by”. Later on, he trained in London under big names like Tom Aikens and Gordon Ramsey, before returning to Brazil and opening Epice which catapulted him to fame. This was 2011 and he was the talk of the town and the restaurant one of the hottest venues in Sao Paulo that solidified its status with a Michelin star.
He moved to Rio because of a girl, started from scratch (but, granted, with a generous investor) and in less than a year Oteque already got a reputation as Brazil’s best restaurant.
And no, there’s no Amazonian ants to chew on, there’s no talk of saving the trees or reflecting the colourful sequins of Samba dancers in the glistening trout roe that accompanies raw chunks of wagyu and Koshihikari rice. No, Alberto Landgraf refuses to serve you stories. He will, however, serve you the best Brazilian ingredients turned into what just might be some of the most exquisite and at the same time comfortably pleasing dishes the world of fine dining has to offer. ”
By Kaja Sajovic