Manu Buffara, the Brazilian journalist turned activist chef: “I believe in the transforming role of cooks” | People | The USA Print

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The cook Manu Buffara, in her Manu restaurant, in Curitiba (Brazil) in 2020.
The cook Manu Buffara, in her Manu restaurant, in Curitiba (Brazil) in 2020.Helena_Peixoto

Urban gardens, recovery of indigenous agricultural varieties and bees, sustainable fishing, hunting and farming techniques, distribution of food to the homeless, education in good health and nutrition practices and food conservation… The work of the Brazilian cook Manu Buffara — named by The World’s 50 Best “chef to watch” and member of international advisory council of the Basque Culinary Center— not limited to your restaurant Manu in Curitiba, southern Brazil.

From a farming family, born in Maringá (Paraná, Brazil) and with Lebanese and Italian origins, Buffara defends biodiversity and social cuisine with an impact on the community. And as a modern rural cook she participated in May in Corias (Asturias) in the second edition of females, an international conference on the role of women in gastronomy. In Féminas, she showed the citrus-tasting honey produced by the bees that she has repopulated in Curitiba and products such as fermented chestnut milk and couscous from Cassava (cassava flour). Vegetables predominate in Manu’s current menu, where a minimalist carrot stars in one of his beautiful dishes. Faced with the subtlety of her culinary proposals, based on native ingredients, the community activity of the Brazilian chef is forceful.

Buffara, 37, traded journalism for cooking. She trained in the kitchen of No mom Y align, opened the restaurant that bears her name in 2011. With five tables for a maximum of 20 people, she will be 12 years old in January 2023, the year in which the cook’s first author’s book will appear. Manu’s philosophy will soon be exported to the Maldives, to the vegetarian Fresh Garden by Manu, and to New York, to the Ella restaurant, which was unable to open in 2020 due to the pandemic.

P. The balance since Manu opened is intense…

R. Yes. We are better organized, we have created the Manu Buffara Institute. We have a lot of work with the Mulheres do Bem (Good Women) project, which deals with people who live on the street. It started in the pandemic and hasn’t stopped. Cooks and professionals from different fields who want to help are involved. Twice a week we deliver 350 kits of supernutritional food; It can’t be all rice, beans and meat, it has to be varied and balanced and always have salad, juice and fruit. We also have the Alimenta Curitiba project. We do information and education and also, of course, we give meals. We go to a community and organize a party, with the children, with all the families, with theatre, music, painting, reading… There are specific activities and talks for women and men. With the men we talk about sex education or about dental health, because they have many problems with their mouths in these communities. For example, if they don’t have a toothbrush, we teach them to clean their tongues with spoons… They all have to attend the talks in order to get the box we give them, which carries about 60 kilos of products: milk, eggs, fish, meat, fruit… We take care of almost 400 families, about 500 people. We check that they and their lands are well, that they cultivate without problems. We always work with the leaders of each community.

Carrot, cassava and yeast, a Manu Buffara dish.
Carrot, cassava and yeast, a Manu Buffara dish.Rubens Cato

P. It is a major task.

R. Yes. When we started delivering meals during the pandemic two years ago, I thought that just giving food was not going to solve people’s problems. It was necessary to provide information, education, empower these women loaded with children, with health problems… I believe in the transforming role of cooks. With the kitchen we can change many things. Just as we receive from society we also have to give. Restaurants are culture, we must transmit all the knowledge we have to make people eat better and therefore live better. I usually say that cooking is not the end, it is the beginning, a message for the future, an act of love. I cook to transform my community. When I go to the restaurant I don’t tell my daughters that I’m going to work, I tell them: “I’m going to change the world”. My girls, who are six and seven years old, participate in what I do, they learn to share and understand the good things you can do for society. They know that there are people who have nothing to eat and that they have to help.

P. Years ago, the famous Brazilian chef Alex Atala said: “It’s hard to be avant-garde when there are people in your country who are hungry.” Do you agree?

R. Avant-garde cuisine does not need to focus on sophisticated products. The kitchen today has to be smart. We have to be respectful of the ingredients, avoid waste at all costs and be increasingly sustainable. Me nona [abuela] He always tells me: “If the fish or the plant has already died once for you, then cook it well so that it doesn’t die twice”.

The cook Manu Buffara with one of her two daughters in an orchard.
The cook Manu Buffara with one of her two daughters in an orchard.Rodrigo Torrezan

P. How is the radiography of Brazilian cuisine?

R. We have evolved to a more modern kitchen, more concerned with local products and sustainability. It has different faces, like the diversity of the country. Many young people, many women, are showing that our gastronomy is much more than the feijoada and the barbecue. We have a wonderful coast with a lot of fish, there is a great wealth of vegetables… We need to make an intelligent Brazilian cuisine that is healthy and not heavy, not centered on meat and beans. In the south we eat a lot of fish and vegetables.

P. You rely on the environment and work with more than 60 local producers.

R. We must raise our voice so that due importance is given to producers, they move the economy of where we live, they create history. It is essential to take care of our food. And the restaurant, the food, is a transforming agent. I plan my menus as a story about my environment, about my country. In my restaurant I like to watch people when they eat, to see how they react to a different product.

Strawberries, botarga (fish roe) and lemon, a Manu Buffara dish.
Strawberries, botarga (fish roe) and lemon, a Manu Buffara dish.Rubens Cato

P. When you started with Manu, in 2011, you yourself promoted urban gardens on unused land belonging to large companies and public institutions.

R. Now we have a whole team focused exclusively on the matter, caring for 130 orchards in Curitiba. We have set up a large urban farm, in the middle of the city, with all the types of gardens you can set up: in the countryside, at home, at your school. We teach how to recycle containers and plastics such as pots, how to make compost… It is a garden theme park. And we have prepared another new farm where we also teach how to cook, how to get to know and make good use of vegetables, how to make preserves. We invite local cooks so that they in turn teach others.

P. You have participated in a meeting of women and rural gastronomy. Do you think that women they cook the changes?

R. Yes. Women don’t just think about the present, we think about the future. There are many women in gastronomy who are contributing a lot of knowledge to society, not only in the cities, and their stories need to be known.



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