Why Hot Brazilian Chef Rodrigo Oliveira Is Serving Uncool Food
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you can’t have messy fun with fine dining.
The bar’s full of rowdies. There’s no AC. The napkins are made of paper. And it’s more than an hour away from everything, in a frumpy suburb. But there’s a three-hour roadside wait in the heat for a table. In a town of a million restaurants, where eating out is the thing to do, why of all places is this place — Mocotó — the place to be?
Rodrigo Oliveira is why. The lanky 34-year-old chef has turned this São Paulo outpost of Northeastern Brazilian food into one of the top restaurants in Latin America, serving around 20,000 patrons a month. And he’s done it all by keeping faithful to a cuisine that many consider heavy and exclusively for the fund-less, where some of the best dishes use cheap cuts of salted meat, pork rinds and beans. Mocotó straddles two worlds: one, of well-heeled foodies commuting up from the rich neighborhoods, the other, of local men getting rowdy at the bar over varieties of cachaça, the Brazilian distilled sugarcane liquor that lines the restaurant’s walls. But on a typical Sunday Funday in São Paulo, everyone’s there for a hair of the dog and a meal that outclasses its price point.
Oliveira focuses on his employees as much as his customers, with a holistic business model that contributes to Mocotó’s success.
At the helm is Oliveira, a young father to two girls, with a five o’clock shadow and an earnest severity in his voice and eyes that contradicts an easy, soft laugh. He’s got reason to smile. Today, he’s one of the hottest chefs in the world, a real chef’s chef. Just ask Anthony Bourdain or Alex Atala, Brazil’s undisputed top chef, who tells OZY, “Rodrigo is perhaps the most authentic Brazilian experience at the moment.” Atala points out that Oliveira makes people go beyond the chi-chi gourmet neighborhoods of São Paulo like Jardíns and to the outskirts, creating a situation where social classes blend freely. “I never wanted to do fine dining,” Oliveira says. “Nothing against Jardíns. But I wanted an inclusive kitchen, not an exclusive one.”
When Oliveira started at Mocotó, it was his dad’s hole-in-the-wall. Like many poor people from the Northeast, Oliveira’s father fled the drought with a bus ticket and a bag. He arrived in the São Paulo suburb of Vila Medeiros and set up a little food shop, serving soup in the evenings. His recipe for traditional Northeastern cow’s hoof stew — called mocotó — was a hit, and today’s Mocotó was born. Oliveira started pitching in, but the help was unwanted. “He knew how much work it was to keep up a restaurant, so he didn’t want me in there,” Oliveira remembers with a smile. But it was too late: Oliveira had been bitten by the restaurant bug.
Upstairs from Mocotó, Oliveira lowers his head and looks out with brooding eyes as he describes his professional turning point. Between studies to become an environmental engineer, he started sketching a new layout and a plan. At that time, around 2003, Brazilian gastronomists looked down their noses at Northeastern cuisine; to those figuring out how to make cherry wasabi foam, the concept of serving beans and dried-out meat to clients was anathema. Oliveira saw an opening. He set about updating the old-time recipes. In place of dense, fried yucca chunks, he thinly sliced it like bacon and served it upright, an eye-catching presentation. He used that same ingredient in jellyish tapioca form, mixed it with Northeastern cheese and fried it, creating squared Tater Tot-like dedinhos, or “tapioca dice” — a widely imitated innovation.
Today, Oliveira focuses on his employees as much as his customers. Before speaking with me, and after arriving for our interview quite a bit late, he nevertheless first went around and greeted everyone with a hug or a fist bump. Ricardo Lima, Mocotó’s longtime manager, points out that Oliveira’s attentiveness to his employees still sometimes surprises him. Oliveira pays for his employees’ part-time education. And their kids’ health care. And daily jiujitsu and yoga classes in the room he built upstairs. It’s a rarely encountered, holistic business model that contributes to his restaurant’s roaring success.
So it’s no surprise Oliveira’s got expansion plans. Vila Medeiros doesn’t have a central plaza; Oliveira bought and razed the old house next door to change that, and to offer a more comfortable waiting area. But he’s digging deeper — literally. Beneath the street level they’re boring out new dormitories for employees, for a quick nap and shower between jiujitsu, work and class. He’d like to expand farther afield — he mentions Brasília and Rio de Janeiro — but that’s not so easy when you’ve made your name as the neighborhood spot. “Duplicating is not enough,” he says, a mental mantra he repeats aloud, clearly something that’s weighing heavy on his mind. For now, he’s expanded on a small scale, not to the rich districts as trend would dictate, but next door, where two years ago he opened a fancier restaurant, Esquina Mocotó, to rave reviews. Oliveira says, “If Mocotó is where you bring your buddies, Esquina is where you bring your wife.”
As I hop into a cab for the ride back into the city, the driver comments, “That’s one of the finest restaurants in Brazil.” He’s from the neighborhood and has been there several times. “I didn’t think I liked Northeastern food,” he admits. It’s proof of the success Oliveira’s found with his unlikely cuisine in this unlikely place. In Oliveira’s words, “Tradition is just innovation that went right.”