Regina Tchelly: Organic Favelas

Regina Tchelly: Organic Favelas

By Shannon Sims


It’s part business, part social movement, and it’s bringing healthy food to people who need it.

By Shannon Sims

Look in your trash. Do you see potato peels, broccoli stems, pineapple husks, banana peels? What if instead you saw wasted ingredients? That’s exactly what Regina Tchelly, the founder of Favela Orgânica, is hoping.

“Ooooweeee — I’m dancing!” Tchelly shouted when OZY spoke with her. “I’m so happy for people to find out about what we’re doing up here!”

Tchelly, 33, is a leader of a new movement to bring organic food to the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Her venture, Favela Orgânica, was born in 2011 out of necessity in her own kitchen, in the neighborhood of Babilônia, high above the touristy beach zone of Rio.

It’s easier and cheaper to eat crap than fresh fruit and produce.

A steep, curving climb up the slopes of the mountains that frame Copacabana beach, up hundreds of cement steps, past brightly colored home fronts and red clay bricks beneath streaming tangles of jerry-rigged electrical wires, brings you to Babilônia. There, thanks to the ocean wind and the lack of cars on the tight neighborhood streets, the air is fresh.

The food, often, is not. Local cuisine can mean heavy home cooking, thick beans and greasy beef with white rice, or street food, meat skewers and fried snacks. It’s easier and cheaper to eat crap than fresh fruit and produce.

pastries are shown on a table

Sunrise over the favela of Vidigal

Source Favela Organica

Tchelly has an energetic, jolly spirit, and an easy, girlish laugh that accompanies her broad, toothy smile. Her attitude’s hard-won. At 20, she lived with her young baby in the impoverished northeast of the country, in the state of Paraíba. But she packed bags and baby and headed south by bus to the hilltop favela in Rio.Tchelly’s helping to change that.

“In Rio I worked as a maid for 11 years, but all along I wanted to work as a chef,” Tchelly told OZY. “At the same time people started talking about … how the way we were accessing food in the favelas was not sustainable, and our kids were not getting the nutrients they need. But there was no one doing anything concrete about it, so I started it.”

She envisioned cooking classes using organic ingredients but found she needed more produce than she could grow in her backyard. So she started asking neighbors: “Do you have a little corner you aren’t using? Would you like a little garden?” She’d come back with leaky Styrofoam coolers, filled with soil. She taught her neighbors to grow produce, and soon she had 40 mini-gardens across the neighborhood.

“This was a real surprise for me,” said Elizabete Silva, one of her gardeners in Babilônia. “I’d never seen garlic, planted like this. When I look at it, I’m like, wow, that’s not grass, that’s garlic I planted!”

Where others saw trash, Tchelly saw smoothies.

Good timing helped. These neighborhoods, drugland battlegrounds just five years ago, are now quieter after controversial heavy-handed police operations, and a movement has spread  across the city. Today, Tchelly has two children, a 15-year-old and a 6-year-old, and business is booming. She’s traded her maid’s clothes for a new uniform: a green apron emblazoned with the name of her very own full-time business, Favela Orgânica.

Tchelly offers free weekly cooking classes to community members and supports herself by teaching organic cooking to wealthier people down the hill, and to communities all over Brazil. This month, she’ll head to a gastronomy fair in Italy. 

And then, the oddball ingredients. Where others saw trash, Tchelly saw smoothies. “I don’t fry, I don’t cook with meat or fish,” she says. “Instead I use parts of vegetables and fruit that people disregard.”Other culinary leaders around the city have followed, helping to organize food festivals in favelas. A Portuguese-language book came out last year called the Guide to the Gastronomy of the Favelas of Rio Graça dos Prazeres, a former chef, now hosts organic cooking classes in the Vidigal neighborhood.

It’s good for ya, too. Banana peels, pumpkin rinds and citrus peels all contain valuable nutrients and extra fiber. 

The concept of using food waste isn’t new. Some slaves in America burned corncobs to make a kind of baking soda. And some Asian societies still make use of peels. Makes you wonder why we throw out broccoli’s deep green leaves while paying premium for kale.

“People say that the pumpkin rinds I use in the quiche taste like shrimp, and that the banana peels almost have a shiitake mushroom flavor.” She goes for simplicity. “I want the flavor of the food to stand out. I make very mild foods with subtle flavors, because I want people who have all kinds of taste to be able to enjoy what we eat.” 

Harrison Ford attended one event where she taught students to use broccoli stems, watermelon rind and banana peels. She says Ford called the watermelon dishes “verrrrrry good.”

Sunrise over the favela of Vidigal

Source Jose M. Campos/ZUMApress

Her menu items include a starter of banana peel and shallot tapioca, followed by watermelon rind risotto for the main course, washed down with pineapple husk and lemongrass juice, and preserved cantaloupe rind for dessert. She even makes Brazil’s famous chocolate brigadeiros with banana peels.

Still, getting people to eat and live healthy isn’t easy. “Out of the gardens we help people set up, only one out of the five of them replant,” she says with regret. “They eat the food the first round produces and then quit.”

Tchelly mentions women in New York who hunt through the trash and make food. “It would be a dream of mine to meet them and learn from them,” she says, though she’s found other sources of ingredients. “I go to the open-air produce fairs down in Copacabana and Ipanema, and I gather the stuff the vendors throw away. They let me also stand around and tell the customers about the Favela Orgânica project.” She also picks up what local restaurants discard.

For now, Tchelly’s biggest dream is to have a place of her own to cook and host classes, still held in her tiny kitchen.

Why not open a gourmet restaurant in the tourist zone? Tchelly laughs. “I don’t like how chefs become greater stars than the food.” She just wants to stay in the favela. “I swear, I’ll never leave!” 

Colorful Rice of Stems and Rinds

  • 1 cup raw rice
  • 1 cup cauliflower stems, chopped
  • 1 cup potato peels, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium carrot (grated with the skin)
  • ½ onion, diced
  • fresh parsley to taste
  • salt to taste

Sauté the onion and garlic. Stir in the chopped cauliflower stems, potato peels and carrots. Sauté everything until it is slightly soft. Soon after, mix in the rice. Add 2 cups of water and cook for 20 minutes over low heat. Mix in the fresh parsley. Serves 4 to 5, healthily. Find more recipes from Regina Tchelly (in Portuguese) here.