Manu Buffara
Photo by Helena Peixoto

Manu Buffara: “Simple things reconnect us with life”

Short Profile

Name: Manoella Buffara
DOB: 1983
Place of birth: Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil
Occupation: Chef

Ms. Buffara, as a chef and restaurant owner, how important is it for you to stay in touch with nature?

It’s super important. I grew up in the countryside; my grandparents from my mom's side came to the South coastal area of Brazil from Lebanon, during the first World War, so we really have that connection with the sea and with nature. On my father’s side, my family is connected to agriculture as well, they are fishermen, and so we learned from them.

Your family also owns a farm, right?

Yes, exactly. The farm is about 30 minutes from the city, and we would always spend weekends and holidays there, horseback riding and also helping out, connecting with the animals, walking without shoes… I remember we would always go out in the morning to take milk from the cows; we would bring our cups and put a little chocolate in the bottom and the warm milk would melt it with a little foam on top. That’s something I still do with my kids these days. I think these kinds of simple things reconnect us with life and nature and with the planet.

“It’s about an understanding of the ingredients, and how the chef can transform them. That’s our job. It’s our job to create a sensory experience.”

Is that where you first realized your love of food?

Well, all my childhood was really about that connection. Sitting at the table was something super important for us; sharing and being together, making room, talking about life, sharing our thoughts and also our food. Everything happens around the table! So that's something that I learned since I was a child, as well as some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about food: my grandfather always told us to only put on our plates what we want to eat, not to waste food. He taught us how to choose our ingredients, to know where your food comes from, to take care of your produce, and value what you put in your mouth.

And of course those lessons on sustainability, togetherness, and the value of good ingredients also help to inform what you’re doing at Restaurante Manu. For example, your menu uses entirely local and seasonal ingredients, like a celebration of your country.

Yes! I opened Manu 12 years ago and I started working and looking around for producers and products to help me understand the history of my state and of South Brazil in general. I wanted to get really good suppliers who would help me understand even the most basic ingredients like honey or sugar that we use in the restaurant. I think all my menu is really a message that I want to share with the customer.

Is there one dish in particular that exemplifies that message?

One dish in particular comes at the end of our Metamorphose tasting menu, it’s a simple carrot dish — and it’s usually what we get the most compliments on! Something that we want to tell to people is not to turn their noses up at vegetarian food because it can be just as good as the lamb or fish dishes. It’s about an understanding of the ingredients, and how the chef can transform them. That’s our job. It’s our job to create a sensory experience. Something I always say is that we don’t have to kill the ingredient twice! The carrot is already dead, so we try to use the best technique and the best sauce and pair that with other amazing ingredients.

Apparently when you were first starting out, people thought you were crazy for taking everyday ingredients like carrots and using them to make high-end dishes.

Of course the first five years were a little hard. I remember we had this signature dish of cauliflower with passionfruit… People would say, “Oh, it’s just a cauliflower, you can buy that in the supermarket.” But soon they realized, okay, it’s a cauliflower but we’ve transformed this simple ingredient into one of the best that I've ever had. When you use luxury ingredients like foie gras or truffles or caviar, you can put them with a simple pasta, it's going to be amazing, of course. But to take a cauliflower and try to transform that, you need to have a chef’s head, a chef’s technique. So maybe it took a while for people to understand the message I’m sending about using local and seasonal ingredients, but it’s something I’m passionate about and that I’m leaving for the new world, for my kids, for the future.

You’re also opening up these practices in your own community through urban garden projects and education on sustainability, right?

That’s been a really huge thing for us. We started maybe nine years ago, asking around in different places and communities to use up the unused or unwanted land to build urban gardens. Today we have 130 urban gardens for 5000 families who plant the seeds, take care of them, and harvest the food… It’s all about empowering these families to be able to provide for themselves, to even develop a new career.

Was it challenging to get those kinds of eco-friendly and healthier lifestyle projects off the ground? Especially in Brazil, which at one point was third on the list of countries that consume the most processed foods.

Today it’s no longer the third, it’s maybe five or six! Of course the first step can be difficult but I think it's something that we need to show people. Information and education is so important because sometimes they don't know that the food they put in the microwave is not good. For them, it's cheap, they’re not really thinking about how healthy it is. By now, parents and the school, they’ve started worrying about that and they are definitely talking about this issue more, the importance of nutrition, the importance of sports and exercise, pushing the kids to do more, talking with the families…

Is this journey into a more sustainable future also a learning journey for you personally, even though you’re leading the charge?

When you start to be recognized for your contributions, especially in sustainability, you have a microphone, you have a stage. I think people will start to look at you as an example, so it’s really essential that we use that for change. It’s also important for us to start in our own homes and communities, to work with our friends and neighbors in making a change, so of course this is a learning experience for me too. I’ve had to learn to understand where I come from, about the water and the land, I’ve studied my own heritage. These are lessons I learned from René Redzepi, who I worked under for three seasons at Noma. These ideas are really inside him, and I learned a lot about how important it is to work together, to listen to your producers and learn from them.

Do you hope to always be a student in that way?

Of course, I think learning is always important. It’s something that makes you more happy and more excited about the work that you do. And that’s what’s most vital for me. This work is not always going to be easy, because sometimes people want to push you down — but I believe in myself, I’m confident about my thoughts and my ideas because I’ve taken the time to learn and research, so I believe in the way that I cook.