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Brazil: Ready for Its Culinary Close-Up

Published in Gourmet Live 09.19.12
All eyes will be on Brazil as host of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. While sports are catapulting the nation onto the global stage, we're pondering Brazil's culinary impact on American soil

By Kelly Senyei
Brazil: Ready for Its Culinary Close-Up

Clockwise from left: Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro; D.O.M. chef Alex Atala; a young soccer fan sports his country's colors; Brazilian cattle at sunset.

Can you name a famous Brazilian chef? What about a famous Brazilian restaurant?

If you can answer either of the above, you're in a very small minority. The truth is that most Americans are more likely to associate Brazil with a certain über-famous supermodel than they are with a celebrity chef. And one of the closest connections to cuisine comes in the form of the native açaí berry, which is to American health food trends what samba is to the cardio dance craze. Brazil has undoubtedly made a mark on the United States, but up until now, that influence hasn't touched the food scene. Two upcoming sporting events are about to change that.

In 2014, Brazil will host the FIFA World Cup, a month-long international soccer tournament showcasing the best of the sport from qualifiers around the globe, and then the nation will host the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. These events will catapult the country onto the global stage, casting a stronger-than-ever-spotlight on its culture and cuisine, both at home and abroad.

Currently, Brazilian cuisine in the U.S. is bleak at best. "The closest thing we have to a consensus is that we've never heard of Brazilian cuisine," says Phil Vettel, longtime restaurant critic at the Chicago Tribune. "For the most part, Brazilian cooking is completely off the radar in Chicago." And Chicago isn't alone.

"It's pretty bad here," says Scott Reitz, food critic at the Dallas Observer. Take a turn to the east, and the scene is just as grim. "I've been reviewing restaurants in New York City for a decade, and I don't think I've ever reviewed a single Brazilian restaurant," says Adam Platt, chief restaurant critic at New York magazine. "You could probably even say Brazilian is the least known major South American cuisine." The one silver lining appears in curbside cuisine from way out West. "The most interesting two or three Brazilian places to open in L.A. in the past few years are actually food trucks," says Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold. "They're not great. But they're something."

I polled more than a dozen renowned critics across the country for their take on Brazilian cuisine stateside, and the replies echoed an underwhelming chorus of "It's not my area of expertise," "I don't know much about Brazilian food," and "We don't have Brazilian restaurants in [insert major city name here]."

Unlike the cuisines of Italy, China, and Thailand (to name just a few), Brazil never gained a foothold in the American food landscape—even when the samba was popularized in the United States in the 1940s. Aside from açaí berries and the Caipirinha cocktail, Americans have come to associate Brazilian cuisine with only one small niche: steakhouses.

The Brazilian steakhouse scene in the states is a diverse one. International chains Fogo de Chão and Texas de Brazil lead the charge, with locations in most major U.S. cities, as well as seven Fogo de Chão locations in Brazil. Smaller national chains, including Rodizio Grill (nine locations) and Boi Na Braza (two locations), round out the pack. While some of the chains prove to be more traditional in their menu offerings than others, all are centered on the concept of all-you-can-eat proteins sliced and served tableside from giant skewers. It's a "meat, meat, and more meat" mentality, according to Lauren Shockey, a New York City–based food writer and former restaurant critic at The Village Voice.

The focus on roasted meat—specifically Brazil's famed churrasco (grilled beef)—rather than the country's more traditional dishes, such as feijoada (black bean stew) and shrimp bobó (shrimp in yucca cream), is for good reason. "The steakhouse concept isn't foreign in America," explains Almir Da Fonseca, a Brazilian food expert and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America. "It was easy to translate in the States because steak is not only familiar, but it's also readily available."

Churrasco's overshadowing presence isn't the only reason more traditional dishes haven't caught on with the meat-and-potato-loving palates of the American public. "In Brazil, we don't have a Julia Child, a Craig Claiborne, a Charlie Trotter, or an Escoffier," says Leticia Moreinos Schwartz, a Brazilian chef and cookbook author. "If you look back 100 years ago, there was someone in nearly every global cuisine who was already a thinker. We didn't have anybody." The sparse culinary history has only recently changed course as Brazilian chefs step out of the shadows and onto the national culinary stage.

"There's a paucity of high-profile chefs in Brazil, and not a lot of them have global ambition," Platt says. The closest chef to celebrity status in Brazil is Alex Atala, who at the age of 44 is the creative mastermind behind Brazil's crowning restaurant achievement: D.O.M. Located in São Paulo, D.O.M. ranked fourth on Restaurant magazine's 2012 World's 50 Best Restaurants list—its highest ranking since opening in 1999. But even Atala and D.O.M. haven't been enough to make Brazil a food force to be reckoned with in the United States.

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