Manu Buffara, Chef & Environmental activist

Interview, 17 November 2020

Manu Buffara is the owner and Executive Chef of her restaurant Manu in Curitiba, Brazil. Using innovative fine dining cuisine as well as social and environmental initiatives around the city, she teaches the gospel of eating well and respecting nature.

Manoella “Manu” Buffara grew of on a farm in rural Brazil and was taught to respect and appreciate the environment from an early age.

After a brief stint of journalism studies, she decided to dedicate her life to the culinary arts.
Her grandmother sent a then 21-year old young Manu to Piemonte, Italy where she attended culinary school and later got a job at Da Vittorio, the Michelin star-studded restaurant on the outskirts of Bergamo.

From there she travelled north to work under René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen.
Redzepi, a celebrated visionary and award-winning chef, inspired her to go back to her native Brazil to honor her heritage and open her own restaurant – Manu.

Today she runs Manu as well as several outreach projects in Curitiba, such as the urban gardens. Abandoned sites around the city, turned into green zones where locals, often from the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, help grow fresh vegetables, fruit and honey, while given a purpose by actively taking part in society. On top of that, Manu also runs an initiative feeding the homeless in Curitiba.

To get a glimpse into the mind of Manu Buffara and her approach to food, the following quote from the Manu website is quite telling:
If we look closely, all foods and all stages of life have their beauty. Allow yourself, at the next meal, to focus your attention on the forks you bring to your mouth. Smell your food, chew slowly, feel its texture and, if possible, sit at the table with the person you love. Don’t talk about money or politics while you eat. I like those who prefer to comment on wine and spices, or just enjoy the moment in silence.”

CQP sat down with the Brazilian chef and environmental activist to discuss food, heritage, the COVID-19 pandemic and why chefs have a responsibility to teach healthy lifestyles.

Photo by Henrique Schmeil

I want to go back to your beginnings; you grew up on a farm in the Brazilian countryside, what were your early years like?

– I was raised about five hours outside of the capital, Brasilia. My father was a farmer and I grew up around cows and many other animals, as well as different crops like corn and cassava. I developed a connection with nature from an early age.

How long did you stay there?

– When I was seventeen, I left Brazil to study English and get some work experience in the US. I got a job in a hotel where I started out as a waitress but ended up working in the kitchen. That’s really where my career started. When I returned to Brazil a year later, I told my parents that I wanted to work as a chef. They weren’t too pleased, because at that time in Brazil you were expected to study and get a degree, not work in a restaurant kitchen.

Photo by Henrique Schmeil

How did you get them to change their minds?

– My grandmother was Italian, and she always made huge meals for our big family. My grandfather was Lebanese and food is a massive part of their culture as well, so you can imagine how important food was to us. My grandmother said she would send me to culinary school in Italy on one condition: that I took a job in a restaurant first. If I still wanted to work as a chef after that, she would pay for my studies. 
So, I worked for three months in a pizza place in Piemonte, Italy – and went straight to culinary school from there.  

– After eight months of school I went to work for my first fine dining restaurant, Da Vittorio outside of Bergamo. The head chef there would always give my books and magazines, and one day in 2006 I read an article in one of the magazines about this chef from Copenhagen who was really on the rise at the time, René Redzepi of Noma. I wrote him and asked if I could do an internship with them. They thought I was crazy wanting to spend the winter in Copenhagen, but I got the position and spent two months with him there.

So, after these incredibly useful experiences, what was next for you?

– I wanted to know and learn more about my culinary heritage, so I went back to Brazil and got a job in a hotel. I was twenty-two at the time, and this was where I learned how to be a leader and how to manage and understand people. Being a chef requires so much more than just cooking, it’s about knowing your community and the human being. This was also when I started doing expeditions around my home state, learning about different producers, agriculture, nature – and the weather. It’s very important to study the weather in order to plan the menu for the year. In Brazil we use a lot of pesticides, but I wanted to fight for fair food, so I became an activist to try and usher in healthier production methods.
Word started spreading and we became a group of about ten women who followed me around the state, and even to other states to try and find the best sugar, the best milk, the best flour and so on. Shortly after that, I was given the opportunity to open Manu. In January of next year, we are celebrating our tenth anniversary. The most famous restaurants in Brazil are always in Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, but when I started Manu I never sought to become famous, I just wanted to cook. I wanted to do fine dining, not with caviar or foie gras, but with normal food that you can get at your local grocery store.

“I think it will be an increasingly important role for chefs in the future, to teach people how to eat well. We all need to become more invested in our communities.”

What was the reception like in the early days of running Manu?

– People thought I was crazy. They thought it was insane to charge that amount of money for products which can easily be bought in your local grocery store. But I am paid to create, to be creative in the kitchen. About six months after we opened, people really started recognizing that I was trying to cook amazing stuff using simple ingredients and products. But it was hard in the beginning and I spent many days travelling the country to learn more from different cultures. 
One night, Alex Atala (head chef at the celebrated D.O.M restaurant in Sao Paulo) came to eat at Manu and really loved what we were doing. In Curitiba of all places, which is honestly in the middle of nowhere. Alex put me on to a lot of international press, with journalists from Paris, Italy and Scandinavia starting to recognize what we were doing at Manu. But with greater recognition comes even greater responsibility. I think we need to teach people that food is so much more than food, it’s a way of showing people the world and becoming more aware of nature. A way to teach our kids about what we eat, the eco-system and about our planet.

Was this around the same time that you started your garden projects in Curitiba?

– Yes, this was around the time that we started the honey gardens and the urban gardens in the city. So, we are a whole team managing those projects. I also speak at seminars and in schools about these issues.

Photo by Henrique Schmeil

How do you manage to find the time to run a top-class restaurant and still be involved in all these initiatives outside of running Manu?

– We are only open from Wednesday through Saturday at Manu,  and only for dinner. So, during my days “off” I run my social projects such as the weekly meals for the homeless and other outreach initiatives. But the urban gardens run almost by themselves, since I hired such great people to care for them. That’s when you see that you are a good leader, when the people you hired can take care of things without you constantly having to get involved.

“Being a chef requires so much more than just cooking, it’s about knowing your community and the human being.”

With the current leadership in your country, repealing a lot of the regulations put in place to protect the environment, how much harder has it become to do the sort of environmental work that you do?

 More than just the leadership, we need to change the way we eat food in this country. Brazilians are very lazy. We prefer to go to the supermarket and buy broccoli wrapped in plastic, when you can get fresh farm grown broccoli right next door! I asked some mothers at a school I visited last year: what is in your fridge? And they answered all kinds of sugary foods like biscuits and chocolate milk and fabricated sweets and fast food, just terrible for kids. Brazil is the third country in the world when it comes to consuming ultra-processed foods. People always blame time, that they don’t have time to cook. But they have time to work, right? Time to party, time to go out for dinner? Take twenty minutes and cook a great meal for your kids and your family, for Christ’s sake. It’s not that complicated.

Do you think easier access to good food would help solve the problem?

– I think the problem is education and information. The people who work in the urban gardens here in Curitiba are really poor people. But instead of eating the amazing array of fresh fruits and vegetables in the urban gardens, they go buy frozen ribs in the supermarket that you stuff in the microwave. That is really shit food, you know. So, I think it will be an increasingly important role for chefs in the future, to teach people how to eat well. We all need to become more invested in our communities.

Photo by Henrique Schmeil

You said in a previous interview that you see the COVID-19 pandemic as nature telling us that it is “greater than men”. How do you view the future after this has all calmed down?

– I think we need to stop and reflect more, as humans. I think nature is calling for help, and we need to work side by side with nature, not against her. At the moment that is not the case, we are working against nature and being selfish. We need to change, and we need to change quickly. What’s positive about the pandemic is that people are becoming more aware of what they eat and how much waste they produce in their homes, while spending much more time in their houses. They bake bread and take cooking much more seriously. People are also seeing how food brings people and families together, by cooking and eating together again. When you prepare and eat a meal with your family, everyone is helping out, everyone is sharing and enjoying each other’s company, how cool is that!

If I could go back a little again, working under René Redzepi; what was the single most important thing he taught you?

– To understand where you come from. To love your culture, love your surroundings. 
I learned where I come from in the kitchen at Noma. Who I am – and what I am going to do with my future. That’s the kind of man René is, so proud of his Scandinavian heritage and so keen on looking for the most Scandinavian ingredients and cook from that. He opened up so many doors for other chefs, and especially Scandinavian chefs, because they believed in what he was doing.

A Swedish version of someone with a deep respect and love for his heritage is Magnus Nilsson who previously ran Fäviken Magasinet.

– Yeah! I know Magnus, we cooked together in London for three days and he was showing me around and was a great guy. If you look at Magnus’s food, it’s the same thing. He believes in where he comes from. And he believes in the ingredients from where he comes from. It is all in the art of using the ingredients in a simple and effective way. 

You studied journalism in the past. Do you think you would have ended up a journalist if you hadn’t pursued a career chef?

 I really love to inform and inspire people. That’s why I chose journalism. But food found me, and we fell in love, so in the end it was easy to choose my path. But what I love about journalism is that it teaches you to understand sociology and subsequently the human being. 
I try to incorporate many of those lessons into my cooking as well.

For more please visit: www.restaurantemanu.com.br