Jefferson Rueda – Chef and Owner of A Casa do Porco, São Paulo
After years of leading sophisticated cuisines of French and Italian restaurants in São Paulo. where he received several awards of excellence, in 2015 chef Jefferson Rueda made a turnaround in his career and opened his first restaurant: A Casa do Porco (“house of the pork”).
Based on one only main ingredient – pork, in its myriad versions – the restaurant has become a phenomenon in the city. With its informal atmosphere, affordable prices and a Brazilian inspiration, it brings together traditional dishes from the countryside region where the chef was born with sophisticated delicacies with an excellent technical standard. A formula that led chef Ferran Adrià to classify it as the restaurant model for the future.
Jefferson Rueda- Chef’s Portrait
Jefferson, what relationship did you have with cooking before going into this business?
I’ve always enjoyed cooking since I was little. I would come back from school and expect my mother to come home from work, so I’ve been learning some things with my parents. When I was 13 years old, it was me who made dinner at home. I come from São José do Rio Pardo, a city in the interior of the state of São Paulo, we have a very strong culture to gather the whole family for a barbecue, to roast a pig, since I was little I was interested in the ingredients, for cooking, for gather everyone around the food.
How was your training as a cook?
I’ve never been much of a student in school. My first job was as a butcher there in my town, and it came from a joke they did to me. One night my father met his friends for a barbecue and asked me to buy 4kg of picanha (a tender beef cut), I went to the butcher’s shop and came back with a whole piece of another, hard cut; I was mocked all night. The next day I knocked on the butcher’s door to ask for a job, to learn and never have to go through it again. I learned a lot there, it was my first school of gastronomy practically and today I make a point of valuing it, because I see that it is a profession that is ending. Back in A Casa do Porco, I made a point of setting up a butcher shop, working with our own cuts and showing this work that I admire so much for everyone who walks downtown São Paulo.
When I got older I said to my father I was going to set up a bar, he even got to buy the bricks to assemble there in my city. I decided to do the gastronomy course, I studied in the first SENAC (a technical school) course organized after an agreement with the CIA (Culinary Institute of America). When I started to learn different techniques that I had never seen in my life, teachers speaking other languages about a lot of new things happening all over the world, I soon realized that I no longer could go back to my small city, I opened my head and my heart to the world and decided to risk life in São Paulo.
Was school learning useful for helping in the professional life when it started in practice?
It was very important that I go through everything I went through to get here. If I had not taken the SENAC course with the CIA I see that I would have another way of seeing the gastronomy, it really made me see that gastronomy is a world of possibilities. It is ingredient, it is technique, it is service, it is social, it is art, it is culture and so on.
But it’s one thing to learn at school, it’s another thing to go to the real world, you realize it’s a lot harder than theory. I had the opportunity to work alongside a lot of people who taught me a lot. Like the chef Laurent Suaudeau here in Brazil, who until today I keep a friendship and admiration. I worked with him for years in some restaurants and doing consulting. I was the chef of some restaurants before A Casa do Porco, where I learned a lot not only in the kitchen, but also about our social relations. I was already a well-known chef in Brazil when I took a chance at an internship at El Celler de Can Roca, it was an experience completely different of what I was doing, people said I was crazy to do it, but I needed to see what was happening out there to open my head again.
I see that it is extremely necessary to have a base of gastronomy, but it is running the world, exchanging experiences, knowledge, getting to know people and cultures, and watching what is happening in the world — this is the way to be adding things to our work and starting to do something which can transform, if only a little, the gastronomy, and play our part here.
How did you indulge in high French and Italian cuisine – did you like these specialties? Could you feel comfortable?
In the beginning it was something completely new to me. When I left the school of gastronomy and went to the work, who made high gastronomy in Brazil were the French and Italian, were the two immigration of restaurateurs. One of the craziest experiences was to see French chef Laurent Suaudeau and Italian chef Luciano Boseggia sharing a kitchen, two completely different personalities but somehow it worked very well.
I have learned a lot, I am a person with open minds to the world and I adapt. I have learned a lot from these kitchens, and I take this learning from the work I do today. I dedicate myself to my kitchen, which has a Brazilian root, is a country man cuisine, but all my work is a result of everything I’ve lived through all these years.
How was your decision to leave the European haute cuisine to dedicate to a kitchen more linked to your origins?
It was a rather natural way. Since I was growing, this countryman kitchen is what inspired me, that made me a cook, and to follow the path I followed. I think it’s natural for me to go back to that root so that I can also show who I am. When I was at Pomodori (a fine dining restaurant in São Paulo) I started to bring these inspirations to my dishes, Brazilian ingredients with Italian cuisine, so much so that the journalists here in Brazil called my cuisine “ítalo-caipira” (italian/countryman), an immigration cuisine.
When I thought of A Casa do Porco I wanted to put together everything I had already lived in my more than 20 years of career, and to take a new step in this story, bring my origins on countrymen dishes, the ingredients, but with a lot of technique and concept. Every dish that I make I see that it is necessary to tell a story, to show my client that it is not a dish for a dish, but rather part of my history in some way, the way I think and see the world.
Did you introduce innovations in how to prepare the pig, in relation to what you knew in your land? What kind of culinary innovation — was it in seasonings, temperatures, grill format etc.?
Wow, it’s been years until you get the perfect pig! There in my city is very typical Porco a Paraguaia (paraguayan pig), a recipe that arrived here by the War of Paraguay and spread by all south and southeast by Prestes Column (a militar oppositionist expedition). But I could see that the recipe was not cool, it could be improved. So every Christmas I went back to São José do Rio Pardo, I made the pig trying a new way to do it. To start with I do not use the piglet, I use an adult pig of about 100kg live. I bone the pork, which is not done in the recipe of the Porco à Paraguaia, and instead of injecting spices, I made my own selection of spices and the pork goes through a brine, in a hot “ofuro”.
I also changed the way of roasting, I even designed the barbecue, to ensure that the meat is juicy and crisp skin the way it has to be. For this you have to control the temperature, so I made it in a way that the temperature was ideal, and the fat was also preserved. As I said, there were years of testing, but when I got the ideal recipe there was no way, I even had to baptize “Porco San Zé” (“São José pork”) in honor of São José do Rio Pardo. Hence it was a blast, we did at São Paulo cultural events, everyone went in my restaurant looking for the pig and I did not sell there. With this idea in mind and a push of some very important people (like Ferrán Adrià who came to Brazil and said that I should make this pig a business), I was more certain that the pig was the way I should go.
You usually talk about the importance of the origin of the raw material – especially, in your case, the meats you use. How to ensure quality delivery?
Starting to search suppliers to A Casa do Porco I realized the size of the problem. I’ve always worried about the ingredient that I use in my restaurants, this is primordial for the gastronomy, but when you go to open a restaurant that only works with one protein, things gets more complicated. I see that today I am the crucial point in the productive chain, the one who understand the problems and needs of all parts.
So, to deliver a quality ingredient, that corresponds to the same philosophy that I believe, I need to talk and educate a lot of people. From the producer, to the transport of the animal, to the slaughter and sanitary inspection in the meat fridge, until it arrives at my restaurant, where I guarantee the cuts and the way of serving. I need to ensure the total traceability of the animals I use, from the time he was born until the time he goes to the table, each one has documentation of everything that has happened in its life. I see that it is our mission as cooks to ensure that we are serving the best product possible, and when it comes to pork, it is my responsibility.
Do you think that Brazil is advancing in these mechanisms to control the quality of animal breeding, or is it still far from an ideal level?
We still have a great way to go, it is not an easy change to make, our country is very big. But I’m optimistic and I work very hard so that one day this becomes a reality. I already have my producers, who are gradually showing a new market and who are in this challenge with me. I want to start my new project now in 2019, which is the Book of the Pig.
The idea is to make an expedition through Brazil, to map the entire production chain in Brazil, the breeds of pigs that we have here, to understand which is the Brazilian original pig. I see we have a long way to organize all this around here. But it does not only depend on me, I think that in order for us to get there, we also need government assistance so that the quality control of animal breeding is in line with this new way of seeing the world.
You and your wife Janaina Rueda have been struggling to focus your restaurants in downtown São Paulo as a way to regain the occupation of this region. Do you always associate the mission of the restaurant with something bigger than gastronomy? Is it a recent idea?
I see that gastronomy goes far beyond our restaurant, it is something that can change the world, the way we live. Especially when I came to the center of São Paulo, it became even clearer to me. I have always worked in restaurants in noble neighborhoods, served a few tables, in restaurants that make reservations and serve only 5% of the population of the city. I learned a lot and it was an incredible experience, but it comes a time in our career that we wonder what we want to do for our lives. And that’s how A Casa do Porco format came about, a restaurant where I can create, tell my story, do the work the way I believe it should be: democratic.
I wouldn’t make a restaurant that only accepted reservation and charged US$ 100 a tasting menu, even because I would close in a short time. You need to understand your neighborhood, understand who the people are there, and adapt to these people. At A Casa do Porco I pick up a lot of people, from snacks at the window for US$ 4 to people who are experiencing a tasting menu for the first time in their lives, and are willing to pay US$ 30 for that experience. It is very gratifying for me to be in my restaurant and see people with bright eyes, to come to hug and thank me, this is priceless!
And more and more while wondering through the center of São Paulo, I see that we have a lot to improve on Brazilian food, that we have to start with the most basic things: sausage, mortadella, bread and cheese. This is how the idea of Hot Pork (a small hot dog joint) and also Sorveteria do Centro (an ice cream joint) came about, offering popular foods made with good ingredients at affordable prices. Who said that sausage and ice cream are not also high gastronomy?
You already have four establishments in the same region. Are there other plans ahead?
Yes, the more we move, the more we think. There is a lot to be improved in the population’s diet. I feel flattered that people receive everything I do openly, they know that in my homes they will be able to find a quality product at a fair price, so we will continue to transform while we can. The next venture will be Mercearia do Centro, which will be a downtown bakery.
Thanks a lot, Chef Jefferson! These were very refreshing insights into your culinary world!
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