Episode #44: Rafael Cagali
The Italian-Brazilian chef of 2 Michelin star restaurant Da Terra in London.
Rafael Cagali is the chef of the restaurant Da Terra in London, which opened in 2019 yet very quickly, has already attained two Michelin stars. He was born in São Paulo, Brazil, though he is of Italian decent and has spent more than a decade working in European restaurants like The Fat Duck, Villa Feltrinelli, Aulis, Quique Dacosta and Martin Berasategui. The restaurant opened in 2019.
Is his restaurant Italian? Is it Brazilian? Is it European? It’s hard to say really. Everyone wants to put it in some neat little box, but that would be unfair to someone that has so many different influences and experiences to draw from. Just think of all of the influences that exist in Brazil already. Indigenous, African, European, Middle Eastern. He is his own person, which is probably why his restaurant sounds so exciting. There probably isn’t another one like it. From our conversation, he seems quite practical about how he creates the menu. He has his own process and he makes it work for him. The restaurant is located in in Bethnal Green’s Town Hall Hotel.
– Nicholas Gill
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Partial Episode Transcript
Rafael: “I’m starting to worry a little bit because it feels like you just get out from a massive pandemic and then you go through tough times, and now, hitting at different times, there is a shortage of staff, there is a shortage of produce, prices rise in custom. So there is always something and you think like, blimey, can we just like try to live our lives and it'll be less worrying, you know?
I don't know if this is the way forwards. But I think as a human, we've got this capability of adapting ourselves, right? I think this is one of the greatest things as a human being. You can adapt.”
Nick: “Have you had to make any adaptations that you didn't think you'd have to make? For instance, maybe some of those Brazilian products didn't come and you have to find something in the UK?”
Rafael: “To replace everything I use in terms of Brazilian products…I find them here anyway. There's nothing out of this word that is impossible. That's the reason I started using them because I can get them here. There is always like a local shop, which you know is quite handy for me, and then I go in there and pick up bits and bobs but like I don't use crazy Brazilian produce. What I try to do is kind of like base it on inspirations from home and my Italian background and things like this. But my suppliers are all in the UK. Olive oil directly from Italy. There is one produce I’m struggling to find a little bit here, which I’ve never found imported from Brazil, is tucupi.”
Nick: “I was going to ask you about tucupi. Are you importing tucupi already processed or are you making it yourself?”
Rafael: “No, it's processed because the type of manioc used for tucupi I can never get it here.”
Nick: “Yuca brava.”
Rafael: “Yeah, I can't get it here at all. What I've seen here is the manioc, the cassava, that we actually use, but it doesn't come from Brazil.
So, yeah, the juice would still get processed, reduced and is ready to consume so it has gone through the stage of fermenting and boiling and all that. I'm quite happy to use this produce and it's such a unique product, but it's just not easy. I'm the only one in the UK who has that.”
Nick: “Maybe from Africa like is there another supply of yuca brava, the poisonous yuca? But I guess there is no reason to import that ingredient because no one else is going to make tucupi from it. So how are you using tucupi from your restaurant?”
Rafael: “We are using it in kind of a tiradito. So we just kind of like elevate the acidity of tucupi to marinate the fish. We serve it with Arctic char and we cure the char a little bit and we finish with tucupi on top of it. So, it just gives it an extra, you know…curing the fish brings more acidity as well. So that's how I'm using right now. There are other ways of cooking with it, but I think the process is so nice to use it in that way.”
Nick: “Did you eat a lot of it? Did you when you were growing up?”
Rafael: “No, not at all. No, not at all. So tucupi…I don’t remember having tucupi when I was young to be honest. So just probably going to restaurants there. I think Alexa Atala was a massive pioneer in Amazonian ingredients and opening the vision for this product as well.”
Nick: “Do you ever used to tucupi preto?”
Rafael: “I do have a small batch in here. Which is like a soya. A substitute for soy sauce, which is quite really interesting flavors as well. We do have a small batch and I don't use it. I've called like have reduced the version of that as well. It’s like a glaze. So sometimes we make garlic glaze and brush the short rib.”
On Being Italian Brazilian:
Nick: “You mentioned your Italian background. So both of your parents were they born in Italy?”
Rafael: “No, they my parents were born in Brazil. My great granddad is from Italy.”
Nick: “It's the same as me. Do you know what part of Italy?”
Rafael: “They come from Verona. So from the north. I also lived in there a little bit as well. Mainly in Lake Garda, Italy for a good four years.”
Nick: “Where did you work there?”
Rafael: “Villa Feltrinelli. It is a stunning place. The whole lake is beautiful as well. So definitely worth a trip.”
Nick: “So when growing up, was your family still eating a lot of Italian food? Was that tradition, heritage still very strong?”
Rafael: “Yeah, totally. I think Brazil is a country of influences from many European countries. And we are descendants of Europeans…let's say in general Portuguese, Spanish and Italians and the more South in Brazil you go you have Austrians, Germans. Even Japanese. In Saõ Paulo we have the largest Japanese community. And everything is kind of adapted to the Brazilian way of living. So adapted to Brazilian taste. We grew up in my family and food has always been a thing. My mom always had a restaurant as well. They always had a restaurant, and my dad was involved as well. But I never imagined that this could be part of my life one day, you know?”
I was just a kid running around and more interested in playing football, things that are dangerous, you know? I remember probably helping now a little bit.”
Nick: “I was kind of same way. But I didn't feel much of a connection to Italy. Growing up, I mean. My parents, my mother, at least was Italian and all her family was Italian. And when we got together, there would be Italian foods and things, but it would be the holidays. But I didn't feel very Italian. It was more southern Italian, like Calabria. And it was lots of red sauce and things. And I didn't red sauce didn't agree with me as a child. So I wouldn't eat much of it. And then I grew up and I think the Italian part of me was almost lost or something. I don't know.”
Rafael: “I see. I mean, we always had it that way. Obviously, I guess more the stubbornness. You know? From my granddad's they're kind of like you know, restricted stubbornness. But I think eating wise I have always liked pasta and things like these you know. But I get what you mean. We were in Brazil, so you have cantinas, but it's all being adapted to the Brazilian lifestyle.”
Nick: “So when you got to Italy, when you got to Lake Garda, were there things that you recognize, or did you feel totally out of place? Like I'm not really Italian?”
Rafael: “Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I was living in London before going to Italy, so I had to rediscover a whole new, new Italian way for me. Especially as I was integrating to a full-on Italian language and culture, which I had not experienced before when I was in Brazil. So, absolutely, there was a whole new thing to explore. I guess it was all beneficial as well, because, you merge into a culture despite the culture is part of your culture is a whole new thing.”
Nick: “When I go to Italy, it's like I don't recognize the Italian that I grew up with. Actually, the one time I went to Calabria, it felt the same. But in a way that wasn't that interesting. In some ways. It was very down and out, almost in a sad way. The kind of Italian experience I grew up with because it was my family, working in steel mills, and coal mines. And just kind of growing up poor. I recognize the poverty of it. But when I go elsewhere in Italy, it's going to like nice restaurants and things like that. It doesn't feel like my experience. Did you have anything like that?”
Rafael: “The tourist side of that.”
Nick: “Even just the kinds of foods and what everyone's eating and the celebration of life. I don't know.”
Rafael: “I kind of get where you're coming from. I can imagine that kind of? I don't know. For me, it just it feels, it feels a lot different. I think generations change as well. I think obviously, the generation from having my great granddad. He obviously had this Italian-Portuguese accent and then I think from his generation to my generation…I think there's a massive gap in there, years, where the culture is diluted a little bit. I think, for me, going to Italy is life changing. I mean, I easily adapt as well, because I lived and work with Italians all the time.
But I guess I was probably being seen as not Italian. Even if you say your background as Italian, they probably look at you say, ‘No, he's not.’ It's just like, you know, still the foreigner. Which he never really bothered me. I was never had intentions to say, I'm not here to steal your culture. I'm interested, you know what I mean?
I think they see like if your great grandparents left Italy, they aren’t Italians anymore. But I can't even imagine how tough times were. Though I guess it's a little bit how we live nowadays. We were with less communication and modernizing. There was no such as a phone.”
Nick: “Do you think having this background to where you are Italian Brazilian, but also coming from Brazil where there's African and Japanese and all these other influences, but also spending time in Italy and London, do you think that that kind of frees you in the way you're cooking? In some ways?”
Rafael: “Yeah, yeah, totally. The experiences. I also lived in Spain as well. So I think experience living in these countries they open your eyes for the cooking you're putting together. Much like a culture, you understand different cultures and I think that is a great way of experiencing, and dealing with people. I think it definitely opens you up more.”
Nick: “Do you call your restaurant, Brazilian Italian? Or what do you say?”
Rafael: “I don't want to say. I don't want to put a stamp on it. It's hard to come up with something. But I've always struggled there. Even opening up it was like, what type of cuisine is this? I don't know, it’s mine. Do we have to say? So we have to do something?”
Nick: “But it's like, you have to sometimes. People are asking you, public relations and marketing. They want to say it's Brazilian Italian, or something.”
Rafael: “It's like, do you have to? Why do you have to say something? Why can you not just gather more than whatever, just more than a European. It's too easy. For me, it's hard, because this is not a Brazilian restaurant. And at the same time it’s not an Italian restaurant. There is, yes, there is a thought in the Brazilian influences, because it's me, right? I'm Brazilian and I think pinching some of that produce or combinations of flavors, but it’s not only ingredients there. It’s nothing to do with Brazil. I think my restaurant is kind of based on my living so far and the influences could be from anywhere.”
On Coming up with a new dish:
Nick: “So when you're coming up with a dish, how does it start? Let's talk about this. So on your menu, at least the most recent menu, you have a moqueça from Brazil? And how do you turn it into a moqueça for Da Terra? It's a very homey dish, a very regional dish, with a lot of influences. And it's beautiful on its own. So how do you adapt it?”
Rafael: “I think that is probably easier, our way to think. I think the most difficult thing is to bring the originality of the dish into here, because no one else has ever heard of moqueça before. In my life I probably had it once. It wasn't something I growing up with. It's very northern and it has very interesting flavors. And you bring something different to the diner in here. It is also another element. So it was like, picking a dish that is very iconic in Brazil, and bringing it here in my way, but I think the dish is quite original in certain ways. But I also was thinking of the little story behind it and passing it back to the diners. Make them understanding this dish could be just any day dish, but then we presented the dish that looked like as a classic version, and explain the ingredients we're using, and where's this dish coming from, the influences the dish has.
We they use it the dendê oil, which is essential for the moqueça Baiana, from Bahia. So we explain all this and I think bring it together. It's just a matter of putting a classic recipe and giving a twist to it. And I think people really enjoy you bringing something unknown. I think this is all about experience as well. These people never had it before. Never heard of it. And you just kind of bring it back. Oh, well, that's cool. That's new for me. I think the diners have to learn something when they come to dine, you know?”
Nick: “I want to ask you about that. Because from what I've gathered in reviews and from listening now, you do like to explain a lot, you like to be a storyteller. So you're very involved in bringing dishes out to the tables and in talking with the guest. Like, there's a lot of interaction.”
Rafael: “Right, totally.”
Nick: “So, why is that important? Why is it important that they learn something, that they understand the dish and not just taste it?”
Rafael: “I'd like to think that we are not just like a normal restaurant. It's not just a place of the day, because you have so many courses when you sit down here with us. I think this was one of the things I the lockdown teaches you as well, I think dining out has become like an experience, right? So people want to have a day, you know? There are restaurants where you just want to sit down and have one play and go, but I think nowadays because, costs are so high and I think for you to come out and spend four hours sitting down, you've got to feel something. You've got to really want a special occasion, or you want to treat someone else and you want to learn something. And I think that's what I see now.
I find is so nice talking to the guests is and you always get to know people. You're always going to get one here and there that is not interested in what we have to say, unfortunately, because you think you're coming here to sit down for four hours. If you’re not interested in what we have to say it's like, you're just wasting your money. Yeah, I mean, you could just give a space to someone else to come in here.
But we do appreciate, like we love to get to know the guests and interact and explain because they show a lot of passion as well. I'm not saying that all the dishes are perfect. I'd like to think that it's great. But what's perfect maybe for you but for me is not perfect is irrelevant. The food has to be tasty, of course, but I think the overall experience is from the moment they walk in, the moment they leave and throughout the meal as well. They end up meeting every single member of staff, so they have seen every different face and I think it's a nice atmosphere.”
Nick: “I agree. Especially t fine dining restaurant where I'm going to spend a few hours and probably a lot of money. I want to experience it. I know not everyone's like this but me personally, I want some kind of experience. I don't want just luxury. Like I can get luxury. I can go buy a tin of caviar if I wanted to. I don’t have money to do that, but if I wanted to go do that. But if I'm going go to restaurants and spend all this I do like the experience. I like having the interaction with the team and in trying to understand the food and not just, dollops of caviar on everything. That's my money here.”
Rafael: This is the way I think. You do get caviar, but it’s like what you do with it as well. We work with expensive produce and it is also the way you put it.
Nick: “It's like I've gone to three Michelin starred places that have you know, just been about luxury and everything's very cold but very precise and very well executed, but I walk away just feeling like I've missed something, I don't know. Like I spent my money and I'm walking away and that was it. Like that three hours or four hours…that was it. That was that the luxury. But when there is some kind of experience or story I walk away, and I think about it, and I think about those flavors and where they're from, how the world works and all of these things. And for me in a fine dining place, that's important. But I know for everyone, it's not. They just get tired of it. And they're like, just give me the food and whatever.”
Rafael: “Whoever thinks that way they are totally in the wrong place. So why would you want that? But that’s not how I see the guests from Da Terra. They come in here and they want to feel that experience. Unfortunately, it's not it's not everyone, but you can't decide that. You can’t choose what type of guest you want. That's what is was very hard in hospitality. Generally, we put up with so much, we have to be here smiling for the most amazing guests, as well as the most miserable one.”
Quotes from this interview have been gently edited for context and clarity.
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