Mar 17 • 1HR 13M

Episode #59: Alberto Landgraf

The chef of Oteque in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Bossa in London, England.

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The New Worlder podcast explores the world of food and travel in the Americas and beyond. Hosted by James Beard nominated writer Nicholas Gill, each episode features a long form interview with chefs, conservationists, scientists, farmers, writers, foragers, and more.
Episode details

Alberto Landgraf is the chef of Oteque in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. During our conversation we discuss how he has created a healthy work environment at his restaurant. For him, the culture of the staff, giving them growth opportunities and having a work life balance is integral to how good of an experience the diners have there. It’s a lot of common sense, but it’s refreshing to hear a chef really think about it and understand something so obvious. We also discuss how he is opening a Brazilian restaurant called Bossa in London in May. How we never got to debate storytelling in food at an event in Slovenia that was canceled because of the pandemic. How he started cooking while living in London because a friend saw his leadership skills on a futbol field and offered him a job. And we talk about stagiers, what happened during the Olympics, the fundamentals of a French kitchen, and lots of things about Brazil. We talk for more than an hour, but I still feel like I barely scratched the surface with Alberto.

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Alberto Landgraf. Photo: Rodrigo Azevedo.

Partial Episode Transcript

On becoming a cook in London:

Alberto: “I was finishing my degree in physics, then then moved to London because I saw that physics was getting me nowhere apart from my curiosity. As a career path, I saw that there was nothing. I told my dad, Dad, send me to Europe, I'll stay there for a few months, and then I'll come back and study something else. Economics, business, whatever. I’ll go just work in a bank and make some money. Then I went. I left to Europe. This was early 2000. There was no FaceTime. No internet. No anything. To have a computer in your house at the time was such a luxury. It was the Internet café era still.

So I went to Switzerland first to visit a friend. Then I went to Paris because I wanted to see the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa, you know. And then I went to London and London was a place where my parent’s friends were. My mom was a teacher. She taught me English since I was young, since I was a kid actually, and she taught me to read a lot. And one of the fascinating characters I read in history – I was always very big into biographies – was Winston Churchill and the Second World War. I really loved to read throughout my high school years, so when I got to London, this was the place I was reading about. When you see history, and you are where it happened, I kind of fell in love with the place. I was talking to this friend of mine and I said I want to stay.

They said okay, you can stay but you're going to need to find a job. So, I got a job at a place similar to Starbucks. I'll never forget all the English classes that my mom used to give me and the first day someone came to me said, ‘Oh, do you have the paper?’ And I looked at some drawers for a piece of paper and he says the newspaper. I was so embarrassed. But, then I started hanging around and making friends. Because I'm Brazilian I played futból in a league with some friends. And then one day my Dad calls and said ‘It’s time to make a choice. Either stay there making cappuccinos or you come back. We had a deal, remember?’ I said OK, I'm going to go back.

And then we had a final game and I called all the guys and I said, Guys, I'm leaving. One of them, that was my best friend, he owned a pub. He said ‘Alberto, I know you've never worked in a kitchen before, but I think if you want to have a go, I think you could be a good chef.’ I asked why. Please explain. I need to understand. And he said, you're very young and into a lot of sports, so you have the vigor you're going to need for long hours. Those were those were the dark days of the British kitchens. You have the stamina for this. This was his joke, but back then – once again I'm talking 20 years ago, it doesn’t feel like kitchens today – you just have people who run away from school or just left jail. So, you're going to observe so much faster, so much more than they will. Whatever takes months to learn, you're going to learn in a week.

He then said something that was really important, something that really got me. He said ‘You can learn to slice a fish, because you have the motor coordination. Your palate is going to become more selective because you're going to start going out to restaurants, things like that. But one thing that's really hard are leadership skills. I noticed when you came to play football with us, our team was a mess. We were fighting all the time. You put everybody to play in the right place. You told everybody you have to do this, do this, do this. You organized everyone and we started winning. So that means you are a true born leader. And that’s what kitchens lack the most, leadership, you know, good leadership. You might not even be the best cook, but you have good leadership skills. Maybe one day you will even have a Michelin star, who knows?’”

Nick: “So you liked what he was telling you? He's telling you something positive and it makes a lot of sense.”

Alberto: “I was 19, 20. Lost. Just frustrated with my degree that made no sense whatsoever to me. And then a guy comes to me and tells me all the all the things I had were good for that job. I was like I'll take it. That's it. Also in the end you're going to pay me better than those guys pay me to make cappuccinos? I very quickly realized that a cook is the only job where you use your five senses at the same time. Touch, smell, your palate, your vision and your audition. It is the only job where you use five of them at the same time.

Back In the day, you had those big bookshops in England, and you could just sit there and read for hours. You wouldn't have to buy the book to read, they'll just let you read. I very quickly realized how infinite the kitchen's possibilities are because you can study it from a cultural point of view. You can study it from a scientific point of view. From the human point of view, which is something that really touched me because my parents are were farmers. So I knew how hard they worked. You have the restaurant business. You can relate it to fashion in a way because you always have to be looking for the next collection even before your collection is out. There’s always a pipeline of things that might work in a few months time, and then everything might change in a hurry. As an athlete there is adrenaline everyday prepping, then service time comes and all the adrenaline concentrates. It’s like being in the final game, the championship game every day. So it brought together so many things that I liked in the same place. And, to this day, I still think that is the key to my success. Of course, those leadership skills that my friend Lawrence mentioned. But, I think, from my mom being a teacher, she taught me to be as multi-disciplined as I could. So very different subjects. I think those are the main keys why I could be where I am, which is nowhere but, it's helped me to survive. When you're in a kitchen for 23-25 years, you’re a survivor already, because a lot of soldiers don't last that long.”

Nick: “Let's talk about that. Kitchens are hard. You started out so you started cooking in the pub, but then you went on to cook with Tom Aikens and Gordon Ramsay. What were those kitchens like back then?”

Alberto: “Gordon’s kitchen was already three-star restaurant. He was very organized. And I mean, it was like playing for Real Madrid and Barcelona. You only have great guys in the kitchen. At this time Tom had Claire Smyth. The shouting was only for TV. Marco, which was an Italian guy who went to Versailles to run the restaurant. The problem was that Gordon was much more ambitious. His ambitions grew too fast. He wanted to really expand his empire faster than you actually produce human elements to put into that situation.

Working for Tom, it was at the beginning, and it was really good. Ninety-nine percent of the time when you jump into a restaurant, you jump into a boat that's already sailing. But to open a restaurant is an experience that you're going to take with you for the rest of your life. And that really helped me. I knew when to open the two restaurants I had. Epice in São Paulo and Oteque in Rio, which I moved here because I got married so I had to close there. I’m not married anymore because restaurants do that people. But with Tom, if you look at it. I was with some journalists and with Andrea, I spent some days in Lyon a couple weeks ago. In that kitchen it was me, James (Lowe) from Lyle’s; Isaac (McHale) from the Clove Club; Aiden Byrne, which is a guy who runs a lot of stuff in Manchester and Liverpool where he is from; Owen Boyle, who is a Welsh guy, was a pastry chef and is now the corporate executive chef for Thomas Keller restaurant groups. And there was Tom there working every day. So, we were a really strong team. So was everybody that was in the kitchen at the beginning and it was tough. It was really, really tough.”

Nick: “Tough, why. Just intense?”

Alberto: “Intense. Hours, hours, many hours. Back then you didn’t have stagiers. That's something that people don't actually remember. I had no stagier to peel my potato for me. I had to peel the potatoes and still cook them and prepare them and clean the fish. I had to do my ordering and control my stock. If it was a Friday night and the chef opened your fridge and you have like, three fish left. Oh my god, you know? You wouldn't have a good weekend.

It was a different time, but at the same time, the systems in which kitchens are run nowadays don't actually teach you how to cook. They'll teach you how to make one or two dishes. Or one and another technique. And then when you are on your own to have your own place you are kind of lost because you only know how to make one dish and one technique and you have to go and start learning by yourself. I'm glad I could work and in the in the old school French kitchen. Let's not forget, most of the chefs of our generation did that as well. René (Redzepi) did at the French Laundry, so he knows that system, you know? The stocks and the sauces. How to construct flavor, you know. And Ferran [Adria] knew as well because El Bulli used to be a classical French place before becoming what we knew. We know what El Bulli is. Colman Andrews, the American writer, has a very interesting biography of Ferran Adria that I recommend everybody reading, if they have the time. It’s like a musician or an athlete or a writer. You need to have a base, the fundamentals.”

On the importance of a good work environment:

Nick: “There is a debate about what the future kitchen is supposed to look like. I think there are a lot of things that are starting to be tested and I think everyone is fed up with the stagier system and the old ways, traditional ways things have been run. What are you doing at Oteque? You're managing to adapt the process to make it work for you and I'm curious how you're making it work.”

Alberto: “I live in Rio, you know? And talking to people, everybody said, Look, when there's a beach day, no one comes to the restaurant. Neither the customers nor the staff. So, opening for lunch was the first thing out of the equation. I think you have to adapt to the situation, but we have spent the last 15 years talking about ingredients, talking about culture, talking about ancient times, and we forgot that we work with the human element. You can have the best sourcing in the world, the best ingredients in the world, but you have to have human beings capable of doing that. And let's not forget, we are in the highest mental disease rates ever in the world. That's the disease of the century and people are lost. People who don’t have anything to hold on to. So, if you don't take care of them in that way first, there isn’t going to be good food on the table. Let's not be silly here. It does influence when you have a happy team working, things flow and work much better. One rotten apple is enough to destroy everything.

So, I just try to give them good conditions to work in. I sometimes don’t put money in my pocket. I leave some money back from the business, just to give them better conditions We have places for people to stay, not stagiers, but my staff. They live far away and they need to take two buses to go home. So we say, No, stay at our apartment we have rented across the road. Sleep over and in the morning go home, because it's dangerous.

We have a 50/50 gender equality hiring policy. Some important journalists have been here and told me ‘You should promote that.’ I say, no, I shouldn't. This is an obligation.”

Nick: “It's not a gimmick. It's something that should be there. I agree.”

Alberto: “Also, 50% of my team also comes from the communities. And that's even worse, because I made a promise to myself, because we had a really shitty situation here during the Olympics, during the Refettorio, and people used other people's misery and really the worst conditions that human beings can have, where they can barely see themselves as human beings, to promote themselves. And I saw that from up close and then they just left and left all the bills behind. People still owed money to this day, almost 10 years afterwards. I made a promise to myself that I'll never promote myself upon someone else's misery. Because I think that's too cheap. That’s really a cheap shot, Nick. If I can help someone and I do have a lot of projects, I'll do it. Not because it's charity. I want to help because I want to return some of the privilege I've had in my life, but I'm not going to do it just to promote myself.”

So, it works and the team has seen it work. I recently had the CEO of a huge hotel chain here. They were changing GMs here in Rio and she came from dinner. Her name was Susan and she was a Texan. Those really tough, red neck, boots and all. I wouldn't want to be negotiating anything with her. She came to me and she caught me in a corner said ‘look, how much would it cost for you to bring this culture to my chain of hotels because I've never seen a team working so happy?’ I told her there's no price because your hotel is too big. I don't know if you know but Oteque only has six tables. So, first of all, you have to have good conditions. You got to give good conditions for people to work.”

Nick: “What specifics? The pay?”

Alberto: “The pay. We pay them above market. Two days off a week. In Brazil, you work six days and you have one day off. That's the stupidest thing in the world, especially in this industry where it takes so much of your body. To have only one day off a week, that's really ridiculous. So, two days off a week, especially one of them being on Sundays. To be off on Mondays when everybody's working, what's the point, you know? You can’t even go to the beach because of traffic to get to the beach. And we do English classes for everyone. If they want to do it, when you complete three months in the front of house, you can choose either a barista course, a cocktail course, a wine course or a data set course. So, everybody's very versatile and when someone is not available, we move them around. For the most senior members, I try to pay them at least once a year to go to Europe, you know, to go to a vineyard, something like that. And whenever I travel, I take someone different with me and I take them to restaurants and show them look, this is how it’s done. This is what you don’t do. Tell me the difference that you feel we have at Oteque. We just try to network a lot. Of course, I do a lot of talks around the world, as you know.

Sometimes I have friends I invite. I've had some publishers, I have some athletes, like Olympians, guys that have won Olympic medals. I've had journalists. All sorts of people to come and talk to my team. As I’ve said, being multidisciplinary is the key to what's going to happen here. The only link between all the different disciplines you might study, no matter how many they are, is the human being. There's only one link that links everything. There's only one thing that links everything together, that is the human being. You need to take care of them before taking care of everything else.

In London, I really wanted a core group to be very united, so hired those people, I brought him over to Brazil. They spent like a month in a Big Brother-type situation and I told them: Guys just hang out. Just hang out at the beach. Do whatever you want. If I need one or two to start work for because we are short here or I want to show you something come over, come in the afternoon to have staff meal and cook stuff for the for the guys one day.

There's one other thing that I do. I had the opportunity, as I still do, to travel, to be abroad for many years and to meet a lot of different people and different cultures. I also bring people in to stay with us. Normally I try two nationalities at a time. They don’t need to do any work really. What I really expect from them, at least for the Saturday, is to do the staff food from their countries and talk a little bit about their food, their culture and it's really good for people. The guys who have never been abroad because they're starting to learn English to practice a little bit, it all adds up. I think that's how we try to look at it.  Other bosses, sometimes my partners, they ask about the menu and I say don't worry about that. That's the last bit. There's going to be some food on the table and the wine, just pop it open, it's going to be there. Let's worry about building something solid. Culture. I have my list and the reason I chose these people to do business with, even though I had other offers from abroad, is because they are the ones who came to Oteque and saw it was different because of the culture we have. So its similar in London to this. People that work with rage they want to go home. They really hate what they're doing. So, we want this in London and if you can get it in London. We're going to thrive so I told them to trust me, and they said OK, here is the check, go and do what you are thinking.”

Nick: “There is all this talk about if fine dining is economically possible while treating staff fairly. You are saying it is possible?”

Alberto: “I think it is. I think it is for two reasons, I'll give you two arguments for you to think about. Number one, if only fine dining had issues, pizza places, and hamburger place would never close, but they close at the same rate, 80 percent in the first year, and the 20% that's left 50% of that goes within the second year, regardless of whether it's fine dining, a hamburger or pizza place. Food businesses in general.

The second argument I'm going to give you is that…I was talking to James at Lyle’s and I was like, ‘So James, where are your stagiers? What happened, where are your stagiers? ‘I cut off those stagiers,’ he said. You start having more hands than you need. And you start creating too many tiny dishes. Creating all this work. And then all of a sudden, you don't have these stagiers anymore. You have to bring more stagiers for all that thing you built and all that food. People start thinking it’s their food. So no stagiers, just old school people who work here. That's it. If we have to make simple food – you know, Lyle’s food is great – that's what we're going to do. Whatever that takes us, it is it is what it is. But I'm not going start faking out my food just because I have a couple of dozen heads left to spare and start creating some smoke and mirrors. So that's something that I brought with me as well. I think it's something that you bring in yourself. In Brazil, we say you shoot yourself in your own foot. If you put 100 people in your kitchen, you have to give them work. Then all of a sudden, they're filling little leaves because what are those people going to do there? If you take all of that equation, and make food simple, it is sustainable. I was just in Lyon and Paul Bocuse is still there, even after the man died. It is sustainable, but maybe what people are trying to do, to have 100 people working, and then all of a sudden you have to start paying them…I'm not going to say that's not sustainable, but it’s going to take a little while organizing your finances around it.”

Nick: “Do you think there's still a place for stagiers?”

Alberto: “Yes, definitely. Definitely. But if they only come from school. When you're in school program, a culinary degree, doing a stage – the same with law school or medical school – you have to do your stagier part. And we have friends from abroad that always ask, ‘Can you have my sous chef for a week? Can you have one for two months.” There's always going to be room for that. I think what there is no room for anymore is for exploitation. We have to keep those things very separate. If you have stagier there, that's learning that you're giving them tasks, and always making them feel part of the team and treating him well. And getting all the things that the regular staff are getting.”

Quotes from this interview have been gently edited for context and clarity.

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