Chef Helena Rizzo of Mani Restaurant, in São Paulo, Brazil has been named the 2014 Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef. She was honoured at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards, sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna, in London.
Completing an impressive one-two, Chef Helena Rizzo has topped last year’s win as Veuve Clicquot Latin America’s Best Female Chef award at the inaugural Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants with the new title. Born in Brazil, she moved to São Paulo aged 18 to pursue a modelling career, began working in kitchens part time and, before long, had turned her back on modleling to follow a gastronomic dream.
After working with some of the most influential names on the Brazilian food scene including Emmanuel Bassoleil, Luciano Boseggia and Neka Barreto, she spent two years running the kitchen at São Paulo’s Na Mata Café before moving abroad to research new techniques. Stints in Italy and Spain followed, including time at El Celler de Can Roca, currently the highest ranked restaurant on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. It was here also that she met her future husband and partner in the kitchen, Spanish chef Daniel Redondo. Rizzo returned to São Paulo in 2004, with Redondo following her in early 2005, ready for the next step of their journey.
Mani Restaurant opened its doors in 2006 in a São Paulo suburb with the couple working alongside one another in the kitchen. Their clever cooking, respectful of traditional Brazilian culinary practices and ingredients, is married with modern technique and sprinkled with Spanish influence. A signature dish, which epitomizes Rizzo’s cooking, is her interpretation of Brazilian classic Maniocas, baked and served with tucupi froth, coconut milk and white truffle oil.
As a winner of The Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef award, Helena Rizzo joins a group of exceptionally talented women including luminaries Elena Arzak of Spain’s Arzak, Anne-Sophie Pic of Maison Pic in France and last year’s winner, Nadia Santini of Dal Pescatore in the Italian countryside. 2014 will also see Rizzo release her first cookbook and open a second, more casual, restaurant.
What does being crowned The VC World’s Best Female Chef mean to you?
It means recognition of the work that I, Dani and our entire team have been doing. I am not and have never intended to be ‘the best female chef in the world’, especially because this is a difficult judgment to make. Each one of us can be the best in a particular situation, at a given time for a certain person. Of course, I’m very happy and honoured to receive this award and I’m grateful for it! This award is a recognition of my work and of the work of our entire team.
Why has Mani been so successful?
At Maní, we try to do our best every day, sometimes we get it wrong but sometimes we get it right. I hope that this award makes the gastronomic world open its eyes to the work of female cooks and to the wonderful kitchens we have in Brazil.
What effect did winning have on you?
The award made me very happy, I was thankful for the recognition. However, I never positioned myself as a girl, I just tackle my job as any other cook would.
And the effect on the restaurant?
The award has attracted a different kind of patron from those that usually come to the restaurant. It’s nice for us to welcome new people and those from different parts of the world.
For someone who has not eaten at Mani, how would you define your cuisine?
Our cuisine is directly associated with our personal histories, our memories and backgrounds and with the way we perceive today’s world and everyday life.
And your biggest inspiration?
There are so many people who inspire me, in the kitchen, in music, in cinema. To me, the biggest inspiration is life itself.
What did you learn from El Celler de Can Roca?
It was my greatest school, my most intense cooking experience and that has stayed with me. We’re always searching for that authenticity.
How has Mani evolved since it opened?
I think the engine of ‘evolution’ is to be curious, to always want to learn and improve whilst respecting the moment, other people and yourself. We work very hard and we are dedicated. We just try to improve every day.
If you had to choose one starter, one main course and one dessert from Mani what would they be?
The cashew ceviche, the ox cheek with taioba purée and bone marrow and then the butterfly ginger mille feuille.
What would you like the world to know about Brazilian cuisine that they do not know already?
The diverse range of ingredients we have, which each day run the risk of becoming extinct. For example, yucca plant, jaboticaca fruit and some types of flour, beans and passion fruits.
What is the best dish you have ever eaten?
There are so many dishes and so many moments! It’s hard to say. Recently, I had a blue corn tortilla stuffed with pork and a lot of chilli pepper made by Lourdes Hernandez, an incredible Mexican chef, who lives in São Paulo. That night I went to bed with my mouth watering thinking of that flavour.
What tips or advice would you give to the younger Helena?
Always follow your heart. Be honest to yourself and to others. Never try cigarettes. They’re addictive – big time!
[Photo credit: Azemiro de Souza]