Chapeau – This year, Manoella “Manu” Buffara was named Latin America’s Best Female Chef 2022. “I feel touched and very grateful. To be acknowledged by such a diverse and highly professional group of people is no easy feat,” said Manu Buffara. She was delighted with the award. “I know my name is pretty well known at the moment. I have been invited to many events. But I was very surprised to be chosen by friends and an amazing 50 top gourmets and Oscar winners.” For her, the award is “a channel to talk about how important it is to learn about local food and look for high-quality products that grow close to home.” In other words, it can be a vehicle and voice for her values.
Today, the in-demand star chef lives with her husband and two daughters in a house with garden plots and beehives outside Curitiba, a city in the southern Brazilian state Paraná.
The origin of her passion for cooking
Manu Buffara spent the first 14 years of her life on her parents’ farm in Maringá, in the heart of the country. “My passion for cooking started with my father and family. I come from the country and grew up with goats, cows, fields and corn fields. I learned from my father to appreciate the land and animals, and everything they offer us if they are treated with love,” says the 39-year-old. “My grandmother taught me how important our hands are, the temperatures, the cooking points, the time for baking bread and the love we should have for food.”
The Brazilian didn’t realize she wanted to be a chef until she was 20. “At the time, I was studying journalism. I worked at a restaurant in a ski resort near Seattle. That’s when I noticed how food can change people’s moods. I was fascinated by gastronomy.” And so, after studying journalism, she took courses in hotel management and gastronomy at the Centro Europeu in Curitiba. After that, Buffara moved to the Piemont region, where she obtained her diploma as head chef from the International School of Italian Cuisine (ICIF). This was followed by internships at the famous Noma in Copenhagen and Alinea in Chicago. Later, Manu Buffara worked as head chef for the restaurants of the Brazilian Rede DeVille hotel chain.
She has run Manu in Curitiba since 2011 – Brazil’s first restaurant with a female chef. The Manu has five tables with room for 20 people, and a tasting menu is offered. The head chef only uses fresh, seasonal ingredients, local vegetables, seafood and meat. 80 percent of suppliers come from within a 200-mile radius of her restaurant. Lamb and pork – Porco Moura – is supplied by small livestock farms. 60 percent of the products are plant-based. “Right now I prefer to use vegetables.” In 2021, she cooked at the luxury resort Soneva in the Maldives. “Thanks to the project, I came up with the idea of cooking a vegan and vegetarian menu,” explains the chef.
Regional products – the main ingredient in Buffara’s outstanding cuisine
Manu Buffara sees her kitchen as a laboratory where she works with techniques and ingredients to create the world she wants to live in. “By only cooking with fresh fish, I help draw attention to local fishermen and show people that it is much smarter and healthier to buy from them. I do the same when I talk about local Brazilian honey, local cassava flour, about the fruits and mushrooms from my home country.” The chef serves dishes such as mussels, Brazilian chestnuts and uarini or octopus with black beans and cashew nuts.
Her motivation is clear: “The will to pursue my dreams, to search intensively for creativity and sources of inspiration. I am interested in research, social projects, the country and discovering new tastes and new types of cooking.” The Brazilian wants to create choreography with her pots. “I want to draw unforgettable edible traces, I want to write and tell a story with my food. The history of my community, my life, my family, my country.”
A matter close to heart: Sustainability
The Brazilian is committed to supporting young producers, fishing and agriculture in Paraná as well as preserving native Brazilian bees. Since 2016, she has been participating in the Urban Gardens project led by the Curitiba city authorities. “By law, empty land can be converted into community gardens,” says Buffara. Today, the project includes a total of 89 urban gardens, and 5000 participating families. In 2020, she also founded the Manu Buffara Institute, which organizes the annual Alimenta Curitiba event focusing on education and social inclusion in the city’s most needy neighborhoods.
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Social media: Communication tools and source for information and inspiration
She also shares her philosophy on Instagram. “I believe social networks play a key role in how we interact. They have a major impact on how we communicate, our consumer habits and access to information.”
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Her posts are a mix of her private and professional life. “My posts show what I am doing when I am with my family. When I meet my friends for a Sunday meal, which sport I do, when I travel or what events I attend. But I also post about my work at Manu with my employees and producers as well as my social projects with the Manu Buffara Institute.” This inspiring and authentic combination of content and the passion with which Manu Buffara communicates her values and convictions also won over the jury of the Best Chefs of Instagram 2022 Award.
People in restaurants – not workers
The chef holds her employees in high esteem. “Restaurants are built on people, not on workers. We have to make sure they are mentally, physically and financially healthy.” As a result, at the end of 2019 she cut the capacity of her restaurant Manu in half, reducing the number of tables from 10 to five. The restaurant is now only open four days a week instead of five. She also added new team-building initiatives, such as weekly English courses and a team day with rafting and trekking. “That was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Not only for me and my private life, but also for the team,” says Buffara.
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Team cohesion is essential to the owner. “There are women and men on my team. What I want is commitment, responsibility and respect. I think that if this is the case in every working environment, these differences will not be an issue. Instead, we will discuss the intrinsic quality of each of us as human beings and our responsibility to the environment, the planet and the world we are trying to build.”
Chefs can make a difference
According to Manu Buffara, gastronomy is currently undergoing a profound transformation. “It is our duty to continue to champion the land, nature, our culture and the right to decent and fair food for every single person.” It was no coincidence that chefs in particular are becoming vocal about the topic. “Food waste, better use of ingredients and feeding people are important issues today. And we chefs are high-performance athletes. Not only do I think about how to use a banana, I also think about what to do with the peel. It’s part of a collaborative effort to change the environment I live in and make better decisions for the city I live and work in.”
Ella comes to life in New York with a Brazilian spirit
Time and time again, the culinary artist is drawn out into the world to become a guest in other kitchens. Until November 2023, Manu Buffara will be cooking at “Fresh in the Garden” – at the Soneva Resort in the Maldives. Part of her team from Curitiba will join her, moving to the Maldives for a year and cooking with ingredients from the island’s gardens, along with those from Sri Lanka, India and Asia. But how does she balance family and work life? It’s possible to combine family and a restaurant career, she says. “Family are the people who support you, protect you and are always by your side”. Next spring, the chef will move to New York for a couple of months to open her new project and second restaurant Ella in the city. Quote: “I appreciate my base, honor my roots. They are my beginning, my middle and my end,” says Buffara.
“Ella was scheduled to open in 2020. But the pandemic and its effects threw everything out of whack.” The new restaurant is currently under construction in the Meatpacking District; the design features lots of wood and was conceived by Marcio Kogan. Ella’s goal is to bring Brazilian cuisine to New York City with a touch of femininity and delicateness. “The menu includes a few colorful dishes for everyone, which I also serve to my friends and family at Sunday dinners and parties,” says Manu Buffara. Ella has room for 50 people and is closed on Mondays. Seafood and vegetables are at the center of the menu. “The restaurant in NYC will have the Brazilian soul, the creativity, the ease and the love of the cuisine,” she says.