In the first anniversary of his restaurant A Casa do Porco, in São Paulo, Brazilian chef Jefferson Rueda has a lot to celebrate. Crowds that are lining up outside to taste his food and the the restaurant has already won several awards, yet nothing could make him more proud than that his tasting menu, called De Tudo um Porco (roughly translating to “a little bit of everything of a pig”), is a best-seller. In a casual restaurant in downtown São Paulo, which many said would never be successful, he surprised everyone by selling ten thousand tasting menus a month. “I never expected that,” he says. “But it makes me really happy when I realize that people understand what I’m doing here.”
At A Casa do Porco, as its name suggests, Rueda offers a pork feast, literally from nose to tail. In his case, serving the animal’s head, cheeks, and even the feet and tail, which he uses to prepare a Peruvian ceviche. Rueda intends to show that there’s no more democratic and versatile meat than pork. He proposes a new approach to classic dishes using pork meat as the main ingredient: guanciale sushi with gohan (Japanese rice) and black tucupi, pork tartare (instead of steak) made with aged raw meat, pork temaki, pork buns, and even porkcorn, which are pork rinds that are eaten like popcorn. He also roasts two whole-boned animals at the same time in the middle of the kitchen. I’ve never met a chef so devoted to pork.
Rueda’s passion for meat began when he was a teenager in the city of São José do Rio Pardo, in the interior of the São Paulo state. For a time, he worked as an intern in a butcher shop, where he learned to handle knives, to break down an animal, and to recognize the different cuts. He was sure he had found his calling: to work with food and to cook. Handling animals was always second nature to Rueda, who as a child, helped his brother to take care of his pet calf, named Xodó. “This close relation allowed me not only to know where meat comes from and is produced, but also to value the animal,” he says.
After more than 20 years in a successful career making Italian fine dining food (in São Paulo restaurants like Pomodori and Michelin starred Attimo), he decided to open a restaurant where he could put more of his own signature in the dishes. He wanted to get back to his roots. At A Casa do Porco he even created a space to break down animals beside his kitchen so he can prepare the cuts to use in his recipes, and for making the sausages and charcuterie.
In an era where diners are more and more concerned about the origin of the food they eat and where fighting food waste has become a cause, it makes sense that the art of the butcher is increasing in popularity. “In recent years, my focus has been to gain a deeper knowledge of butchery skills. I traveled abroad, visited huge slaughterhouses, talked to many producers, and was invited to learn how experienced cooks prepared meat,” he adds.
Rueda joined four other Latin American butchers and chefs to promote the craft of a butcher: the importance of preserving the cuts of meat, the handling of the animal, how to improve the way we eat meat, and lastly, the importance of using every part of the animal. The group, named Estados Unidos de La Carne, or the United States of Meat, is formed by Rueda, Argentina’s Ariel Argomaniz (AMICS), Peru’s Renzo Garibaldi (Osso), Uruguay’s Diego Perez Sosa (formerly of Francis Mallmann’s team), and as the godfather, the famed Italian butcher Dario Cecchini. The group came together by chance last year in Peru, when Cecchini, who gave a lecture in the country, visited Garibaldi’s restaurant, Osso, a mix of a butcher shop and restaurant in the neighborhood of La Molina, in Lima.
Garibaldi invited his colleagues to prepare a special dinner together in honor of Cecchini, who was celebrating his 60th birthday. At the end of the feast, Cecchini was touched by seeing these four young chefs from different countries follow the tradition of his family for eight generations and encouraged the group to remain together. So was born the Estados Unidos de La Carne. Since then, they have gotten together on several different occasions and in various places to prepare meals. “We are like that old group of friends who share the same passion. In our case, meat,” says Rueda.
In the coming years, the chef intends to dedicate himself even more in order to create new recipes and to understand more deeply the possibilities that a pig has to offer. Since the opening of A Casa do Porco, for example, he has been serving the pork head instead of throwing it away. Besides using the head to prepare a head cheese included in the menu, he has also begun roasting by demand, for those who want to taste it. “The unexpected success of the roasted head opens new possibilities for me to come up with new recipes, to create more,” he says. After struggling to create so many dishes in A Casa do Porco’s first year, he now has the opportunity to better himself and to make more formidable creations, ensuring that the restaurant has many more anniversaries. A challenge he has to face without losing his own head.
A Casa do Porco
República, São Paulo