There was a time, not all that long ago, when the checklist for being a top chef was pretty rigid. You wash pots as a teenager, then you graduate to cold starters. Slowly you ascend the ladder, and by the time you reach the top you’re a kitchen veteran, with a lifetime of cuts and burns to prove it.
That era seems to be firmly a thing of the past now. If you have lofty kitchen ambitions but your teenage days are behind you, perhaps consider that Rafael Cagali - he of two Michelin-starred Da Terra in Bethnal Green - never even considered working in a kitchen until his twenties. ‘I came to the UK when I was about 20,’ he says. ‘I was only supposed to be here for a year to study English! I was living around Fulham Broadway and I needed a job, so I started cooking in a local brasserie in Fulham.’
The seed was sown. Rafa’s previous plans went out of the window - ‘I was studying economics, but I hated it,’ he laughs - and a few years later, he was studying full time at Westminster Kingsway, a catering college that counts the likes of Jamie Oliver, Ben Murphy and Selin Kiazim amongst it’s alumni. From there, Cagali’s rise has been stratospheric - he’s worked with acclaimed Italian chef Stefano Baiocco at Villa Feltrinelli on the shores of Lake Garda, with Quique Dacosta and Martin Beresategui in Spain, and with Heston Blumenthal and Jonny Lake at The Fat Duck. After that, he joined Simon Rogan to help him open Fera at Claridges, and became head chef at Rogan’s eight-seater chef’s table Aulis. Pretty good going for someone who started cooking because he needed some cash.
‘I extracted good things from all those places, and it made me what I am now.'
‘All of those places have had an impact on me,’ he explains. ‘Working with Quique and Stefano really opened my eyes to my passion for cooking. There were so many talented chefs at The Fat Duck, and everyone was so eager to succeed collectively. And working with Simon Rogan was a great part of my life - I absorbed so much from him.
‘I extracted good things from all those places, and it made me what I am now. Da Terra is all those experiences, but with some twists from my background - I was born and grew up in Brazil, so I felt like that was missing from my cooking style.’
When Cagali struck out on his own in 2019 and opened Da Terra at the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green, he became the latest in a lineage of great restaurants that have inhabited this particular part of East London. This is where Nuno Mendes once made his name at Viajante, and later where Lee Westcott would make The Typing Room into one of London’s hottest tickets. Da Terra has arguably eclipsed both of those restaurants; alongside husband and front-of-house leader Charlie Lee, Rafa has led Da Terra to two Michelin stars in just three years, among countless other awards.
The chef inevitably gets the headlines, but Charlie is a crucial part of the machine, and the couple's playful, fun-loving personality is clear to see in the experience at Da Terra. 'It's lucky that we get on really well!' he laughs. 'Days off can be tricky. This is our life, so you're always thinking about it. But that's the beauty of this industry - it's never boring! If you're bored of hospitality, you're in the wrong place.'
‘It feels like newer generations don’t have the same commitment...’
Regardless of how you reach the end goal in food, there’s one aspect of that equation that is unquestionable - commitment. It’s an ingredient that Rafa feels is increasingly lacking in food, and combined with the impact of Brexit and Covid, it makes achieving those high standards increasingly hard. ‘It just feels like there isn’t enough passion out there anymore,’ he says. I think progress comes through people that love the industry - if you don’t have those things you don’t move forwards. Dropping our standards isn’t an option for us, so we have to learn and adapt.
‘It feels like newer generations don’t have the same commitment,’ he adds. ‘It’s a globalisation thing - everything is in your face and at your fingertips, so you don’t have to fight for it the same way as you did before.’
Notoriously, kitchens in the past have combined those ingredients - commitment, high standards and high pressure - to create something altogether more poisonous. Rafa admits that he’s worked in his fair share of good and bad environments, but as a gay man working in kitchens and now running his own, he has a perspective that is likely quite unique in the kitchen trade.
'I never got upset by that stuff, it probably made me stronger.’
‘My sexuality has never been an issue for me in kitchens,’ he explains. ‘I’ve never felt like I needed to expose it because it shouldn’t have an impact on how I do my job.’ I ask if he has ever experienced any sort of discrimination working in kitchens, and he shrugs. ‘Nothing that was in my face,’ he says. ‘I never wanted to get into any of that. Maybe someone doesn’t like you, or you don’t get a promotion, or someone looks at you differently - I never stopped to think if it’s because I’m gay. I just wanted to be myself as a person and a professional and succeed because I’m good at what I do.’
Does he think that other gay professionals have been put off by the industry’s image, though? ‘I couldn’t tell you anyone specific, but I’m sure it has,’ he says. ‘It’s a hard industry because of how much you put into the job - it’s a lot of hours, it’s tough mentally, and it’s very masculine. There’s always the banter and the little jokes. I always had a tough skin and that helped me through difficult times, along with having the support of family and friends.
‘I’m not necessarily penalising hospitality, it’s the same for other industries too,’’ he adds. ‘I just haven’t been part of those. It’s just the nature of life I guess - you should never accept being bullied, but it might happen, and you have to be prepared to get up and move on. I never got upset by that stuff, it probably made me stronger.’
Rafa has recently added a second restaurant to his collection with Elis - a more casual eatery in the Town Hall Hotel that takes inspiration from his Brazilian and Italian roots. He has long wanted to venture into some more relaxed cooking, and Elis allows him the space to draw on food he grew up with in Sao Paolo, from classic pasta plates to celebratory dishes his grandma used to make. The restaurant is also a tribute to his mother, who owned a restaurant and jazz bar in Sao Paolo in the 70s. ‘It was a kilo restaurant - they’re a bit like buffet restaurants but not as rough!’ he laughs. ‘Sao Paolo has lots of office workers but you only get an hour for lunch, so you could go to a kilo restaurant, pile your plate with loads of different things, then you weigh your plate and pay per kilo.
‘It was a big thing back then, and some places even had a chef grilling meat - it’s good, healthy food. I used to go there a lot, and I’d eat these meat croquettes and have a Fanta Orange!’
Rafa is arguably the most high profile Brazilian chef in the UK today, and Elis is one of the places in London where you can eat elevated Brazilian food, which remains woefully underrepresented in the capital. ‘Brazil is so much about the quality of the produce,’ Rafa explains. ‘Whatever you find here, I don’t think it represents what Brazil has to offer, because you don’t get the same produce or the same quality.’
‘If you have some spare time, maybe just go to Brazil!’
If you could give someone just starting out some words of wisdom, what would they be?
Be humble and work hard. Some things take a bit of time, but you’ve got to be patient and focused, and with those things you’ll get there.
Favourite cooking gadget?
The Bamix hand blender, those are great little things. We use ours constantly.
First dish you learned to cook?
I think it was probably rice!
Describe your cooking style in three words?
Plain, flavoursome, playful.
What is your favourite thing to cook at home?
I got one of those pizza ovens lately, so we’ve been playing with that at home. It’s a monster! You can cook anything in there, and it’s great for barbecues.
Do you have a guilty food pleasure?
I think tiramisu. If you put that in front of me I’ll demolish it until I get sick!
Where is your favourite foodie destination?
I think the food scene in Sao Paolo is incredible. I love Barcelona, the food scene is amazing. And Lisbon is amazing. But saying that, I recently went to Stockholm and absolutely loved it.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
When I was a teenager I was really into football, I love football. When I say this people just laugh at me, but I was playing professionally when I was 15. I had some talent, but I don’t know how far I would have gone, you know? So I’d say anything related to sports. Nowadays it’s not likely to happen - the only sport I do is lift a glass of wine!
Favourite restaurants in the UK?
I don’t have a favourite restaurant, I like to make spontaneous choices. I went to Lisboeta recently, it was lovely - it reminded me of food from home. I love places like that where they’re lively and buzzy, good food, easy going. At the same time, you go somewhere like Moor Hall - stunning. I went to Trivet recently too, that was great.
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