Part two Not every restaurant in Rio is packed full for lunch and dinner every night of the week. But Zuka is. So what’s the secret? Is it because Zuka is owned by a dominant trio of woman-restauranteurs (***) in the carioca dinning scene? Or is it because Chef Ludmilla Soeiro is a spitfire woman with a mind of its own? In my opinion, it’s both.
At 34, and with 3 marriages under her belt, Ludmilla ( photo above) is simply fearless. A quality that on a personal level comes at a high price, but professionally pushes her forward like a rocket ship farther than other chefs. With a restless look on her face, Ludmilla has the strength of a young soul. Her youth does magic to her food, and to her face too – she looks like a recent college graduate. After ten years working as the head chef of Zuka, she is now one of the most established chefs in Rio, with a full house restaurant every day, and every night. Last summer, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ludmilla for an interview and as I began the conversation, I became fascinated by her big personality, her passion for cooking, and her free-spirited-mind. Enjoy the interview!
Q: How did you start cooking? A: My father had a very simple restaurant that prepared food for workers and I was always in the kitchen helping him. At 13, I was cooking full-time, and by the age of 15 I was already consulting for other restaurants. At 19, I moved to the US because I wanted to learn English. I worked in the restaurant business from the day I arrived; from dish washer to sous- chef at two restaurants in California.
Q: What restaurants? A: Mellise, a French restaurant in Santa Monica, and Kemo Sabe was an Asian Fusion restaurant in San Diego ( now closed).
Q: How long did you live in the US? A: I stayed for 6 years and then I developed ulcer. I was really sick and I had to come back to Brazil for treatment. That was right after 9/11. I returned to Rio and two days after I arrived I got a job in the kitchen at Zuka, which at the time was under the control of a carioca chef trained at the CIA – Felipe Bronze. After only one year in the position, he left to open his own place. They offered me his post then.
Q: How would you define the menu at Zuka? A: We prepare rustic food based on charcoal and grilling. At the same time, our menu is contemporary with a focus on regional ingredients.
Q: How many people work with you in the kitchen? A: We have a staff of 27, between dish washers, grilles, and 4 sous chefs. We serve about 300 covers a day, between lunch and dinner.
Q: What do you see happening with Brazilian cuisine today? A: For a long time Brazilian chefs only wanted to use imported ingredients and cook other ethnic foods. Today it’s quite the opposite; we only want what’s regional, and we are completely interested in our native Brazilian cuisine.
Q: What other chefs in Brazil you look up to? A: Well, Chef Alex Atala from D.O.M restaurant in São Paulo is definitely the most established chef in the media and he is certainly a great influence. But there are other chefs on the rise doing a fantastic job. I love the work that Chef Helena Rizzo is doing combining high technology with Brazilian ingredients in her restaurant Mani restaurant in São Paulo. Chef Roberta Sudbrack from Roberta Sudbrack restaurant in Rio, and Belgium Chef Frederick de Mayer (from Eça restaurant in Rio), are also extremely creative and talented.
Q: What do you like to eat at home? A: Very simple and homey food, like chayotte soufflé ( soufflé de chuchu), steak involontini (bife rolê), vatapá, farofa, and other comfort foods. I spend on average 13 hours daily in the kitchen, so when I get home I try not to cook too much. But when it comes to holidays, I like to spend time with my family and they insist I should do the cooking, which I do, with pleasure.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job? A: I love when someone say they don’t like a certain ingredient, then they try it at Zuka and like it. Because we have an open kitchen, I also love to see people’s faces and expressions when they are eating. And I love to talk to the clients, participate in their lives. Some people come over to dine with us and we end up exchanging recipes. I also love when I am responsible for wedding proposals; when the groom sends a wedding request through food. I’ve had a few of those.
Q: And what is the least fun part ? A: I don’t like when the reviews are too harsh. I always believe in giving the restaurant a second chance.
Q: What’s your biggest challenge culinary-wise? A: It’s my own pressure to be constantly creative. Some days it just comes naturally, but other days, I am just so tired and not necessarily felling inspired. Yet, I have to perform every night.
Q: Is there anything you to hate to eat? A: My mother used to force me to eat cow’s liver. Because of that, I hate it to this day. On my next post ( third and final from Zuka’s series), I will share a recipe from Chef Ludmilla Soeiro with you. Stay tuned, and see you tomorrow! *** The trio is composed by Ana Carolina Gayoso, Marina Hirsch, and Ma. Beatriz Stewart.