Look, dendê oil," says Eric Ripert, grabbing what looks like a soda bottle refilled with spent transmission fluid. "Every teaspoon of the dendê is one day off your life." When warmed, the diabolically rich cooking oil so beloved in the Brazilian state of Bahia gives off a nutty aroma that permeates everything—our clothes (the little we have on), our hair, even the patio outside this pristine kitchen. "As long as the dendê takes time off the bad end of your life, you should be okay, no?" he asks.
Ripert, chef and co-owner of Manhattan's famed Le Bernardin, has chucked his chef's whites for a midnight-blue sarong and an Egyptian-cotton shirt unbuttoned to his belly—his Brazil uniform. This trip to the secluded Bahian beach town of Trancoso is the latest installment in Ripert's career-long effort at continuing education. And because Trancoso is a new favorite of the international A-list (Gisele Bündchen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Campbell), the merriment quotient promises to be higher than usual.
Brazilian cuisine tends to meld the foods of the country's early Indian, Portuguese and African populations with those of its more recent European and Japanese immigrants. That's not quite the case in Bahia, where the original influences have been jealously guarded.