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.
"The food we eat this week is centuries old," says Paulo Oliveira, Ripert's travel companion and the owner of the Brazilian restaurant Circus in New York City.
"I love the Bahian simplicity, its continuity. Right now I don't know how food this rustic will find its way onto the table at Le Bernardin," admits Ripert, "but that is why we are here. We learn the recipe. We learn a technique or two, maybe. So I am sure we will find a way. These dishes are too honest to ignore, no?"
Trancoso is not an easy place to get to, requiring a short flight from São Paulo, followed by a bus, jeep or boat ride. Portuguese explorers briefly dropped anchor nearby in 1500, and missionaries built one of Brazil's first churches in Trancoso in 1656, but the town was essentially forgotten by the outside world until a handful of Brazilian hippies, or biribandos, decided to settle here in the 1970s, eager to evade the repressive culture of the ruling junta. There were no roads, no electricity—heck, no currency—but with the help of the few Pataxó Indians and mixed-race residents who were living in the area, the biribandos successfully lived off the grid.
Then, about three years ago, Brazil built the first highway to the region. Trend-conscious Brazilians arrived, followed closely by international celebrities, yet the locals remain refreshingly oblivious to Hollywood blockbusters or platinum-selling albums.
Oliveira is a friend of Elba Ramalho, the Brazilian pop star, who has an impressive compound in Trancoso. Since she is in Rio recording her umpteenth album, she's given Oliveira and Ripert the run of her house, Casa da Elba, and its gigantic kitchen.
On our first afternoon, Maria Auxiliadora Etheve, known as Dora, the owner of the local restaurant Cacau, arrives to cook with us. Ripert tells her he wants to learn the staples of a Brazilian kitchen, with a focus on Bahian specialties. Etheve claps her bejeweled hands on her white Capri pants. "Feijoada and moqueca de camarão," she replies so matter-of-factly that there is little to say.
Feijoada, Brazil's national dish, is a stew loaded with black beans and meats of every description: smoked pork loin, bacon and sausage such as chorizo. Working with the determination of a surgical crew, Etheve and her staff show Ripert how to make the base: They sweat garlic and onion in oil in a cast-iron pot, then add the black beans and water and cook until the beans are almost tender. Then they add all the meats and a whole hot chile to the pot and simmer the mixture some more. Once it's finished, the stew will be so murky it's almost pitch-black. A first-time feijoada eater will rarely fathom the dish's earthy joys until the first taste.
Moqueca de camarão has its origins in Bahia. Its name, which translates to "shrimp stew," belies its complex flavors. After Etheve, Ripert and the staff shell and devein a pile of shrimp (keeping the heads on), Etheve sautés onion, garlic, bell peppers and tomatoes. The next step is to add the fish, coconut milk and cilantro, and serve it with white rice. Ripert tastes the broth and smiles, then starts thinking out loud about ways he can play around with the recipe, perhaps by adding grouper or varying the herbs or aromatic vegetables.
When the lesson is over, Ripert, Oliveira and I stroll to the quadrado, a historic green in the center of town. Horses graze on the grass, and teenagers play a raucous soccer match. "Come, I want to show you my favorite bar," Oliveira says.
The bar, Laricaria, is on Rua do Beco—Alley Street. The first of many things to recommend the bar is the bench outside, covered in faded fuchsia satin. The rapid delivery of an unsolicited can of Bohemia beer has me instantly hooked on this place. We recline on what is essentially a 30-foot-long outdoor banquette, with a view into the windows of the beauty parlor across the way. Oliveira explains that he and Ripert used to spend hours on these benches waiting for the "peacocks" to emerge from the salon.
Dinner that night at Cacau is a feat we will no doubt never recover from: bolinhos de arroz, classic Brazilian rice balls dipped in egg and bread crumbs and fried; coxinhas, fried pastries filled with chopped chicken, garlic, onion and olives and shaped like chicken legs; and peixe ensopado, a fiery Bahian fish stew. Each dish is accompanied by another cry for cold beer or, worse, another round of caipirinhas.
The next day, Oliveira manages to wake up at dawn to get some chickens for a party that afternoon. Ripert's first idea is to stuff them with chorizo, chiles and herbs and roast them, then serve them with hand-cut yuca fries. "Poules et frites!" he says excitedly. "Is there anything more French? And yuca will make it Brazilian, no?"
Oliveira diplomatically reminds Ripert that unlike the chickens he cooks at Le Bernardin, these birds had lived a life akin to that of the surf bums scattered along the coast of Brazil, and that this life would not translate well in the dry heat of a roasting pan. "Ah, of course. How stupid of me!" Ripert replies. "We will have to think of something else to do."
"Frango com quiabo!" shouts Oliveira after a pause. "It is a fricassee with okra, garlic and onions. It is a dish typical of Minas Gerais"—his home state.
"But we must add something to it. We need lemongrass and ginger. Do we have lemongrass in the garden?" asks Ripert.
"I am sure of it," his friend replies, looking quizzically at the posse of assistant chefs. "Please get the best lemongrass in the garden. And can you find some ginger?" The request for ginger is greeted with blank stares. The fever that emanates from Ripert has consumed Oliveira and, standing there in his fuchsia sarong, flip-flops and T-shirt, he momentarily forgets his otherwise courtly manners. " I don't care where you find it, we need it. And it must be the best."
Quickly returning with fistfuls of lemongrass and ginger, the crew helps Ripert make the fricassee. They season the chicken with salt, pepper and oregano, then brown it in oil. Then they make a broth out of onion, garlic and ginger, stirring in flour to thicken it and then adding chicken broth, coconut milk and pieces of lightly smashed lemongrass. After adding the chicken back in, they simmer the mixture over low heat. In a separate pot, they boil okra in salted water until it's bright green, then add it to the chicken stew.
Outside the kitchen, there's a hum of voices—the guests are arriving.
Lunch, served on a 24-foot-long ebony table, is a giddy affair. "It will take some work to translate this meal into something I could use at Le Bernardin," Ripert says, sucking on a chicken bone. "But I will do it. If for no other reason than that I must remind myself of the feeling at this table right now."
The completion of my third sakerinha (a caipirinha made with sake) seems the perfect moment to retreat to the beach for a swim. Moments after I'm beyond the breakers, Ripert's grinning face pops out of the calm azure water. Bouncing gently on the waves, we watch a parade of scantily clad young Brazilians peer through the gate of Casa da Elba. "Elba really is this country's Madonna—just a few years older. Still, you know, she recently published a photo book of herself and she is naked in many of the pictures. Not bad, considering. That is Brazil. Can you believe it?"
Vanishing from my side as quickly as he'd arrived, Ripert bounds up the warm, golden sand and back into Casa da Elba. I let a few swells pass over me, then follow him up the beach—only to discover that the gate is now locked. I bang on it and call out. No reply. I take matters into my own hands and drag a cocktail table to the gate to use as a stepladder. Flip-flops and a wet sarong have never been the chosen uniform of a cat burglar. In no time I am stuck on the fence. A fresh group of tourists appears and starts yelling, "Is this Casa da Elba?"
"Yes, it is."
"Can we visit with you?"
"No," I respond with all the authority a half-naked burglar can muster.
"We will be no trouble."
"I'm sure. But I'm sorry, no," I say and roll over the fence, collapsing in a pile on the lawn. Rewrapping my sarong and limping slightly, I make my way up the manicured path and over the bridge that spans the mangrove swamp, toward the kitchen just beyond.
Manny Howard is working on a documentary about Afghanistan. Less dangerously, he cruised to Alaska for F&W last year.