In Conversation with Oliveira Kitchen
Run by Emerson Amelio de Oliveira, together with his wife and son, Oliveira Kitchen is one of London’s most innovative vegetarian restaurants. Niall, our London trade manager, caught up with Emerson recently for a quick chat.
N: What got you started with Oliveira Kitchen?
E: I love food, that’s a good start. But I love everything about food, what it represents, its origins, how ingredients migrate with groups of human beings from around the Globe. Most likely the act of sharing food was our first step to create civilisation. I love this aspect of food. But I also like receiving people, making them comfortable and sharing the results of our labour. Well, that’s what got me into the profession of a chef. But what made me a restauranteur was the need to do something positive towards a more sustainable lifestyle. I thought vegetarian food can be delicious and entertaining, but everybody else was doing it wrong. I think I can help with that.
N: Where are you originally from, and how did your upbringing sway and influence your decisions and outlook?
E: I am from a part of Brazil that even Brazilians don’t know exists, so forgive yourself if you don’t know where it is. I’m from a state in the Amazon forest called Rondonia. It’s one of Brazil’s newest states, so new, when I was born it wasn’t a state, it was a national forest reserve, an area the size of the UK, back then with probably 5 thousand lost souls living in there. My dad’s generation was the first generation to move from other parts of Brazil to that land. I was born in what was a tiny village called Ji- Parana.
Growing up we didn’t have many amenities and facilities, you had to be self-reliant and tough. I am talking about the south of the Amazon forest, where a snake can swallow an adult man whole if he’s not paying attention. My first year in school was in 1985, we didn’t have much and to get anything from the big city (São Paulo is 52 hours away), it took ages, so we had to make do with what was around us. But it was not a life of scarcity, we had plenty, pitanga, mango, jabuticaba, umbu… I could go on and on. We always had plenty of food, no microwaves, no freezers, just fresh food in a wide variety.
In our house, there was only natural home-cooked food. We never bought ready-made stuff. Do you want a cake? You bake it. Do you want a pizza? You make the dough and the tomato sauce. Most foods were produced nearby, you knew the fisherman, you knew the guy who picked bananas for you. My mom had a patch of medicinal herbs in the back of the house, from bellyache to hangover, she had a cure for everything growing in the back garden. Life was simpler and plentiful. Until modernity arrived with endless soy plantation farms and sugarcane, all that the world needs for processed food.
N: Who do you work with and who are the people that are important to the success of Oliveira Kitchen?
E: My family. I don’t want this to sound like those miss universe contenders: “I would like to thank my mom and dad”. No, it’s not that. Without my wife and my son this would not have happened . When we first opened in East Sheen, it was only the three of us. My wife running the floor by herself, me in the kitchen and my son doing pot washing and helping where he could. As we grew and developed the concept we added people to that core. Along the way we’ve worked with some great people who all contributed for us to be who we are. I can’t forget my business partner, who has supported us faithfully and firmly since day one, without her I don’t know how we would ever have started.
N: What are your favourite dishes to cook at the restaurant?
Our menu changes on a regular basis. Before covid, before we moved to Shoreditch, I created 50 main courses in 20 months, 32 starters, some 20 desserts. I was changing the menu frenetically. Maybe because we were in a residential area and most customers were local residents, many we knew by name, I was worried they would get bored. My wife kept telling me to go easy, that changing was coming too fast too often. I just couldn’t help it. One day she put her foot down, pointed to the menu and said: “this, that and them you can’t remove from the menu. People just love them and they come back for those”.
Sometimes I need people to keep me grounded.
Fast forward 3 years, post-covid, new venue, I am taking it a bit slower now. I still change the menu every month, sometimes twice in a month, following the seasonal availability of produce and so on.
If you ask me what’s going to be on the menu next month, I won’t have much more than an idea. I can tell you what’s not going to be on the menu, but I can’t tell you what I will bring in to replace them with. Most times I wait to see what will be available and I am always open to changing my mind.
So, back to your question, which dish is my favourite to cook? I would have to ask you back: from which month of which year? I love cooking with cassava, foraged mushrooms. There’s a new soup I am making now, it’s a cream of graviola and celeriac. I’ve recently received a box of graviola from the Amazon forest (how? Well, I know a guy…). I cook those beauties with British celeriac, and it tastes dreamy. It goes brilliantly with a light floral white wine.
If there’s a dish I don’t like on the menu, that dish is on the way out. Sometimes I remove a dish just because I am tired of it. The chef should have fun as well. That is to say, all the dishes on the menu now are dishes I like to cook and I am proud enough to offer them to guests and friends.
N: What are your favourite Vintage Roots’ wines on your wine list?
E: I just asked my wife this question. She goes with the Italian red (Roots Rosso), she is obsessed with Italian wines. Although part of my family are descendants of Italians (the other part is Spanish and Portuguese, just in case you are wondering), I have to apologise to my own roots and stick with the French on this one. I like the blend on the Roots Rouge, especially the play between Merlot and Shiraz, well kept together by the Cabernet Sauvignon in it. Curiously, I had Merlot with Shiraz before but it didn’t work for me. I think probably the Cabernet was missing. I think this is a great wine, especially for those days when you are feeling silly, you don’t want to talk too much, you don’t even know what’s for lunch but you know you want a red wine. When I just want to drink something joyful but safe, this is the sort of wine I would go for.
Oliveira Kitchen’s address: 80 Paul Street, Shoreditch (London), EC2A 4NE (a second London location is coming soon!)
To find out more about Oliveira Kitchen, visit their website here: https://www.oliveira.kitchen/