São Paulo chef popping up at Blossom Street Social on Masterchef, Michelin and Manchester
When you think of Brazilian food in Manchester, it’s hard to come up with much. Most of our Brazilian restaurants are heavily grill-focused and there certainly isn’t much by way of fine dining.
You need to follow your dreams. You need to find happiness because no one will do that for you.
Well, that’s about to change as Brazilian chef Caroline Martins brings her São Paulo kitchen residency to Ancoats’ Blossom Street Social from 19 January. If you’ve not heard of Caroline yet, you will. She’s about to get a lot more famous over here.
We caught up with Caroline to talk about her inspirational career path and plans for putting Brazilian fine dining on the Manchester map.
From plasma physics to Masterchef
Caroline’s career trajectory has been unconventional to say the least. From being bounced as a baby on her Portuguese grandmother’s hip while she baked her daily bread, she always wanted to cook. But her “humble” family background meant this wasn’t deemed a suitable career option. Instead, she went from her childhood home, Barretos (aka the “Brazilian Texas”) to nearby São Paulo to do a science degree then onto a Masters and PhD in plasma physics. She explains her specialism to me in terms of Iron Man, “The thing in his chest, right? That is the kind of machine I was working with. You put isotopes of hydrogen in there and heat it to 10 times hotter than the core of the sun then convert it into energy, solid and nuclear fusion.”
Caroline worked in Cadarache in France as a theoretical physicist, then as a researcher at The University of Texas, Austin - mirroring the horse-strewn streets of her formative years. But despite this exciting sounding work, she was bored.“Two years working so hard in the United States - sometimes I had to stay in the office until one o'clock in the morning to get the numbers out.” She says, “I couldn't wait for dinner time, to go cook for my friends.”
“I was buying a lot of ceramics, cutlery, setting the table,” she says, “I just thought, you know what? This is what I want to do for a living, I was almost 30 back then. I’d focused my 20s on an academic career. I thought, I'm going to focus my 30s on being a chef.”
Her family were not impressed with her curveball career move, “No one in my family has a college degree. I worked so hard, with fellowships during school, college, my Masters, just working so hard to build up my resume, and then - I needed to do something else.” She shrugs, “You need to follow your dreams. You need to find happiness because no one will do that for you. You can't just sit there and wait for things to happen.”
Masterchef - a kitchen nightmare
Caroline’s dream was to study at Le Cordon Bleu in Europe so she started saving up. One day, she was BBQing for a group of friends when one of them suggested she apply for Masterchef. The prize? To study at Le Cordon Bleu. Her friend filmed an application video on her phone of Caroline cooking and talking about her inspiration. The next day, she got a call from the producers. But it wasn’t the dream she’d hoped for - more a kitchen nightmare.
“Masterchef Brazil is a bit different from Masterchef UK.” Says Caroline, “The whole model is to increase numbers - to shock people. It's very disrespectful. They talk to you in a very bad way.”
She only made it through a few rounds and was relieved to be done with the show but halfway through, they invited all previously eliminated contestants to come back and try for another spot. She didn’t want to go back but was under contractual obligation to do so.
Reluctantly returning, she asked them not to be mean this time or she would not stay quiet. This, she says, was a mistake. The producers knew that if they pushed her buttons, well, they’d get great TV, and that is exactly what happened.
“They got a man to follow me around and kind of bully me when I was cooking.” She recalls, “I was very easygoing, trying to have fun and he started: ‘These onions were cut by the teeth of a rabid dog’, you know, stuff like that. I wasn't expecting to be in such a toxic environment. It's supposed to be fun. We're cooking. You don't need to be mean. I'm not going to just stand there and hear a bunch of shit. I am nice to everyone, so people should be nice to me as well. If they're not, they're going to hear.”
It’s an insight into the thinking behind reality TV shows and the unsavoury methods producers use to get good TV. Thankfully, Caroline seems relatively unscathed by her experience, telling me it was ultimately worth it because it instigated a lot of complaints about the way she was treated. The show and its personnel have since had an overhaul and it’s now far more respectful.
Studying at Le Cordon Bleu
It didn’t stop her from achieving her dream of attending Le Cordon Bleu either. She’d saved up anyway so she booked onto the course and set about finding a way of affording to live in London.
“I managed to find this dorm I shared with ten other people. It was fucking mental. There were five bedrooms, two people in each bedroom. We only had one bathroom. I had to wake up at five o'clock just to shower. Also to save money, instead of doing the proper course which takes almost two years, I did the intensive one in six months. You have classes from Monday to Saturday with only Sunday off - sometimes not even that because you need to do your homework.”
Le Cordon Bleu students are judged very critically by the teaching chefs who demonstrate a dish every morning that must be recreated by students. They are judged on hygiene, teamwork, flavour, presentation - and despite the high cost of the course, a lot of people don't pass. Caroline tells me her class number quickly halved due to dropouts and fails. She admits it was “a shock” at first but the intensity prepared her well for the professional kitchen world.
Working her way through Europe's Michelin star restaurants
After Le Cordon Bleu, Caroline went to Italy to get experience in a Michelin star kitchen and brush up on her third language, Italian. Having emailed all the Michelin restaurants in Italy offering to work for six months for bed and board (a common occurrence in Michelin restaurants, worth remembering next time you are paying through the nose for one) she was offered a job at the two Michelin star Trenkerstube at Hotel Castel in Tyrol, on the border with Austria.
“I had my graduation ceremony on Saturday and on Monday at 7am, I started working. It was really exciting, the best six months I've ever had working in hospitality. The funny thing is I wanted to go to Italy to practise Italian and when I got there, they only speak German! I was like fucking hell what's going on? I had to use Google Translator all the time to try to understand.”
When she came back to London she did time at various Michelin star restaurants including the two-star Kitchen Table at Bubbledogs in Fitzrovia and the one-star Galvin La Chapelle.
Caroline has already got Masterchef and a National Chef of the Year nomination under her belt but she’s about to become famous in the UK with an upcoming TV appearance on a show we’re not allowed to name just yet.
Caroline met Blossom Street Social’s Ben Stephenson through fellow chefs Josh Shanahan and James Lord when she visited their Tine pop up in the Ancoats wine bar. They remained friends and have teamed up on this project to give people a chance to try Caroline’s food once they see her on TV.
Brazilian drinks to match the food
Unlike previous BSS pop-ups, booze expert Ben will be getting more involved in the drinks side of things, enhancing the menu with South American cocktails (using the traditional Brazilian ingredients Caroline uses in her cooking), party drinks full of things like guarana and caffeine, and, of course, South American wines. Brazil isn’t a well-known region for wine, overshadowed by neighbours Argentina and Chile, but it’s growing in popularity - Miolo sparkling is known as one of the best in the world - and Caroline has some interesting suppliers in mind alongside Ben’s extensive grapevine. Having just touched down in Manchester when lockdown happened, she has been working as a private chef for some very famous Brazilian footballers. Some of these have connections in the Brazilian wine world. You never know, wine fit for premiership footballers could make it onto the pairing menu. Neighbouring wine regions will be represented too, Ben has a “rich and exotic” Chilean mountain Viognier that pairs nicely with tropical fruits.
Bringing a wealth of Brazilian ingredients to Manchester
Caroline works closely with suppliers to bring traditional Brazilian ingredients to the UK - balanced with local produce from places like Cinderwood, The Crafty Cheese Man and fellow Brazilian in Ancoats, The Flat Baker.
The fifth-largest country in the world, Brazil has 26 states all with different ingredients and techniques. Caroline wants to show the UK that there is so much more to Brazilian food than steakhouses. She wants guests to experience tropical flavours they may have never tried before. Think pink-fleshed guava or the starchy root cassava - more popular in Brazil than potato. But it will be fusion cookery - she’ll be matching British cheeses with chutneys made from Brazilian fruits like mango and passionfruit, for example.
Already friends with many local high-end chefs, where does Caroline like to eat in Manchester when she’s not cooking herself?
“I like Elnecot. My favourite place in Manchester is Where The Light Gets In and I love The Sparrows as well. I've been to District a couple of times, and I was quite struck by the quality of the ingredients and presentation of the dishes.”
Caroline Martins' Sao Paolo project is at Blossom Street Social, 51 Blossom St, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6AJ from 19 January.
Follow Kelly Bishop on Twitter @thekelpage and Instagram @keliseating
What's on Caroline's Sao Paolo project menu?
Selection of Three Canapés
- Crofton Cheese, Heart-of-Palm & Parsley Mousse / Pickled Walnut & Passion Fruit Purée / Holy Grain Bakery Crouton
- Shortcrust Tartlet / Smoked Salmon / Brazilian Style Cream-Cheese / Brazil Nut / Exmoor Caviar
- Waffle Cone / Chicken Liver & Açaí Parfait / Catuaba Gel
Brioche with Calabresa Sausage / Cheese Bread (Pão de Queijo) / Cassava Bread Roll / Beef Fat “Candle” / Caramelized Onion Butter
"This is my bread and butter course. I want to showcase what kind of bread we usually eat in Brazil. I added a candle made of beef dripping and rosemary, it's also a playful way of eating bread."
- Hand-Dived Scallop / Cassava Mousseline / Heart-of-Palm / Dehydrated Papaya Seeds (pictured)
"Here I want to showcase a couple of veggies we eat in Brazil and also a Brazilian technique of dehydrating papaya seeds to use as seasoning. It has a mild peppery flavour."
- Picanha / Baroness Potato (Mandioquinha) / Bacon & Corn Cassava Crumble (Farofa) / Celeriac and Horseradish Sauce / Cinderwood Salad Leaves with Lime & Honey Dressing
"The most popular Brazilian cut of beef "Picanha" comes from the beef rump cap. I sear the picanha then let it rest inside a container with smoked butter (made by The Crafty Cheese Man) so it acquires a mild smoked flavour. A vegetable most people have never heard of: baroness potato is a Brazilian tuber that tastes like a cross between a carrot and a potato."
- British Cheese Selection / Cassava Starch Biscuits / Mango & Passion Fruit Chutney / Banana & Cinnamon Compote / Polyspore Mushroom Relish
"I tend to select local cheeses, from Cumbria, Lancashire etc. I will showcase how we usually eat a cheese course in Brazil (lots of tropical fruit chutneys and compotes) I also make a relish using mushrooms from a mushroom farm in Altrincham that belongs to Mike. He's now supplying his incredible mushrooms to WTLGI, The Creameries, 3 Hands Deli, etc."
- Guava Parfait / Guava Jelly / Parmesan Genoise Sponge / Sangiorgio’s Minas Cheese / Dormouse Chocolate & Lime Crumble / Platt Fields Market Garden Edible Flowers
"My take on a Brazilian classic dessert "Romeo & Julieta" which is a combination of guava jam and Minas cheese. There's only one producer of Minas cheese in the UK: Sangiorgios. The company belongs to a Brazilian couple that started producing cheese during lockdown and is now supplying Minas cheese to loads of Brazilian shops and steak houses. I also use on my crumble chocolate specially produced by Isobel from Dormouse Chocolates (Great Northern). She imports cocoa beans from Brazil and produces a delicious chocolate specially made for Sao Paulo Project.
- Baked Tunworth Cheese / Brioche Buns / Guava Paste (Goiabada) / Caramelised Brazil Nuts / Rosemary & Thyme
"This is a nice option to share. The brioche rolls are placed around the cheese. Then you can detach the rolls and dip them in the melted cheese."
Note: Caroline's menu will change regularly but this is the one she will start with.
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