August Chef of Chef Works: Paula DaSilva

Chef Paula DaSilva is the Director of Culinary and Beverage at the Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale, renowned for her soulful take on farm-to-table cuisine. In this Chef Works exclusive, Chef Paula talks Brazilian cuisine, building a better industry, and the best career advice she’s ever received.

Chef Works: Let’s touch on your culinary roots. What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of Brazilian food?

Paula DaSilva: Flavor. I grew up with parents that went into the restaurant business. Neither one of them were classically trained chefs. My mother had no problem using salt appropriately, a ton of fresh herbs, and dry spices like paprika and cumin. I remember going to other people’s houses, and for me, the food kind of lacked in flavor. I suppose as a young child, I learned Brazilian food is certainly a cuisine that’s not scared to be bold.

Chef Works: Does a certain Brazilian dish pop into your head when you consider Brazilian cuisine and the word ‘flavor’?

Paula DaSilva: Fish stew. In Brazil, it’s called moqueca de peixe. That one was a special dish, because we didn’t eat it very often. When my mother made that, the whole house would just be super fragrant. From your coconut oil, coconut milk. Your cilantro, tomato paste, and the sautéed garlic. The fish, stewing. That was one that was extremely fragrant and flavorful, too.

Chef Works: Do you incorporate your heritage into your menus now?

Paula DaSilva: For a long time, I was really sort of hesitant about introducing my Brazilian roots to the restaurant that I was a sous-chef or a chef at.  I always just thought ‘Well, this isn’t a Brazilian restaurant — this would make no sense here.’ And this is thinking back to 20 years ago.  Fast-forward now, this is what people want. People love when a chef sort of digs out of their roots and introduces something whether it’s as authentic as possible or a rendition of it.

So after I started to have a few chefs pull this out of me and go ‘Hey, Paula what Brazilian thing could we do in this menu?’ Typically in Brazil when you’re making a barbecue, one of the condiments is tomato vinaigrette — it’s a salsa made of fresh tomatoes, onions, herbs, vinegar. Super simple. I took that simple salsa condiment and turned it into something a bit more elevated with Castelvetrano olives and really nice chili peppers. And so an accompaniment that was typical to me became an accompaniment at a nice restaurant.

Chef Works: It’s great that there were other chefs to help draw that out of you. Do you find yourself doing the same for young chefs now?

Paula DaSilva: Absolutely. As I’ve grown into different roles, the student becomes the teacher. And now in my current role as Culinary Director of Food and Beverage here at the hotel, I have to rely on my team because while I’m in the kitchen everyday, I’m not always cooking hands-on. I have to sort of transmit my thoughts and ideas through them, for them to execute. And there’s a few different ways to do that. One is working with them side-by-side. Two is giving a direction and letting them put their own spin on things.

Sometimes that spin can end up really far off from where I wanted it to be, and I have to reel it in. And I always do that in the fashion where I don’t feel like they’re gonna shut down and never want to bring me a dish again. In a restaurant, we want to have open creativity. But then we also have a concept, and it does have to flow. So it’s a little bit of walking a fine line. There’s dialogue, conversation, feedback. It’s a natural progress.

As far as young cooks, we bring in a lot of students from abroad. India, Colombia, Turkey. And while they might have that same tiny feeling I had 20 years ago — like no one cares about my cuisine — that’s one of the things I have them do in their first weeks. I’m like, ‘Here’s some fruit — go make me an amazing chutney for the cheeseboard. Or, ‘Here’s an ingredient — what can you make that will feel like something you might have back home?’ And oftentimes that gets them super excited that I take interest in their culture. This is when they start to go, ‘Okay, it’s a safe ground.’ And from there, we can now start teaching them the cuisine that we’re doing in the restaurant and let them know that if they have any ideas, they’re encouraged to bring that to the table.

Chef Works: Did leadership come easy to you?

Paula DaSilva: You know the old saying we’re born leaders? I can agree with that a little bit — and then I think there’s a development phase that we all go through. I’ve always been very comfortable in my skin and in the kitchen. As I said I grew up in the kitchen from a very early age. I think delegating has become one of my number one trades. It’s important as a leader to know that you can’t do everything alone. You have to learn to rely on your team to help you and this allows them to grow as well.  I find myself doing that too much at home and I have to remember, ‘Oh, I have kids — not employees — at home, and they are not on the clock!’

Chef Works: Where should the culinary industry go from here?

Paula DaSilva: We need to figure out how we’re going to provide a better quality of life in this industry. I’m in the group of chefs that worked 15-16 hours a day, missed birthdays, missed holidays. I want it to be different for my staff. I don’t believe in the I went through it, so should you. That culture has to shift.

I think we tried really hard after coming out of COVID. Something as simple as people getting the sniffles. One year ago, it was like, ‘Oh, I think I have COVID — I can’t come to work for seven days.’ But now the culture is sort of reverting back. We’re going back into the same mentality like, I have to go to work. I have to be there, they need me.

And we just have to really, really take a look deep inside how we can shift that entire need to have somebody be at work because either they feel bad, you can’t bring somebody else, or they’re not feeling good. It’s really about the quality of life.

Chef Works: Best advice you’ve ever received?

Paula DaSilva: In our industry, chefs move around a lot. I think there’s a little bit of a stigma that we have to move, move, move in order to grow. I think sometimes it’s perfectly okay for you to stay, stay, stay and learn. Be as great as you can. Learn all of the skill sets you need. Learn to fine-tune everything. I feel like young cooks and chefs are coming up the ladder rather quickly. The best lesson I received was that you really don’t have to move all over the place in order to become successful. I really stayed in places for a long time. For me, it’s really staying, developing, and making it great.

Chef Works: As a chef, what does your uniform mean to you?

Paula DaSilva: I’m very thankful that now we have women’s jackets. Because when I started, I was wearing men’s pants and men’s jackets. For me, it’s super important that my lady chefs have female clothing, because unisex doesn’t work. We don’t have unisex bodies, so unisex clothing doesn’t work. Even to this day, on days I’m cooking at off-site events or even cooking here at the restaurant, I put my chef jacket on me and it’s a whole different feeling. I feel like I walk the hallways feeling differently. And I don’t think anyone will ever understand that except for me. But it is a different mindset when you have that perfectly fitted uniform.

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