Part Two: Interview With Celeiro’s Chef Lucia Hertz
I have been trying to describe Celeiro’s food since the day I ate there for the very first time, in 1987. I was having my first “lunch with friends” and I will never forget the appreciation for amazing salads the restaurant instilled in me.
Over the past 28 years, I have been a very frequent visitor and the restaurant has evolved to be synonymous of the best salads in Rio. But the preeminent virtue of this unique restaurant is that it has retained its vision, identity, and innocence over the years. Leaves are embraced wholeheartedly, grains are explored to the deepest, and fruit are treated like stars. Protein, such as we know, (meat, chicken, and fish) play supporting roles compared to the stardom of grains and greens, and while Celeiro does include it scattered in its recipes, the restaurant is the equivalent to Disneyland for any vegan human being.
The vibrancy of Celeiro’s food can be measured by the size of the gorgeous crowd waiting in front of the restaurant just about every single day, at any given time from 11:30 am until 5 pm, willing to pay approximately US$ 25.00 per pound of food (or RS$ 96.40 per kilo).
Eating at Celeiro nourishes my body, heart, and soul. Should you eat there – no reservations required, just a ticket to Rio – I would love to hear your comments on this very special place.
Last summer I had the opportunity to sit down with Lucia Hertz and find out from the source what makes this restaurant so successful for such a long time.
Q: What is the secret to being successful for all these 29 years?
A: It’s been very hard to survive all the different economic cycles Brazil has been through. It’s also hard to keep up with food trends. But I guess the secret is we’re always trying to improve. For example we really needed to do a small renovation so we closed for construction for 2 weeks – it was actually the first time we interrupted operations – and now the decor is more up to date.
Q: Why do you open for lunch only?
A: Some 10 years ago we tried opening for dinner but only twice a week, as an experience. It lasted 4 years. Both my sister and I had small babies at the time and in the end, it was too much.
Q: Why only twice a week?
A: Because we didn’t want to hire a new staff; the same team was working extended hours and everyone was exhausted. Also, we closed officially at 10 pm but we couldn’t kick clients out. It just dragged into late hours and we really didn’t enjoy working the night shift. The truth is Celeiro is a day job for ladies.
Q: From where do you draw inspiration?
A: It all depends on the season, on what is fresh, what’s on the market, what looks alive, what looks bright, what feels like the moment. I also love browsing cookbooks.
Q: What’s your favorite cookbook?
A: Oh it’s hard to name one, I like so many of them. I really like Jamie Oliver’s style, his recipes are quite easy to follow. Another author that I really admire is Paul Gayler, whose work with vegetarian recipes is so delicate and beautiful. My mother has a huge library of cookbooks and we consult a lot. Some books are in her house and others are here in the restaurant’s office.
Q: And you wrote your own cookbook as well, how did you decide what recipes to include?
A: In fact we wrote two cookbooks. There are so many recipes we wanted to include, but you know that in book there is only so much space.
Q: I see you also like to prepare ethnic food?
A: Yes, we love to cook ethnic cuisine like Moroccan, Mediterranean, Mexican, and Arab cuisines.
Q: So now that both your son and your niece are teenagers, do you see any food inclinations from their part?
A: My son Caetano was coming here to help us out, but he is also engaged in his studies and that’s really important to him. You know that this phase is quite demanding.
Q: I notice that every time I come here I see at least one of you (owners) if not all of you.
A: Correct, we only operate with at least one of us here.
Q: What in your mind is the favorite carioca food?
A: Rio likes to eat petiscos (finger food) and homey food. We like Picadinho com Farofa ( Brazilian Beef Ragu with Manioc Flour) , Arroz com Feijão ( Rice and Beans), Bolinho de Bacalhau ( Cod Fritters), etc… that’s why we always like to serve something along that line in the hot dishes or at the a la carte menu. Japanese food also stuck in Rio.
Q: Yes, I often see sushi displayed on the salad bar. How often do you offer Japanese food?
A: We have a Japanese lady that prepares sushi every Thursday. On that day, we don’t offer a hot dish, only the a la carte menu and of course the salad bar.
Q: This is a mother-daughters business. Where is the father figure?
A: He is the big investor behind everything and really launched this venue back in 1982. In fact it started with my mother and sister. After 6 years of Celeiro I joined the team. Today my father comes to eat.
Q: This is vegan paradise! How many grains do you work with?
A: We use 11 grains in all. From rice to beans and everything in between (black, pinto, red kidney, fava, white, black-eyed, wheat-berries, oats, corn, soy, chickpeas, couscous, and quinoa).
Q: What’s your client profile?
A: We have a very diverse clientele. There are locals who live and work in the neighborhood; there are lots of foreign people and tourists; there are tons of actors (from Brazilian television Globo) which brings with the paparazzi and it’s quite complicated to have photographers sitting and waiting in front of the restaurant. The regulars and the actors themselves are quite displeased, and so are we.
Q: Who is in the kitchen and who is in the office?
A: Mostly Bia is in the office and my mother and I work in the kitchen.
Q: What is Celeiro’s most famous salad?
A: We have too many classics and costumers get upset if they don’t see it on the salad bar; a few of them are the chicken curry, the pasta al pesto, the eggplant salad, and the carrot-raisin. But we love to prepare new salads every day.
Q: How come your desserts are almost as popular as your salads?
A: Indeed, our desserts are quite strong and sell a lot. Especially the Mousse de Chocolate Branco com Maracujá (White Chocolate and Passion Fruit Mousse photo below-left), the Pavê de Chocolate (Chocolate and Vanilla Parfait photo below-right), and the Yogurt com Frutas Vermelhas ( Yogurt with Berries, photo below) . I guess it’s in the DNA of all of us– woman; we eat salad just so that we can eat dessert.