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The King of Coxinha—and the Challenge of Being an Artisanal Chef

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“Usually we only hear the voice of the chef talking about how he created a dish, but we never hear from a worker in a kitchen, talking about what cooking does to their body,” filmmaker Laura Salaberry told Feet in 2 Worlds, a public radio program that highlights the voices of immigrant journalists.

But Laura's first film, The King of Coxinha, does just that: It follows Brazilian chef Thales Ribeiro during his last days in New York as he reflects on his culinary career, contemplates his future, and makes the final batches of coxinha—the specialty Brazilian “dumpling” that propelled his successful but grueling catering career.

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“I’ll be making coxinhas until I die,” Thales laments at one point in the film, knowing he will soon return to Brazil to retire.

Anne Noyes Saini interviewed Laura about making the film—and its challenges. This interview first appeared on Feet in 2 Worlds :

Your film makes artisanal cooking look like such hard work—was that intentional on your part? Usually we only hear the voice of the chef talking about how he created a dish. But we never hear from a worker in a kitchen who gets tired and feels hot inside the kitchen, talking about what cooking does to their body. So my idea came out of that.

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What I learned with Thales [“TAA-lace”] is that even though he loved cooking, it’s a hard job. Thales was tired of having to work every day. He had the power to decide everything and it was a very fulfilling feeling. But at the same time, if he were sick, there would be no food.

How has cooking taken a physical toll on Thales?
He was doing catering for 30 years. Now that he’s 59 years old, he has many problems. He had surgery on his back and sometimes when he works he has to wear a belt to protect his back. He had a repetitive motion injury in his fingers and his hand. And there have been a lot of kitchen accidents. Thales told me that one time his stove exploded and it burned his eyebrows and his hair. He said he had no eyebrows for awhile.

It sounds like his cooking schedule was grueling.
Thales would wake up at 6:30 A.M. and start cooking right away. And he would usually finish by 4:00 P.M. It took him three to four hours to make each batch of coxinha.

Frequently he was the person cooking for events hosted by the Brazilian Consulate in New York. But during the week he would make 30 or 40 lunch boxes and he would go to Brazilian banks and the Brazilian Consulate and sell these boxes close to lunchtime. And also he was making coxinha for a couple of Brazilian restaurants in Midtown because it’s such hard work that the restaurants don’t make coxinha in house.

He would cook Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Then he would go to Manhattan to deliver lunch boxes and deliver coxinha to restaurants on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Saturday was his day off—but it was never really his day off because he had to buy food and he had other catering events, too.

For those of us who have not tried them—what are coxinhas [“co-SHEE-nyas”]? People call it a “dumpling” here because it’s dough and there’s something inside. But in Brazil we call it salgado, which are small snacks you can eat in the afternoon—or if you go to a bar you can have it with beer. It’s also very common in parties. It’s very crunchy outside and then when you bite it, the dough is so soft that it melts in your mouth.

To make his coxinha, Thales cooks chicken in a pressure cooker and then adds a little bit of tomato purée to make a fatty broth. Then he adds a little bit of milk and the flour. And that’s when he has to stir the dough very energetically. He has to get the precise texture that he wants without burning it. Then he shreds the chicken and he stuffs it inside the dough, dips each one in milk and bread crumbs, and fries it.

In Brazil, you often buy coxinha from women who make it in their homes—if you’re having a party. It’s very artisanal and women are always associated with artisanal food in Brazil.

At one point in your film, Thales makes a disparaging racial comment about the women in Brazil who typically make artisanal snacks like coxinha. But he learned to cook from his family’s cook, who fits that exact description, right?
Yes, when Thales says a Black woman with a big ass should be making coxinha, he’s talking about Maria—the cook in his house who taught him how to cook. She was kind of his second mother because his own mother used to travel a lot. He had a photo of Maria in his bedroom.

I think he’s really saying that cooking is a job for a servant in Brazil. Here, he was considered to be a person making a living. People respect him because he cooks so well. But in Brazil his family was wealthy, so for him to be a “cook” and not a “chef” would not be seen as honorable work.

The coxinhas themselves.
The coxinhas themselves. Photo by Laura Salaberry

In your film, Thales seems proud of his reputation as a master of coxinha—and yet he seems eager to stop making them. How do you explain that?
Yes, he knows that people love his coxinha and he’s proud of it because he knows it’s hard to make the dough so thin and to get a lot of chicken inside. He makes it so well and it’s a big part of his income. But I think he was also frustrated by coxinha because it’s very boring to make. It takes a long time.

But because it’s such hard work, he can charge a lot for each coxinha. Thales made a good living as a caterer. He owned a house—but it was flooded by Hurricane Sandy. It was a huge house—he showed me pictures. He had a pool. But then Sandy came and the house was ruined. I think this is partly why he decided to go back to Brazil.

Did Thales miss cooking for a living after he moved back to Brazil?
I don’t think he was missing it. What he liked about cooking was he had all these clients for years and years, and he enjoyed his relationships with them—and they were very fond of him, too.

Thales decided to work from home because he prefers to have a personal relationship with his clients. And I think this is one thing about artisanal food—you are more connected with your clients. The reward of cooking is more direct. Thales told me that he likes to cook for his friends, and that’s how he describes his profession.

Feet in 2 Worlds brings the voices of dozens of immigrant and ethnic media journalists to public radio. Their second annual food issue explores the intersection of immigrant food culture with buzzwords—like “local,” “artisanal,” and “sustainable”—from today’s food scene.

Tags: video, vimeo, long reads, brazilian food, coxinhas, artisanal