São Paulo, Brazil
There are many versions of how Janaina Rueda came to be known as Dona Onça, which translates in English as Lady Jaguar. What she certainly has in common with Brazil’s big cat are her strength, grace and fierce protection of those she loves – qualities that have turned her into a powerful campaigner and important voice not just for the people of São Paulo, but for cooks in Latin America and beyond.
Born and raised in the centre of Brazil’s largest city, Rueda developed a deep affinity with a neighbourhood that is rich in diversity and culture. Having left school aged 13 without finishing her education, she helped her mother by selling clothes and worked as a cashier at several iconic gay nightclubs, later becoming a sommelier and travelling South America as a drinks brand ambassador. It was in this ‘school of life’, she says, that she learned everything she knows and built a strong desire to help the community and to fight for inclusion and democracy.
Aside from her roles as the chef-owner of casual bar-restaurant O Bar da Dona Onça and fine dining destination A Casa do Porco, where she cooks with her husband Jefferson, Rueda is perhaps best known for her work transforming school meals. From 2014 onwards, she benefited more than 1.8 million children by teaching school cooks to replace processed foods with nutritious homemade dishes like feijoada, the national staple. While the new government called a halt to her initiative in 2019, she is keen to resume her mission to provide healthy school meals for all.
Rueda’s belief that everyone should have access to good-quality food extends beyond schools and into her restaurants, including Dona Onça, the casual spot she opened in 2008 serving hearty dishes like galinhada, a chicken stew. In 2014, her husband joined her in the city centre, abandoning a trendier neighbourhood and upscale restaurant Attimo to open A Casa do Porco with a tasting menu priced at less than $30 per head. In their small pocket of São Paulo, the couple now run several venues, each with the aim of being accessible to everyone.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 and the couple had to close their restaurants, Rueda was quick to step into a leadership role. She united chefs and hospitality workers from all over Brazil via WhatsApp and together they successfully pressured the government for financial relief. Simultaneously, she helped feed vulnerable communities, including the city’s homeless, and is continuing to support those who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.
But Rueda’s reach extends beyond the world of food. The chef is also part of a campaign to close traffic on the Minhocão, a public highway that she hopes to transform into something similar to New York’s High Line to provide a vital leisure zone in the green space-deprived central neighbourhood. She is also a voice against gentrification, encouraging diversity in all its forms, and is fighting for more exposure for female, black and LGBTQ+ cooks.
With her strong sense of social responsibility, her warmth and charisma and her drive to create a better world, Rueda has long been recognised as an icon by her local community. Now, as the recipient of the American Express Icon Award for Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, it is time for the world to see this too.
Read the article on how Rueda became a Brazilian icon and get to know the chef in the video:
Header images: A Casa do Porco's feijoada mexidinha and Bar da Dona Onça's coxinha de galinha caipira (images: Mauro Holanda); Janaina Rueda (portrait: Thomas Baccaro)
Discover more about the previous award winners