Lady Jaguar strikes again: why now is the time for Janaína Torres Rueda, Latin America’s Best Female Chef 2023

Laura Price - 05/10/2023

São Paulo restaurant A Casa do Porco debuted on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2016 within a year of opening and now sits at No.12 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Behind its success is a powerhouse of Brazilian cuisine with her hand in several businesses and social enterprises. 50 Best talks to newly crowned Latin America’s Best Female Chef Janaína Torres Rueda, also known as Lady Jaguar, about democratic fine dining, overcoming divorce and rediscovering her identity

Fearless, mighty and with a voracious appetite: these are just some of the personality traits that chef Janaína Torres Rueda, known as Dona Onça – Lady Jaguar in Portuguese – shares with her namesake. Like the jaguar, Torres Rueda is also patient, observant and waits for the right moment to pounce. “I’m accurate,” says the São Paulo-born chef, who has jaguar spots tattooed all the way up her left arm. “I don’t like getting things wrong.”

This predator-like focus and fierce determination perhaps explain why everything she touches turns to gold – from the humble signature bar-restaurant, O Bar da Dona Onça (Lady Jaguar’s Bar), to the casual fine dining restaurant, A Casa do Porco (House of the Pig), which she owns with ex-husband Jefferson Rueda. Both spots have won countless awards and have had queues around the block since they opened in 2008 and 2015 respectively. Then there’s her new gig as a judge on popular television show Top Chef Brasil, not to mention several other hospitality businesses and community projects.

Despite building her reputation as a shrewd businesswoman, Torres Rueda has never been solely focused on making a profit. In fact, there’s a democratic element to everything she does. Global recognition and a slew of accolades would make it easy to charge hundreds of dollars for her tasting menus at A Casa do Porco, but Torres Rueda keeps her prices affordable, charging just 290 reais (US$60) for a pork-based degustation that includes the signature Porco San Zé spit-roasted pig with all the trimmings. In turn, the decor is the opposite of pretentious, with quirky pig designs all around the raucous dining room.
Porco San Zé, with crackling pork roasted for six to eight hours, is a signature of A Casa do Porco

“A Casa do Porco is accessible for a taxi driver or a hairdresser,” she says, adding that many see it as a special-occasion spot. “All the regular taxi drivers who drop people off at the restaurant have eaten here themselves, and that’s very gratifying.” Her mission, she says, is to make fine dining for the masses, not just the few.

Building an empire

This desire for inclusivity comes from Torres Rueda’s upbringing in a poor family in central São Paulo. At the age of 11, she was selling her mother’s clothes door to door and at 14 she left school. With an entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for people, she worked in nightclubs and later as a sommelier and ambassador for a drinks brand, where she met Jefferson, who was cooking at upscale Italian restaurant Pomodori.

Not long after the couple’s first child was born, Torres Rueda opened Dona Onça, a super-casual, always-packed spot in the iconic Copan building in downtown São Paulo, serving cocktails and comfort foods like beef stroganoff and chicken stew made in a pressure cooker. Its opening in 2008 was the beginning of a movement to rejuvenate the downtrodden centre of Brazil’s biggest city, attracting diners from wealthier neighbourhoods.
Torres Rueda's first venue played a key role in the rejuvenation of downtown São Paulo

O Bar da Dona Onça became so successful that it funded the 2015 launch of A Casa do Porco, just around the corner. Previously unthinkable in an area synonymous with drugs and homelessness, the no-reservations fine dining spot soon had four-hour queues and was serving 14,000 people per month. It debuted onto Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016 and made The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2019.

Food for thought

While her restaurants thrived, Torres Rueda dedicated time to her social projects, overhauling São Paulo’s school meals programme and bringing healthier food to two million schoolchildren. During the pandemic, she fed the homeless and united fellow Brazilian chefs to pressure the government for vital financial support. Her activism led to her winning the 2020 American Express Icon Award for Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Together with Jefferson, she opened hotdog kiosk Hot Pork and next-door ice cream parlour Sorveteria do Centro, then set up Sítio Rueda, a farm and school in São Paulo state where their pigs are reared. In 2022, they began selling artisanal sausages, burgers and other cold cuts under the brand Porco Real (Royal Pork), and in 2023, they opened the doors of their own staff canteen, Merenda da Cidade, giving locals complete, nutritious meals for just 40 reais (US$8) every lunchtime.

Main character energy

While Jefferson was once the public face and chef of A Casa do Porco with Torres Rueda running the business side, in 2018 she took a greater role in the kitchen, applying her creativity and knowledge of traditional Brazilian cooking to the tasting menu. In 2021, the pair separated, agreeing to retain their professional partnership and further clarifying their roles, with Jefferson mostly at the farm and Torres Rueda in the restaurants.
Over the last five years, Torres Rueda has doubled down on her culinary work

“That’s when I realised how much sexism there was,” says Torres Rueda, who has two teenage sons with Jefferson. “People were asking what would happen to the restaurant now that we’d split up – they didn’t realise I’d been in the kitchen since 2018.”

It was after her divorce that the chef decided to reclaim her family name of Torres, having previously adopted Jefferson’s surname, Rueda. It was part of an exercise in rediscovering her own identity and building her strength after the separation. “I got through it by focusing on my career,” she says. “We were one person; now I’m me again.”

Lady Jaguar dived deep into her studies, growing her technical knowledge and learning from her travels around Latin America and beyond. In early 2023, she and Jefferson launched the tasting menu Nosso Sangue é Latino (Our Blood is Latino), showcasing mini-arepas inspired by the Colombian staple, as well as Mexican tacos, Peruvian ceviche and Haitian tchaka, a purée of pumpkin and beans. She invested in new equipment and deepened her knowledge of Brazilian ingredients and techniques.

“I suffered a lot and I cried a lot, but instead of becoming depressed, I went deep into my work and began to understand who I am as a professional,” she recounts. “I’d already been cooking for many years but it was as if I was the sous chef. Now I’m the main character.”

Flesh and bone

Torres Rueda says she now has a more elevated palate, a better understanding of flavours and a greater desire to tell stories through food. This has led to her most recent menu with Jefferson, Somos de Carne e Osso (We are Flesh and Bone), inspired by human failure and success. Beginning with cold cuts, the tasting menu moves on to a range of mini-sandwiches served on a playful street cart, then pork tartare, a new barbecue creation and Torres Rueda’s own signature onion soup. While her ex still has a hand in the menu, there is more and more of Torres Rueda’s personality on the plate, often harking back to her days selling food from a street cart as a teenager.
A Casa do Porco is one of São Paulo's most popular restaurants

Despite achieving many accolades, Torres Rueda has no plans to stop learning and sees travel as a way to develop her knowledge. She has already created vegan versions of her menus and now wants to find ways to cook in Muslim societies that don’t eat pork. She is creating menus for the Brazilian embassies in London, Buenos Aires and Ankara, and plans to do pop-ups around the world as well as opening a store showcasing small producers.

The next generation

Back home in São Paulo, the Torres Rueda family enthusiasm for cooking is evidently infectious. Her eldest, João Pedro, 17, works at A Casa do Porco and wants to study at the Basque Culinary Center, while Joaquim José, 13, works part-time at Hot Pork. She says the two boys have been incredibly supportive and understanding throughout their parents’ break-up, despite suffering a lot. They are proud of their mum’s achievements, including her most recent accolade as Latin America’s Best Female Chef 2023.

“It’s a special, gratifying moment,” she says of winning the award, which she’ll receive in November at the 11th Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony, hosted for the first time in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro. “I had a dream to open a restaurant and I did it. Just because you do something with a partner doesn’t mean you should be afraid to dream again.”

The last few years have been challenging for Torres Rueda, with the pandemic, the death of her mother in 2021 and her divorce. But, like her namesake, Lady Jaguar has been waiting for the right moment to thrive. And her moment is now.

Now get to know Torres Rueda in the video: 

The list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, will be announced on Tuesday 28th November from Rio de Janeiro. To stay up to date with the latest news, follow us on Instagram, Facebook, X and YouTube, and sign up to our newsletter