Year of the Jaguar: Brazilian chef Janaína Torres on new beginnings, future projects and being named The World’s Best Female Chef 2024

Laura Price - 21/03/2024

Hot on the heels of being crowned Latin America’s Best Female Chef, the cook affectionately known as Lady Jaguar now takes the global title. 50 Best talks to the co-owner of A Casa do Porco about ‘accessible’ fine dining, her love for downtown São Paulo and plans for a new restaurant and cultural centre

Janaína Torres is many things: a cook, a business owner, an activist, a mother and a champion of Brazilian and Latin American cuisines. Her businesses in downtown São Paulo include the 50 Best regular A Casa do Porco, which serves a pork-based tasting menu for just $290 reais (US$60); O Bar da Dona Onça, her original, ever-popular casual bar-restaurant serving pressure cooker cuisine; organic hotdog kiosk Hot Pork; ice cream shop Sorveteria do Centro and accessible canteen Merenda da Cidade.

Aside from running restaurants with her ex-husband, Jefferson Rueda, Torres supports many social causes, having overhauled São Paulo’s school meals programme pre-pandemic. During lockdown, she fed the homeless and united fellow Brazilian chefs to pressure the government for vital financial support, winning the Icon Award for Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2020.

But the last few years have brought much change. In 2021, she split from Rueda and lost her mother to cancer. She navigated heartbreak while dealing with sexism from people who assumed the fine dining restaurant couldn’t go on without her ex at the helm. In fact, she’d already been leading the kitchen for some years. Such is her success at A Casa do Porco that in 2023, she won the title of Latin America’s Best Female Chef. She now lives with her two teenage sons, her fiancé and his two young children, who she credits for bringing happiness back into her life. She has also reclaimed her maiden name, Torres.

Watch the video with Torres here:

Aside from getting married in a small ceremony later this year, Torres is planning a restaurant and cultural centre for 2025 – in downtown São Paulo, naturally. While the details are still under wraps, it won’t be just a restaurant: there’ll be Brazilian food in addition to a wellbeing aspect and rotating pop-ups showcasing different elements of Latin American culture from her travels and studies.

While she works on the details, she’s also travelling a lot – and learning English in line with her new title of The World’s Best Female Chef 2024. Is this the year of the jaguar? “It’s the year of Janaína Torres,” she says. “It’s a year of recovery, of celebration; I’m celebrating my name again. I’m not taking anything away, I’m just celebrating who I am.”

Let’s meet Lady Jaguar, in her own words:

“I was born in tenement housing, where everything is shared. I believe very strongly in accessibility because I’ve needed that access myself. The awards I’ve won from 50 Best have helped me to travel the world, to meet people and to learn Spanish. Accessibility brings opportunities, and I want to help give those opportunities to others.

Brazilian food is lots of people around the table. At my grandparents’ house, we would go from midday until evening, eating roasted meat with all the trimmings. I’ll always have food and music in my home.
Torres embodies the jaguar in all aspects of life, even visually

I was given the nickname Dona Onça [Lady Jaguar] by a maître d’ who I worked with. Jaguars are observant; they wait for the right moment before they pounce, and that’s how I am in business.

My new project will be a mixture of everything I’ve learned. It’s not just a restaurant, it’s about looking at gastronomy in a completely different way, combining the experiences I’ve had over the last 20 years of travelling and exchanging ideas. There will be a cultural element where we’ll showcase different parts of Latin America: for example, a month of Colombian culture.

I also have a pop-up project called A Brasileira. I’m visiting markets from all over Brazil and cooking with the ingredients I find there. It’s part of my research for the new project.

I fell in love with food and cooking at a very young age. At 12, I was selling street food from a cart. Later, I fell in love with wine and entered the world of food. In 2008 I opened my first restaurant, O Bar da Dona Onça, focusing on home-style pressure cooking. Then I started to see the world.
O Bar da Dona Onça was Torres' first restaurant, opened in 2008

The centre of São Paulo is the heart of Latin America, the centre of everything. It’s a very welcoming place with a long history of immigration, so we have every type of cuisine. It’s vibrant but it’s also a place of vulnerability, which is why I am a spokesperson for various social movements.

Being born Brazilian is the best thing that ever happened to me. I love so many cultures – I fell in love with Japan recently – but Brazil has it all: samba, feijoada (a Brazilian stew), moqueca (fish stew), farofa (toasted cassava flour), churrasco (barbecue), açaí (a fruit), tucupí (a fermented sauce made from cassava), jaboticaba (a fruit), botecos (bars). Sitting in a boteco with a beer and some fish is a wonderful thing.

I decided to return to my maiden name, Torres, because I want to return to my origins. I want to reclaim that girl who used to sell street food. I’m rescuing the girl inside me.
Torres is using her platform to create a more equal enviroment for all genders in the kitchen

The new generations are less chauvinistic, which is great to see. I want to see more balance between men and women in kitchens, respecting one another.

To achieve your dreams, you have to be your true self. Be open to learning but don’t ever forget your own ideals. Don’t lose yourself in the process.

My eldest son, João Pedro, is going to study at the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian. I’ve told him to learn and enjoy himself, but to make sure he shows Brazil to the world too.

I’m getting married again later this year. I don’t like the word ‘stepmother’ – I prefer ‘second mother’ – but having them is the most divine feeling. I gained two children at such a delicate moment in my life. They took me in and looked after me, rather than the other way round. They’ve transformed my home into a happy place again.

The World’s Best Female Chef Award hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s not something I ever expected. I’ve been through so much in the last few years and this award has come at a time when I’m really the most ‘me’ I’ve ever been. It’s even more meaningful.”

Miss last year's ceremony? Watch the highlights below:
The list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2024, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, will be announced on Wednesday 5 June from Las Vegas. To stay up to date with the latest news, follow us on Instagram, Facebook, X and YouTube, and sign up to our newsletter