Manu’s metamorphosis: how Latin America’s Best Female Chef is prioritising work-life balance and a new ‘mature’ cuisine

Laura Price - 20/09/2022

Brazilian chef Manoella ‘Manu’ Buffara has reset her priorities, adapting her eponymous restaurant to improve her team’s wellbeing. The freshly announced recipient of the Latin America’s Best Female Chef 2022 title discusses mental health, giving back to the community and her more veg-forward menu

“Restaurants are built on people, not workers,” says Manu Buffara, chef-owner of Manu in Curitiba and upcoming Ella in New York City. “We need to make sure they’re healthy mentally, physically and financially.”

It’s an approach that’s easily subsumed in an industry where long hours, tough conditions and burnout are too often the norm. But, a few years ago, Buffara decided her life needed to change, prompting her to move out of the city to improve her work-life balance and spend more time with her daughters, now aged seven and six.

As soon as she identified the problem, she realised her team was suffering too, and decided to implement change for all. At the end of 2019, she halved the capacity of her flagship restaurant, Manu, cutting the number of tables from 10 to five and reducing the restaurant’s opening days from five days per week to four. She introduced new team-building initiatives including weekly English lessons and an annual away-day that has taken them rafting and trekking together.

“It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, not just for me and for my personal life but also for the team and their own lives,” says the 39-year-old, who now lives in a house with its own allotment and beehives outside the city in Brazil’s southern state of Paraná. “Now everyone comes to work with more energy as a result.”
Chef Manu Buffara's eponymous restaurant is based in Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil

Taking the mic

Prioritising mental health and wellbeing in the workforce is an approach that Buffara wants to spread, using the platform she has been given as winner of the Latin America’s Best Female Chef Award 2022. “When you win an award like this, you get the microphone; you are given a platform. Everything we receive from society, we need to give back,” she says.

Giving back to the community is something the chef has done through her various projects in her career. Over the last decade, she has focused on building urban gardens in Curitiba, installing beehives and transforming abandoned parts of the city into areas where communities can feed themselves, while empowering people to waste less food.

Until the pandemic, her projects were run on an ad hoc basis, but in 2020 she set up Instituto Manu Buffara to better organise her social initiatives and raise more funds. The institute now acts as an umbrella for four different projects, including Mulheres do Bem [Good Women], a network of chefs, journalists and food producers dedicated to cooking healthy meals for the city’s homeless, and Alimenta Curitiba [Feed Curitiba], an annual event that distributes food and helps with education and social inclusion in deprived areas of the city.

Buffara is also campaigning against kids’ menus, believing that children should be offered adult options instead of automatically being given pasta, pizza and chips. “It’s an initiative to try to change children’s palates, because parents often end up limiting what their children eat [by not offering them wider options],” she says. “My daughters eat everything: they try things, and they need to try things, because we need to give that freedom to kids.”

Learn more about chef Manu Buffara: 

Manu’s metamorphosis

Along with her personal epiphany came a subtle but important change in her cuisine, with Manu’s menu moving further towards plant-based and a bolder, more ‘mature’ approach. While the restaurant hasn’t served beef for many years and has largely focused on local vegetables, seafood and lamb from her family farm since it opened in 2011, the Metamorfose tasting menu now ends with a carrot dish, which she says helps to educate diners that “you don’t necessarily have to end [the savoury part of] a meal with meat.”

“I’ve changed a lot in recent years,” she adds. “I’ve grown as a woman, as a mother, and I’ve spent time cooking at home [during lockdown]. The Metamorfose menu is part of the transformation I’ve been through.” The tasting menu also includes courses such as leek with peanut and vegetable sauce, and fermented palm heart with amberjack and dill oil. 

The move towards vegetable-based dishes was helped by her stint at the luxury Soneva resort in the Maldives, where Buffara spent two weeks cooking in 2021 and where her pop-up restaurant, Fresh in the Garden, will operate from November 2022 to November 2023. The menu at the one-year residency will be 30% vegan, 30% vegetarian with the remainder coming from seafood, which has seen her team developing nut-based cheeses and other plant-based alternatives. Part of her team will relocate to the Maldives to cook with ingredients from neighbouring Sri Lanka, India and elsewhere in Asia.
The final main course on the Metamorfose tasting menu: carrot, levain and fermented cassava flour

There have also been changes in the plans for Ella, the restaurant in New York’s Meatpacking District that Buffara was originally due to open in 2020 and which is now set to open in June 2023. Reflecting the changes at Manu, Ella will now seat 50 people instead of the planned 70 and will close on Mondays to give staff time off. Meanwhile, the menu has evolved from what was initially planned, with umami-packed dishes such as cured fish with mushroom sauce and Jerusalem artichoke chips using North American ingredients and Brazilian flavours. “The menu has changed quite a bit; it’s much more mature now,” she says. “I won’t be decorating everything with flowers; each dish will have just a few ingredients and a lot of flavour.”

In May next year, just as she turns 40, Buffara will relocate to New York for four to five months to open Ella. The timing was meticulously planned with her husband so that their daughters won’t have to leave school and can stay with her for some of the time, a non-negotiable in Buffara’s new approach to work-life balance. Although it takes ‘a lot of work,’ she believes it’s possible to combine family life and social efforts with her restaurant career so that nothing is sacrificed.

As for her advice for other cooks and restaurateurs, she says: “Treat your staff as human beings, not as cooks. The more you develop them as human beings, the more you will get out of them professionally.” Of that, Buffara is living proof.

The upcoming edition of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, will be announced on Tuesday 15th November 2022. To be the first to hear about the latest news and announcements, browse the website, follow us on Instagram, find us on Facebook, visit us on Twitter and subscribe to our YouTube channel.