Top chef Janaína Torres Rueda aims to offer affordable, world-class cuisine

The Brazilian co-founder of A Casa do Porco in São Paulo made ‘The World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ list with an inexpensive, pork-centric menu

Janaina Torres Rueda chef Latinoamerica
Brazilian chef Janaína Torres at her restaurant in São Paulo, Brazil; October 26, 2023.Maíra Erlich
Naiara Galarraga Gortázar

One of the best chefs in Latin America, according to the 2023 edition of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, would not be very happy cooking exquisite delicacies for a few gourmands.

“Considering my background and life experiences, cooking high-priced food for a select few wouldn’t be fulfilling for me. I don’t want to limit my reach to a privileged elite,” said Janaína Torres Rueda, a native of São Paulo.

What excites this Brazilian granddaughter of a Spanish immigrant is creating and serving delicious Brazilian cuisine with pork as the star attraction. One of her goals is to make world-class cuisine more accessible. That’s why her São Paulo restaurant, A Casa do Porco (House of the Pig in Portuguese), is considered one of the best in the world, yet still remains affordable. The restaurant’s tasting menu only costs 290 reais ($58), not including beverages. This is a strong statement in one of the world’s most unequal cities.

Deep-fried pork belly (torresmo) topped with sweet-and-spicy guava jelly
Deep-fried pork belly (torresmo) topped with sweet-and-spicy guava jellyMaíra Erlich

“I wish it could be cheaper, but with our current setup including the pig farm, vegetable farm and a team of 90 people serving 14,000 diners every month, I haven’t been able to lower my prices. But my target is to get it down to $30,” she said, leaning on the bar that separates her kitchen from the unpretentious dining room where people are diving bite by bite into the infinite universe of pork. The star of the show — a majestic 200-pound hog — has been roasting for nearly seven hours in the center of the kitchen, its tantalizing aroma wafting through the restaurant.

When it’s ready, it will be served as a bite-sized sausage on tapioca bread with green tomato vinaigrette. It pairs perfectly with a cocktail of passion fruit mead, sparkling wine and beer reduction. You can also enjoy it as a tartar, with crunchy root vegetables, paired with cider. And if you prefer, you can have it as a deep-fried pork rind appetizer with your caipirinha cocktail.

The atmosphere is always laid-back in this downtown São Paulo restaurant. The neighborhood has seen better days, but the chef has remained loyal to the area. On this Monday, you won’t spot a single necktie, but you’ll see plenty of people having lunch in shorts, sneakers and with kids in tow. If you can’t get a reservation, come early and wait in line.

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list was published in early October, and Torres will travel to Rio de Janeiro in November to collect her award. It’s well-deserved recognition for this chef who labored for years in the shadow of her husband, Jefferson Rueda. After their 20-year marriage broke up in 2022, the two maintain a cordial and professional relationship. She continues in the family business as the restaurant chef, and manages the test kitchen and related businesses. Rueda manages the farm in São Jose do Rio Pardo, where they raise pigs and grow organic vegetables.

After the divorce, she began using her maiden name of Torres again. But stitched on her chef’s jacket is “Torres Rueda,” which the former couple have turned into a brand. In Brazil, people mostly know her as Dona Onça — the Jaguar Lady — because of the paw-print tattoos on her arm and feline eyes that contrast with her sweet disposition.

Kitchen workers at A Casa do Porco restaurant in São Paolo.
Kitchen workers at A Casa do Porco restaurant in São Paolo.Maíra Erlich

The spotlight is on Janaína like never before. “I’ve always worked with Jefferson and never had an issue with him being in charge. I mean, I’ve been in the kitchen, in the back room, while he took much of the credit for my work. Now getting this award just brings so much joy to me and the team — it feels great to be acknowledged!” The breakup of her marriage was cathartic and helped her understand the impact of machismo. She felt very hurt when “some people predicted A Casa do Porco would close down because I was no longer married to Jefferson — what nonsense!” Newly divorced, they agreed on a division of labor. “I started wanting my own space and then my career suddenly took off. It was a total surprise, one that I didn’t even ask for,” she said. Although she made the leap to television as a judge on Top Chef, she says she doesn’t want to be a celebrity chef. And she’s delighted that A Casa do Porco has many more Instagram followers than she and Jefferson combined.

Torres learned about pigs and Spanish from her grandmother, who was from Granada (southern Spain). She had to quit school to get a job and help the family when she was 14. By then, she was already messing around in the kitchen with her mother, who worked as a cook in one of São Paulo’s most legendary nightclubs. She later opened a street-food stand, became a sommelier, and worked as a promoter for a beverage company. Then she met Rueda, who was making a name for himself as a chef in a prestigious Italian restaurant. Torres says the school of life and food have been her best teachers. “you learn a little about everything — mathematics, geography, history, science....”

Janaína Torres Rueda in the restaurant kitchen,
Janaína Torres Rueda in the restaurant kitchen,Maíra Erlich

In 2008, the couple open the Bar da Dona Onça in architect Óscar Niemeyer’s renowned Copan Building in São Paulo. After that, they thought about opening a butcher shop, but plans changed at the last minute. “Why not have a restaurant centered around a single ingredient that we can fully utilize? It will help cut costs and enable us to share the story of our world.” This led to the establishment of a restaurant solely focused on serving pork in its myriad forms. Within a year of opening in 2015, it earned a spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Around that time, Torres also took on the challenge of creating healthier menus for São Paulo’s public schools.

When asked about the decision to build an entire haute cuisine around a very plebian meat, she hesitated a bit and said, “It actually used to be a luxury product in Brazil — the country’s first form of currency was pork lard.” Then Torres launched into the history of pigs in Brazil, where the Indigenous Tupi Guaraní, Portuguese colonists, African slaves and European and Asian immigrants all blended together. Pigs from Europe crossbred with native species that thrived in the forests and produced beloved Brazilian hybrid breeds like canastra, moura and sorocaba.

The Torres Rueda brand includes other businesses — a bar, an ice cream parlor, a hot dog shop and another restaurant where their 300 employees have lunch. All are just a stone’s throw away from each other in a downtown neighborhood with few vestiges of bygone traditions.

Cured pork at A Casa do Porco Restaurant in São Paolo.
Cured pork at A Casa do Porco Restaurant in São Paolo.Maíra Erlich

The classic pork-jowl sushi is no longer available on the menu. “Our previous menu showcased Latin American history through immigration. Our new menu is called, ‘We are made of flesh and blood,’ and emphasizes our humanity with all its imperfections.” It also reflects the renowned Brazilian chef’s success and current journey of catering to all types of foodies — lawyers, wealthy scions, hairdressers, taxi drivers and even vegetarians, for whom she has created a special menu.

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