Column By Henry Montalto, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Thinking about how many restaurants exist all across Rio de Janeiro is easy, and it is not very hard to have a decent meal just about anywhere.
However, up in the hills of Rio’s Cidade Maravilhosa, lies a different story, a story of difficulty and challenges one must overcome to be successful.
It’s not about surviving taxes, wages, and the workload. As many say, a day here can quickly turn into survival mode. Gunshots, police operations and trafficking can turn running a restaurant into an almost impossible task.
Notwithstanding, some business owners who have taken on the challenge of opening up a restaurant in a favela have seen bountiful days. Two restaurants located in Rio’s South Zone have been producing exquisite foods high up in Rio’s Favelas for years.
Flor do Céu is a restaurant in Chácara do Céu, a small favela less than a half mile from Leblon. It has been setting the culinary scene here in Rio’s South Zone for some time. Italian Chef Tobia and Thanny Vidigal, owners of Flor do Céu, opened this small elegant restaurant high in the favela three years ago.
“Flower of the Sky” is known for its unique location and special dishes. Most importantly, for the freshest ingredients and quality. Chef Tobia buys his fish in the early morning, while Thanny gets the menu up. Their work ensures the freshest cuisine available. In other words, the food is “Top” as they say in Brazil.
Chef Tobia creates a daily menu to never compromise quality. In an interview, he said: “I do this because with no set menu, I have a choice, and if the fish or meat is not good, I can create something else.”
Up at the crack of dawn, Tobia is out looking for the freshest fish, vegetables, and fruits for Flor do Céu. The menu is mainly based on seafood, but Friday night is “Italian night” with homemade fresh pasta, Italian as can be, and it is a real treat.
Within the chaos of favelas, quality may be hard to find. These communities, however, have well-hidden gems beneath the concrete and brick. Inside the shanty city digging deep in the heart of Vidigal you’ll find yet another diamond in the rough. Off the main road, you will discover JC Sushi.
Some navigation is required to get there, crossing side streets and back alleys. Looking for that red and orange JC Sushi sign, we follow directions leading us to a brick shanty house. The sign reads “Welcome to JC” so we climb the rusty metal stairs. The scent of sushi and rice permeate the air.
Walking up, passing kids playing Xbox, we climb one more set of stairs and enter this little sushi heaven. Mix-matched chairs and tables, cool music and a big glass fish tank filled with all types of delicious fish.
Chef Julio Cesar, growing tired of bad pay, long hours and difficult bosses, made a move to open up what is now the best Sushi in any favela, even competing with restaurants of Rio’s South Zone. How can that be? Quality fish, sushi in a favela?
At first I was skeptical; I didn’t believe that was possible. Sushi in Rio de Janeiro is indeed lackluster. “Sushi Leblon” is more expensive than “Noni” in NYC. Furthermore, getting sushi in Rio can cost an arm and a leg for quality that’s mediocre.
Chef Julio Cesar worked at famous and top quality restaurants for some time. Investing dozens of hours in a place that wasn’t his, for people who didn’t care about him, was not pleasant. That was the defining factor behind the opening of JC Sushi Vidigal.
As the first anniversary approaches for JC Sushi, Chef Julio is open six days a week and is taking almost 100 delivery orders a day. The restaurant even delivers all across Rio’s South Zone. You don’t need to visit Vidigal to taste this excellent food.
Chef Julio Cesar creates a variety of Japanese style dishes. A simple salmon and tuna sashimi or fried shrimp tempura with a sweet teriyaki glaze. A sushi boat filled with the classics like white fish and tuna with a simple soy glaze as well as specialty sushi with passion fruit, balsamic glazes, and fruits.
For many, the prevailing opinion is that as long as you do not go into the favelas, nothing terrible will happen to you. Stay away from danger and be careful. In a world of ignorance, we tend to forget that wonderful things exist even in the harshest of conditions.
A favela is not some pit of despair and bad nature, as many think. It’s a melting pot of unique individuals from all walks of life. Creating restaurants, businesses, and improving the community in which they live. Your best moments may be waiting for you in places you’d least expect them, such as a favela.