The Interview

On Madeira Island, One Chef Proves Not All Who Wander Are Lost

by California Chaney
Chef Chef Selim Latrous foraging for tonight's dinner at The Wanderer. Photos courtesy of The Wanderer.

MADEIRA, Portugal — As the saying goes, the best things in life happen when we are taken by surprise. When we wander. When we let go of the need for answers.

That's what happened when I arrived at The Wanderer, a one-table speakeasy-style restaurant on an unmarked street in Funchal, Madeira Island's capital city. It's also what happened to the chef, Selim Latrous. The Swiss-born nomad spent 20 years living between Nigeria and the Ivory Coast before a decade in Cambodia, Singapore, and Thailand. But his biggest adventure began when he woke up one day and decided to become a chef.

Instead of focusing on sharpening his knife skills or finding a prep job in a kitchen, Latrous dreamed of finding the spot in the world that had the perfect climate and topography. A frost-free place where various ingredients would grow organically and locally. With fortuitous help from one lucky fruit (more on that later) he discovered Madeira, Portugal's tiny volcanic island off the northwest coast of Africa. On his first visit, he was immediately drawn to its dramatic coastline, green and rugged volcanic cliffs, and mountain peaks — all jaw-dropping sites for any first timer. Then he discovered an incredibly unique soil that fuses volcanic silt, salt air, and heavy rainfall, making it an island of eternal spring, where everything is in bloom all year round. He immediately moved to Madeira and immersed himself in its natural bounty, foraging for hours every day.

While most aspiring chefs would hope to climb the ranks at Il Gallo D’Oro and William, Madeira’s two Michelin-starred restaurants, Latrous knew he had a story to tell with his cuisine that was entirely his own, a gastronomic journey for all the senses.

In 2019, he rented a one-room basement storefront and converted it into a kitchen and restaurant. He bought a dining table seating six, and went to work designing his menu. Fusing his childhood stories and worldly upbringing with his passion for play and surprise, Latrous created a party on a plate. The space — painted in a vibrant lapis blue with walls adorned with ceramics and paintings by Madeiran artists and shelves stocked with several fermentation projects — is intimate and exciting. Diners who sit down as strangers soon become fast friends, bonding in amazement at Latrous' creations and serendipitous stories of creating each dish. His success, fueled by word of mouth, skyrocketed throughout the island within his first year, until the pandemic caused him to shutter indefinitely. Although adaptation is a Latrous skill, his fine dining, chef’s table dream was undeniably at risk.

Once again, he turned to his backyard to find inspiration. Unable to feed his unexplained craving for tacos, Latrous began creating and delivering his own across the island, proving once again his ability to go his own way and wander until it worked. Latrous reopened the restaurant in late 2021, debuting a new tasting menu every six weeks.

"Cooking is a meditation of my soul," Latrous told me, with a glow in his cheeks and small smirk on his face, during my fortunate experience at his table. I hung on to every word of his story, which he recited as if it were the first time, while perfectly plating each course with his foraged creations. After the meal, I lingered for an additional glass of Madeira, as he spoke about his creative process, his passion for traveling, and how he's thankful for bananas, because they brought him to the island.

Your journey to cooking wasn't a typical one. How did you became a chef?

How I became a chef is very simple. Absurdly simple maybe. I moved to an island I had never been to, opened a one-table restaurant, named myself chef, and voila. From start to finish it took less than a year. My journey to cooking, however, took over 40 years, none of which I spent in a kitchen. I was born in Switzerland to a Swiss mother and Tunisian father. My father worked for Nestle; we were an expatriate family. Relocating to a different country every few years, wandering became my lifestyle. As an adult, I would move from one country to another, from one work position to another. I started my career in tourism, then specialized in marketing, and finally in digital marketing.

One day at 40 I woke up and felt something very strongly inside me: that I should start cooking. Something I had never done during my life and never been especially interested in. Somehow, I felt I had an ability to mix a scientific understanding of what was happening in a kitchen (a physical reaction, a chemical reaction, or a mix of both), with an artistic approach I had never known how to channel. Suddenly it all made sense: the travels, exposure to foreign cultures, tastes, sounds, ingredients, stories, and how I could provide emotions to people eating my food. All these elements I had inside me unconsciously could be used to provide emotions to guests. And this could help me re-experience all these travels and journeys myself.

Can you define your creative process?

If I have to sum it up: Everything starts with an idea, and about 80 percent of the work needs to be done outside the kitchen. A wandering of the mind, as I like to call it. It can be a story (real or imaginary), a memory, an ingredient. At one point, an ingredient takes the center stage and then the dish is built around it like a story. The story is key. If the dish doesn’t tell a story there is no unity in the dish — merely a juxtaposition of know-hows, more or less well executed.

Creating the dish is like creating a musical partition: Each ingredient has its notes and tones. These are gustatory notes, not audible ones, but the effect on your brain is similar. Cooking techniques and other transformations allow us to play with ingredients, their notes and tones. Associating them, accentuating them, adding distortions, effects, and delays by changing their texture, shapes, and density. Then adding other elements — like a musician adds other instruments to the partition he is creating — until the story is done and makes sense. Both scientifically and emotionally. This is the 80 percent of the work that I do outside the kitchen. In nature or elsewhere, with my laptop. The work in the kitchen is just to make sure all processes and elements work like they should. And to adjust everything together. Like the last set of rehearsals.

You are a self-taught cook. What's the biggest lesson you've taught yourself?

Figure it out yourself. If you don’t know, find it out.

When did your passion for foraging begin?

As a child, I was always interested in local plants, herbs, and flowers — in the different places where I lived around the world, and by how local populations used them. All this was before I became a chef. Once I became a chef and wanted to forage for my restaurant, I found my best mentor to be my smartphone. Several apps allow you to take pictures of plants, leaves, and flowers to identify them. Once you know the ingredient’s name, then Google has more knowledge than any living being. Imagination then becomes the real limit.

Why did you choose Madeira to open a restaurant?

Because of the bananas. I was looking for a place that was in Europe but had warm weather. I hate the cold. Then I remembered that bananas could not grow in cold weather. I just needed to find where bananas grow naturally in Europe, and this could be a potential place for my restaurant. So I searched Google for "banana production in Europe." This put Madeira on my radar for the first time in my life. Then I researched the island and was immediately attracted by what I saw.

Tell me about a dish you're most proud of.

My first ever dish. A dish that really helped me, and others, define my cooking. And one I still serve most evenings. It's an edible soil made from four types of mushrooms, three types of nuts, sunflower seeds, and black olives — all dehydrated and ground into a powder. The soil is then topped with pickled mustard seeds, basil micro greens, and verbena flowers. It symbolizes the life cycle of a plant, from seeds to leaves and flowers. When mixed with the soubise (an onion cream sauce), the soil turns to mud. Textures change as you eat, tastes combine beautifully to the surprise and delight of the guests. The dish is finished with a twice-cooked quail egg: An egg cooke mollet (French for "soft"), then coated with chicharrón (fried pork skin) crumbs and deep fried. This gives the egg a liquid yolk inside and a crunchy exterior — a fun variation on egg and bacon.

Which countries or parts of the world inspire your cooking the most?

I love spices, so parts of the world where spices are often produced and used are most on my mind. Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America play big roles in my influences.

What is the story you want to tell with your food?

Food can make you travel! To places you have been and to places you have never been. To times you have lived through and to times you may have only dreamed of.

You became the taco king in Madeira during Covid, delivering tacos throughout the city. Will you be bringing more Mexican food to Madeira?

Yes, these were rough times for everyone, muchacha. No state support. We made the most of it, and now good stuff is coming as a result. Funchal lacked a decent Mexican restaurant. Now, we are opening one named Taqueo, right next to The Wanderer. Madeira is a perfect place to grow avocados, chilis, and corn. I love fermenting stuff and I love spicy food that I can’t always showcase at The Wanderer. It is a new step for my life as a chef: This time I have to train a team I won’t manage myself, as most nights I am at The Wanderer. Another adventure? Vamos!

Madeira Is Magic

Here's our guide to the amazing island.

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