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WoodSpoon: Bringing the Fresh Flavors of Brazil to Los Angeles

WoodSpoon | Jenny Kim
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Walk into WoodSpoon on 9th Street in the downtown L.A.’s fashion district, take a seat in the cozy dining room and order the grill plate. Sip water infused with cinnamon or order sangria while you wait. A little while later, a large oval dish filled with rice, beans, farofa, salsa, plantains and collard greens served with a choice of fish or meat arrives at the table. This combination is Brazil on a plate. The balance of nutrition, colors, flavors and ingredients tell the story of a country where most houses have collards, parsley and lettuce growing in the backyard.

Natalia Pereira has been serving the flavors of Brazil at WoodSpoon for more than ten years. Her restaurant offers a menu of the dishes she ate growing up in Vianópolis, in the state of Minas Gerais. In the kitchen, Pereira can be found lovingly stirring pots of black beans and frying vibrant collard greens. While talking about some of the dishes on the menu, Pereira explains that in Brazilian cuisine spices are few, but malagueta peppers are prevalent.

WoodSpoon Natalia Pereira | Jenny Kim
Natalia Pereira | Jenny Kim

Pereira remembers Sunday lunches of roast chicken, then watching her mother save the extra pieces to transform them into another meal later that day. Now empadão de frango, a chicken pot-pie, is one of the most popular dishes at WoodSpoon. She makes a version with shredded chicken, corn and green olives in a light creamy sauce baked in a tender crust. Pereira also fills the rest of the menu with her favorite flavors from home, such as feijoada (traditional stew made with beans and pork), galinhada (chicken rice porridge), picanha (steaks), moqueca (seafood stew) and other traditional street food bites.  “I think food is one of the strongest things that can connect people. It is one of the strongest memories. It can take you back to places,” she says.                                                                  

Pereira’s goal with WoodSpoon is to make people feel like they are visiting her at home. “Growing up, since I was little, I think I am a mother,” she remembers her maternal feeling that emerged early to cope with the challenges of her family dynamics. When Pereira was born, both birth parents relinquished custody. Therefore, her father’s wife took her in and raised her. “My adoptive mother would teach me how to cook. I never had a doll. Maybe I had one, but my brother poked the eyes, so I did not like the doll. I would always want to play, 'let's cook together,'” she says recalling a favorite childhood game.

WoodSpoon chicken pot pie | Jenny Kim
Chicken pot pie | Jenny Kim

“When I was little I always wanted to explore, to try something new. I would pick leaves from the tree and call them sausage,” remembers Pereira. “My mom gave me two sardine containers and two little bricks. That was my stove for the day. I would cook everything in my sardine cans on hot coals in the backyard.”

Minas Gerais is a state known for diamonds, coffee, gold and minerals. There, with her sardine cans perched on hot coals and later at the big stove in her mother’s kitchen, Pereira remembers a profound feeling that food was her best friend. “Food can be like a fantasy. Imagining things, and cooking, and friends,” she says. While stirring beans and learning to make pie dough, Pereira dreamed of one day having a place to serve food. “I made a drawing of this place when I was little. I said one day I am going to go to a place far away.”

WoodSpoon exterior | Jenny Kim
WoodSpoon  | Jenny Kim

The year before her first trip to the United States as a teenager, Pereira spent a majority of her time in the hospital recovering from a brutal car accident. Though the doctors had predicted she would never walk again, she was soon on her feet and headed to the L.A. for reconstructive dental work. Upon her return to Brazil, Pereira did not know that she would ever return to L.A. and went to live with a family on a farm in Esmeraldas.

After three years of learning life on the farm, she returned to Los Angeles, utilizing her new food knowledge as a way to connect with the community. She learned to speak English while navigating the city’s farmers markets and working as a private cook in a few Westside homes.

One of her clients was so impressed with her skills, he eventually helped fund the opening of WoodSpoon in a section of downtown that, at the time, was just close enough to the fashion district to attract customers from that community. Now, her location on 9th at Spring Street is around the corner from The Ace Hotel, Acne, Tanner Goods, Aesop and APC. Although the neighborhood has changed and Pereira has added items to her menu, WoodSpoon maintains the feeling of a small, rustic space filled with warm charm and hospitality.

WoodSpoon "Open" | Jenny Kim
"Open" | Jenny Kim

Spending her childhood in the kitchen with her mother made a deep impact on Pereira. “Brazil is a country where we are always cooking,” she says. “I remember waking up and she was at the stove. And when I went to sleep, she was at the stove. The most beautiful thing was to smell her hair. It always smelled like smoke and whatever food she was preparing. As far as I can remember, food has been my home.”

Looking around the dining room at WoodSpoon, Pereira takes a moment to arrange a few flowers in a mason jar. “This is my home. Some people see this place as a restaurant, but I cook for myself,” explains Pereira. “I cook what I love to eat, what she made for me, what my brother used to love to eat, what we made for friends for special occasions.”

Pereira loves the ritual of setting a table. At WoodSpoon, fabric napkins are artfully twisted at each place setting. Dishes come to the table with various patterns and flowers to reinforce the feeling of being in a home. Even the way she serves water is inspired by childhood memories. When she was young, she did not like to drink water. So her mom would flavor the water with fruits, herbs or spices to make it more enticing. Now, Pereira has a carafe of water filled with citrus, mint or cinnamon placed on each table.

WoodSpoon food spread | Jenny Kim
Jenny Kim

This kindness and comfort make WoodSpoon something more than a restaurant. “It makes your heart feel good when you are feeding somebody. I think a table is a very special place.  At the end of the day, you come and sit together and talk and discuss things.”

Pereira puts her heart into every dish, particularly the grill plate, which features the everyday flavors of Brazil. “Usually in Brazil we have rice, black beans and a choice of protein. And it is pretty much what I serve here, with the farofa and the vinaigrette, is what we call salsa,” says Pereira. “Those are the things when you go to somebody’s house that you are going to have.”

WoodSpoon grill plate | Jenny Kim
Grill plate | Jenny Kim

Although Pereira tries to focus on traditional Brazilian flavors, she won't limit herself to them. Her menu also features well-known Californian ingredients and flavors. “In Brazil, you don't have everything all the time,” she says. “So whatever is there, that is what you use. That is Brazilian cooking. The reason I am saying that is because we are very spoiled in California. It is a luxury to have all of these options when you go to the farmers market, even the regular markets. It is all there, all the time.”

Pereira can be found in the WoodSpoon kitchen most days with a spoon or a knife in her hand. “The black beans need to taste that way. I can walk back there and I taste it and say ‘the bay leaf is missing.’ It needs a little clove of garlic. Did you make sure to put the peel of the garlic on the olive oil? Because usually I use the peel. WoodSpoon is like my home. I cook for myself.”

WoodSpoon Natalia Pereira | Jenny Kim
Natalia Pereira | Jenny Kim

Top image: Jenny Kim

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