She has charmed the President of Brazil and Michael Jackson with her cooking. Hollywood and Brazilian Royalty has savored her cuisine. Now it is the charmer that is being celebrated this year in song, parade, costume and dance to honor what she rightly has become: a Brazilian National Treasure.
by DAVID DE HILSTER
While living in Brazil, one of my friends told me “Michael Jackson loves Brazilian food. He eats black beans, rice, and collard greens!” I chalked it up to another one of those Brazilian tall tales and I left it at that. Many years later, that statement would come back to haunt me when I moved from Rio to Los Angeles and saw an article in a Brazilian newspaper talking about “Remi: Brazilian Cook to Michael Jackson and other Hollywood royalty”. Instead of pulling my foot out of my mouth, I decided to put some of her food in it instead. My wife and I headed for the “Copacabana Restaurant” (no longer in business today) very near Hollywood and we tasted her food. And like the magic she has spun with the greats of Brazil and Hollywood, she captured our taste buds as well as our hearts.
That was over 10 years ago. She is now retired and living in Los Angeles. And this year, she is being honored as the theme or “enredo” of the 7th Annual Brazilian Street Carnaval of Long Beach where Brazilians and Americans alike will pay tribute to this culinary artist.
Brazzil Magazine: When did you first know you had a talent for cooking?
Remi: I was 8 years old, living on a farm in the middle of Minas Gerais near Curvelo with my grandmother. I didn’t stay with my mother or father very long. My grandmother raised me and she was a cook for dozens and dozens of workers on a big plantation. She needed me to help and at 8 years old, cooking came natural to me.
After I became good at the age of 8, I began to cook by myself for the workers in the fields. I would get up at 3 in the morning, put wooden planks on my head, put everything I needed to cook for 20 men, 3 meals and walked for hours to the fields. When they came to eat they would say: “What is this little girl doing here? Are you kidding? She is going to cook for us?” But they soon learned that I could cook very well and began to like me.
Brazzil Magazine: So you didn’t have much of a childhood then.
Remi: I had some. I used to take my dolls and a toy stove with me when I was cooking for the men in the fields. It was very ironic. There I was cooking for lots of big men in the fields every day and right next to the real fire, I played with my dolls and toy stove cooking for my dolls. One day the “patron” (master) came by and yelled at me and kicked my dolls and stove and said “you should be working!” But the men in the field told him to leave me in peace and said I cooked very well and to let me play. I was only 8 or 9 you know.
Brazzil Magazine: You went from field cook to the personal cook of more powerful and powerful people. How did that happen?
Remi: It was a slow but steady process. Once in a while I would cook for the farm owners in their house when the regular cook was gone. And when that happened, the owners would say “this food is incredible! Who cooked it?” They soon discovered even though I was very young, my food was satisfying to them and soon I was cooking regularly in the owners main house.
Big people would come to the house and meet with the big farm owner and I would cook them a special meal. The guest would say the same thing: “this food is incredible! Who cooked it?” Once they found out it was me, they invited me to cook at their homes. I moved from house to house that way, cooking for farm owners, business people, and even politicians.
Brazzil Magazine: And the reactions were always the same.
Remi: Yes, they all loved my food.
Brazzil Magazine: Eventually you made your way to Rio and eventually was cooking for all the powerful politicians of Brazil including the president. You must have seen a lot.
Remi: I worked in Rio in an apartment where all the top politicians and presidents met. It was near Post 1 (on the beach) in Leme near Copacabana beach. The first president I cooked for in the apartment was Juscelino Kubitschek. The second president I cooked for was Jânio Quadras. After the military overthrow in 1964, I stayed there still cooking for all the former politicians.
Brazzil Magazine: I know your name is Raymunda Vila Real. Where did the nickname “Remi” come from?
Remi: Juscelino Kubitschek was needing money for his campaign and a big businessman with lots of money helped fund his campaign. His name was Sabastião Pais de Almeida. He traveled a lot around the world and one day he said to me, “Raymunda. That is not a chef’s name. Your name will be ‘Remi’. It sounds French and a chef should have a French name.” That’s how I got the nickname “Remi”.
I tell English speakers to say my name like “Hey me” and they get it right the first time. From then on, everyone uses my nickname “Remi”. Never Raymunda. Just on official documents.
Brazzil Magazine: What’s this about a politician building a road, bus stop, and school for you? Is that true?
Remi: Yes. That was very strange. It happened in São Paulo. I had a small house in the suburbs of São Paulo when I was there cooking for politicians and others. Once, the local politician took me home in his private car and when I pointed to my house he said, “Remi! That is where you live?”. My house was very humble with a dirt street and the bus stop was very far away. He told me “I will fix this!”
I went back to Rio for a short while and when I returned again to my house in São Paulo, he gave me a ride again. He wanted to show me that he had fixed things for me. “I had them pave the road, put in a bus stop at your door, and even put in a nice garden near the bus stop.” I guess he felt bad since I cooked for so many people who had a good life that for me to cook for important people, I had to live in a decent place. Before I got out of the car, he said “that is not enough! I will build a school here for you also!” I came back the next year and there was a school.
Brazzil Magazine: How did you come to the United States and specifically, Hollywood? Did you always want to come to the United States?
Remi: When I was very small in Minas Gerais I used to see airplanes flying over the jungle. I asked my grandmother what they were. She said they were airplanes. I asked her where they were going and she said “the United States”. I turned to her and said, someday I will go there too.
As I started to go from house to house meeting more and more important people, I ended up in Rio de Janeiro where I cooked for the top politicians of the country including the Brazilian President. Of course, they met with the most popular people of that day and one of them in the 1960s was Sergio Mendez who was becoming well-known in the United States. I cooked for him several times and he asked me if I wanted to go to the United States to cook for him. I thought to myself, why not? So I got the papers I needed from my politician friends and they let me go.
I went to Los Angeles to Sergio’s house and the first meal I cooked was for he and Dick Van Dyke. I cooked for many people in Hollywood because Sergio was popular with the stars and I met many famous people. I really enjoyed meeting them too.
Brazzil Magazine: You once befriended a carpenter making a sound room for Sergio Mendez. Tell me about that.
Remi: When I was living with Sergio Mendez, he hired a carpenter build a sound room for him at his house. I became good friends with the young man and would talk and cook for him. He had a good appetite and drove a red pickup truck! But then one day he disappeared and I didn’t see him anymore.
Many years later I was driving along the highway in Los Angeles and I saw a red pickup truck driving next to me honking his horn. It was the same guy! We stopped along the road and hugged and talked a while and then he went on his way again. He told me he had been in some movies and was doing fine. It was nice to see him!
Brazzil Magazine: What was his name?
Remi: He did that Star Wars movie and the other series. You know with the horse and treasures.
Brazzil Magazine: Harrison Ford?
Remi: Yea, that’s him. He is such a nice man.
Brazzil Magazine: You and Quincy Jones have a special relationship. How did he become such a big fan our yours?
Remi: Eventually, I cooked for almost every movie star and musician in Hollywood. I met Quincy once at a dinner I cooked for some other musician. He loved my food and asked me if he could come and do something very important. He told me that he wanted to be Michael Jackson’s producer but every time he invited Michael to his house, Michael would never eat. He asked me if he could get Michael to eat some of my food. He said that Michael was a vegetarian and very picky about what he ate. I said I would try.
I went to Quincy’s house and there I met Michael for the first time. I took him aside and told him, “let me make you something very special. I know how to cook very healthy food from Brazil. All natural, all vegetarian. You will like it.” He agreed. I made him some black beans, collard greens, farofa and some other things and he ate four plates full!
Quincy was kissing me all night long and from that time, he has called me many times to cook for him.
Brazzil Magazine: Your trip on the Michael Jackson “Thriller” tour. Tell me about how that came about.
Remi: That is another very amazing story. I was living in West Los Angeles in a small apartment when I got a phone call. The person on the phone asked me to look outside. He said: “See the limousine? Get in it, now!” I told him I could not because I was taking care of a person off the street and could not leave him. They said that they would send someone to look after the person right away and for me to get into the car. I told them I had to change my clothes because I all dirty from cleaning. They didn’t care. Finally I agreed when the man arrived to take care of my guest and I was taken to a big building in Beverly Hills and up to the very top penthouse. It was very luxurious.
The man on the other side of the desk handed me a ticket and said “you are going to the airport right now. Here is your ticket.” I asked him why. He explained to me that Michael Jackson was having stomach aches and specifically requested me to be his “nutritionist” on the “Thriller” tour. He was feeling sick to his stomach and refused to go on stage until they sent me to be his private cook. They were all very nervous. They said they were losing millions of dollars in canceled shows and I had to go right then.
I told them I could not and could only go in the morning. After a lot of arguing, the agreed to let me go home and they picked me up early in the morning and I was off to Birmingham Alabama.
I spent 8 weeks with Michael and his family on the road during the tour. It was an incredible trip I will never forget.
Brazzil Magazine: Did you become friends with him?
Remi: We became friends and I saw him numbers of times after that. I visited him in the hospital when his hair caught on fire and I saw him once in a while at an award’s show or party.
Brazzil Magazine: They didn’t call you Michael Jackson’s chef. They called you his nutritionist didn’t they?
Remi: Yes. When first I came to the United States, I started learning from other chefs about what is healthy and not healthy. In Brazil, we didn’t worry about what ingredients we used or what happened to someone if they ate something that made them sick. That was just part of regular life there. But in the United States, people cared about what they put into their bodies and I had to learn a lot of things quickly. I am an artist in some way and being a cook, I learned to have a “love for people”. I cared about whether they got a belly-ache from eating my food not only because it needs to be prepared fresh – I always did that – but because of the ingredients themselves. I started substituting different meats in the traditional Brazilian feijoada (see recipe box) and cooking lots of things vegetarian.
It was fun for me to cook this new way because in the end, I care about the taste of the food and food cook not only be a wonderful experience, but could also be nutritious and healthy.
I know I must have succeeded because Michael Jackson ate my food and he is very very particular about what he puts into his body. But because Michael is so big, I got a lot of attention around the world during the Thriller tour because they called me his nutritionist. I did after all make him stop having tummy-aches during his tour and he did not have any problem with food while I cooked for him.
O Globo Television in Brazil did a report on me on the show “Fantastico” talking about me as Michael Jackson’s nutritionist. A Japanese magazine also did a story on Michael Jackson’s nutritionist. Then I guess I was not a cook or chef to them. I was a “nutritionist”. But today, I feel that part of being a chef IS being a nutritionist.
Brazzil Magazine: Now we can’t do this interview without talking about your famous salsa. How and when did you come up with it?
Remi: That was a very long road! When I lived in Rio and was cooking for the politicians, I think it was 1957, I wanted to improve the looks and taste of the molho campanha. Molho campanha was always made with different sizes of tomatoes and onions and sometimes with peppers and it often was in a very thin sauce of water and vinegar. I wanted to improve it. So I cut up all the ingredients to be equal and made a more interesting sauce and everyone liked it. But because of all the politics in those days, the politicians didn’t worry too much about the salsa then.
It wasn’t until I came to the United States that I made the salsa again and there it took off. I made it once in 1968 when I was living and cooking for Sergio Mendez. But the time it became really popular when I cooked for Sidney Poitier during a dinner for the movie “Out of Africa”. I was making Bo-Bo, and African dish for Sidney and a famous African musician. Everyone loved it and people started asking for it. Sidney’s wife asked me to make a big jar of it so she could put it on apple pie! That was very amazing! My salsa which is spicy on apple pie?
Brazzil Magazine: There’s a story about you, your salsa, and Quincy Jones in Madison Square Garden during the Michael Jackson “Thriller” tour. Tell me about that.
Remi: Yes, Quincy Jones loves my salsa. Quincy first tasted my salsa and became addicted to it at Sidney’s (Poitier) house. Once in Madison Square Garden, I just got done preparing the special tea I made for Michael Jackson and placed them all around the backstage area for him to drink during the show. When I was done, I then went back in the back of the auditorium and waited for the show.
All of a sudden, there was a pounding at the microphone and the crowd went wild. They yelled “Michael, Michael”, screaming and yelling. Then all of a sudden I hear my name. “Remi, Remi!” over the sound system. I didn’t believe it at first but it was Quincy. “Remi, return to Los Angeles, there is no more salsa!” Quincy had run out of salsa before the show and wanted more. He was always playing jokes. That was very funny. I will never forget that.
Brazzil Magazine: Once I heard that Quincy Jones had all his brothers line up and kiss your feet. Is that true?
Remi: I will never forget that. The Jones boys loved my cooking and always made their wives write down the recipe. I even dictated recipes over the phone to them all over the United States. But they said it never tasted quite like what I make. One day, they were so happy to eat my cooking again at Quincy’s house, that Quincy came to me and said: “Remi, come here! You must come here outside.” So I went out side to find all his brothers on their knees in a line waiting for me. They all came over and kissed my feet. It was very funny but they were serious. They were crazy for my cooking. It was also the cachaça. They got very funny and friendly when they drank caipirinhas.
Brazzil Magazine: B.B. King once called you the B.B. King of Cooking. Why do you think you have cooked and related so well with musicians?
Remi: I think cooking and making music is the same thing. Instead of instruments, I have my pots and pans and stove. Instead of notes, I have ingredients. Instead of music, I have the food I make. B.B. King said that the sizzle and the crackling of the ingredients in my pans were a virtual symphony of delights and I never forgot that.
Now when I cook, I love to hear the sounds of the ingredients in the pans. They sing to me.
Sammy Davis Junior said to me once “Remi, I wish I could just become very small and jump into your pan of beans eat and dance and dance”.
Brazzil Magazine: You used to cook for Tom Jobim and all his Bossa Nova friends is that right?
Remi: Yes. That was incredible. I would cook for them all night. They would sit around playing, laughing, joking around. And after one party at one person’s house, they would go to another. What music. What emotion.
Brazzil Magazine: You spent much of your time in the United States in Beverly Hills.
Remi: I lived many years in Beverly Hills with Mr. Feldstein, a clothes manufacturer who traveled a lot. He bought Lucille Ball’s home and I lived in an apartment in the back. I would cook and do some cleaning. It was a very beautiful home and neighborhood. I loved it there.
Brazzil Magazine: Tell me some of the people you have cooked for in Hollywood.
Remi: I have cooked for so so many people. I once cooked for Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor alone in Michael’s house. That was very special. I have cooked for Oprah Winery, Paul McCartney, Eddie Murphy, Dick Van Dyke, Sugar Ray Lenoard, Magic Johnson, Bill Cosby, Willey Nelson, Herb Albert. So so many. I just can’t remember them all. I used to see Gregory Peck and James Stewart walking their dogs in the neighborhood and I would talk with them and got to know them. They were very wonderful men.
Brazzil Magazine: This year you are being honored at the Brazilian Street Carnaval in Long Beach. How do you feel?
Remi: It is so so nice. Brazilian television has done stories on me. You know Fantastico? They did a story on me when I toured with Michael Jackson. A Japanese magazine also did a story on me at the same time. But it was more because of Michael Jackson then about my cooking.
It is nice to be recognized by your own community. Your own people. Many times your own culture doesn’t always appreciate you for what you have done. I know that the Americans and Brazilians in the Los Angeles community are honoring me and that is very special.
But I am also happy for Brazil. We are known for futebol and samba. Not many people know about our food. And if I have helped people appreciate my country’s rich culinary heritage, then I am very happy for the life I have had.
Brazzil Magazine: The samba enredo or samba theme song this year was by composers Sonia Santos and Ana Gazolla. What was it like finally for a musician to honor you in song?
Remi: I cried a lot. When Sonia first sang me the song, I cried. She and Ana are poets. The words they wrote are pure poetry that describe my life so well and I looked back on my life and saw that it was a true Brazilian story. Something that can be told to people of a small girl from Minas Gerais who has cooked for the common person and presidents and Hollywood stars. I just hope that I am worthy of such a song and parade and music.
I have admired music all my life and it has always moved me in a special way. To have a song about me is such an emotion. I can only smile and say “maybe I have given something special to the world”. After all, they are giving something very special to me now at Carnaval here in Los Angeles.
Brazzil Magazine: Thank you Remi for your incredible food and equally incredible story.
Remi: It is my pleasure!