Before the pandemic hit in mid-March, someone walking into Wood Spoon, a Downtown LA Brazilian restaurant, would be greeted by wafting scents of pastel Portuguese, sizzling salt-cod bacalhau, and clinking sangria glasses. Owner and chef Natalia Pereira has seen Downtown shift from a relative ghost town 15 years ago to a bona fide neighborhood filled with new apartments and gleaming condo high-rises to a bustling restaurant and nightlife scene.
Downtown has also dealt with persistent social issues such as homelessness and gentrification. Today, Wood Spoon is confronting the intersection of new challenges brought by the pandemic and these long-standing social quandaries. “It’s a balancing act between what I love to cook and what’s necessary for the survival of the business,” says Pereira.
Social-distancing guidelines pose yet another obstacle for the 850-square-foot space where, at most, Pereira would be able to seat five tables if dining rooms were allowed to reopen. Though the city has allowed for alfresco dining, the shallow depth of the sidewalk in front of the restaurant makes it impossible for Pereira to place tables outside without violating ADA laws. Many of the hotels in the neighborhood that provided steady business have lower occupancy due to less business and leisure travelers, while foot traffic outside Wood Spoon has dramatically decreased. Today, the restaurant relies heavily on takeout, which is a logistical challenge since the restaurant is on a one-way street with little street parking.
“I feel responsible to keep going as a Black woman, an immigrant, and out of gratitude to my ancestors,” says Pereira. “I grew up poor, and my great-grandparents didn’t have the freedom to own a restaurant, or have a voice in society. If I do have a voice now, and I do have freedom, I want to keep going to celebrate where I originated.”
Natalia Pereira was born in the southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais to people who did not want to become parents. Pereira was born as the result of an affair, and was reunited with her birth mother briefly at the age of 7, but then shuffled for years between her biological family and her father’s wife, Francisca. Though Francisca wanted to raise Pereira as her own daughter, the family felt differently about welcoming the child of her unfaithful husband into the household. Pereira became an orphan at 8 years old and lived with various foster families for the rest of her childhood, separated her from her biological brother and sister.
In 1998, Pereira came to Los Angeles to live with an American family in Westwood and to find her place in the world outside of Minas Gerais. In 2000, she met the Radziner family (co-founders of the Marmol Radziner architecture firm) at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. For six years, Pereira went back and forth between Brazil and Los Angeles, cooking for the Radziners and their clients and friends when she was in town.
As more people tasted Pereira’s dishes, word of her culinary creativity spread. In 2006, one of the guests she cooked for encouraged her to open a restaurant. “He asked me what I wanted to do with my life,” says Pereira. “Growing up, I didn’t feel that I had a choice of what I wanted to do with my life. All I knew was that the love of cooking has always been in me.” That guest had a business in Downtown’s Fashion District, and seeing a need for good restaurants in the neighborhood, he provided her an initial investment and helped acquire the 850-square-foot space that would become Wood Spoon.
As Downtown transformed from a place many Angelenos would avoid after dark to a dining and nightlife destination, Pereira would garner a loyal following and attention from local food media. For almost a decade and a half, she has continued to cook some of the best Brazilian food in Los Angeles — from seafood stew moqueca in a white wine broth to short rib costelinha com canjiquinha on corn grits to well-executed sides of plantains, yucca fries, and collard greens.
This past March, Pereira’s steady work at Wood Spoon was put into peril when the pandemic forced the business to shutter its dining room to the public. Then in May, just as Wood Spoon was teetering on the edge of survival, George Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis, and protests against police brutality and systemic racial injustice took to the streets right in front of the restaurant.
While thousands protest and social media posts spotlight anti-racist action points daily, the movement has perhaps also emboldened a once-nebulous strain of racism in Downtown. In June, for the first time in 22 years, a woman waiting at the crosswalk of Ninth and Main hurled racial slurs at Pereira while she was standing in front of her restaurant. “She just screamed and shouted,” says Pereira. “I looked at her, and I looked at all the people in the street around us. We were all stunned, but there was nothing I could say or do.” Although she was baffled by the experience, Pereira is not unused to being confronted about her identity.
“I am Black, I am Brazilian, I am a woman, I am an orphan. I have a sensibility for humankind,” says Pereira. “This moment is important. It is part of the history of the world, it is part of my history. I am standing up for the color of my skin. Almost the whole universe is standing up.”
“We have to speak up. I see it in front of my restaurant: People are suffering in my neighborhood,” says Pereira. She is no stranger to sharing messages of social justice through food. In 2018, she started A Bite for Peace, a grassroots community project that took her to Italy, Paris, Spain, and Japan, borne of her desire to bring people together over a family-style meal. “I believe that racism is taught,” says Pereira. “I don’t think babies are born racist; society teaches them inequity.” Her philosophy is that the dinner table can serve as a vehicle for unlearning prejudice, and that peace can be built by uniting over good food.
If anything, the recent American reckoning with racism has motivated Pereira to complete her first self-published book, called My Life in Recipes, which she started writing long before 2020. The book will feature photography, art, poetry, and recipes that represent chapters of her life. “When you are born, there is pain, but that pain is necessary for birth, and for our rebirth as human beings. That is what we are going through now as a country, and that is what my story is about,” says Pereira.
For readers who will journey across the world and back to themselves while cooking her dishes, Pereira’s story is a healing work about coming home to oneself. “When people see me, they see a Black girl. But in this book, you can learn who I truly am. It’s a story of discovery, of facing myself, and it is an expression of what has been inside of me for so long that I haven’t had the courage to say.”