Ilson Gonçalves opened Samba in Montclair, New Jersey nearly eight years ago as a deli with a few Brazilian specials. Today, the menu is a reflection of the authentic cooking he grew up eating at his mother's home and restaurant in Blumenau, Brazil. It's simple with an emphasis on fresh vegetables, fish and herbs, served in a romantic, rustic space with antique copper pots and vintage tableware.
And Samba's whole menu is gluten free, except for the wheat bread, which is from Balthazar Bakery, and one dessert. Due to tremendous demand, Samba recently expanded its vegan and gluten-free options. Plant lovers may enjoy meat-free versions of Gonçalves's signature GF Yuca Gnocchi, top photo, and Bobo de Vegetais, a rich stew with local seasonal vegetables, yuca purée, tomatoes, onions, coconut milk and cilantro.
Gonçalves is a graduate of Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City, and the author of The Samba Montclair Cookbook (A Life in Print, 2017). He has appeared in NJ Monthly, The Star-Ledger and The New York Times and on News 12 NJ, PIX 11, WABC News and NBC's Today.
Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine asked Gonçalves to explain why he felt it so important to serve gluten-free cuisine at Samba.
Why was it important for you to incorporate numerous gluten-free menu items at Samba?
There are several reasons it's important and a natural fit. I feel your body is a temple. Food is medicine and I want to respect people’s decisions for eating gluten-free and managing their food allergies. My own diet is essentially gluten free. In addition, Brazilian food is mainly gluten free, since we use yuca flour, so it's authentic culturally. It’s about quality — you are what you eat!
Samba Chef Ilson Goncalves
Did guests ask about gluten-free items before you made a point of offering them?
Yes, guests were asking me all the time, so I knew it would be well received.
Is there a gluten-free aspect in Brazilian cuisine or is this adding an American twist?
Yes, it's a part of the indigenous cuisine. If you go to Central America, the starch is corn, in South America, it's yuca. It’s the local food.
Flourless Yuca and Coconut Cake with dulce de leche and passion fruit sauce
What changes did you need to make in food items you use and preparation methods?
My change was to add more yuca to the menu, in place of wheat. Yuca flour is more expensive than wheat flour, but it's well worth it to make the dishes taste authentic and accommodate GF diners.
What was the process of perfecting recipes?
Yuca starch is equal to what's called tapioca flour in the US. It measures the same. So it was a question of experimenting with proportions to get the taste and texture right as we replaced wheat in breads and desserts.
What are among the most popular?
Guests go crazy for Cestinha de Pao de Queijo (basket of yuca-cheese bread). Our best selling appetizers are Mandioca Frita com Linguicia Calabresa e Cebola (fried yuca w/Brazilian pork sausage and fried onions), and Bolinho de Mandioca (little pastries made of yuca w/dried beef + butternut squash).
What has response been from guests?
It's been really positive! People have embraced the menu and cuisine, whether or not they're gluten free. We do our best to accommodate everyone's dietary preferences. For example, although Brazilian culture isn't vegan/vegetarian, we have vegan dishes on the menu so plant-based eaters can enjoy it as well. Vegans have told me that they love Samba's food more than at a strictly vegan restaurant.