Featured image: Chef José Avillez at Tasca restaurant in Mandarin Oriental Jumeira, Dubai
To say that Portugal has had a major influence on worldwide cuisine is an understatement. With a long history of exploration and discoveries of new worlds, this small country in western Europe has built up centuries of culinary traditions with deep roots all around the world. One has to be very confident to dare to take a fresh approach to Portuguese culinary heritage and that’s what Chef José Avillez did via his brainchild, Belcanto, a restaurant in the heart of Lisbon.
As the first Lisbon restaurant that received two Michelin stars, Belcanto took Portuguese dining to new heights in 2019, recognized as #42 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Serving contemporary Portuguese cuisine, José Avillez offers a unique gastronomic and sensory journey rediscovering ingredients over and over again. A master storyteller offering guests with captivating flavors, Chef José explains how each dish tells a story of Portugal’s culture and evolving identity.
With several restaurants in Lisbon and Porto, each with a different concept, José Avillez has recently made his international debut with the opening of Tasca at Mandarin Oriental Jumeira, Dubai. He says that the big lesson he has learned about cooking and running a business is to see more than what is just in front of you. It’s being intuitive and seeing different perspectives. It’s about always asking the right questions and having no preconceived ideas. Striving to learn more is the very core of his principles. This is of course tied with keeping the right balance of health and lifestyle according to the chef. Pointing out the importance of spending time with family, he tells us the story of how the huge world of culinary arts humbled him and how to persist despite all the struggles.
In 2019 is the first time a Portuguese restaurant made it to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, congratulations! How do you feel about it?
I’m very happy. It’s a great honor and a very big responsibility too. It’s wonderful for me and the team but most especially for our country and Portuguese gastronomy.
Talking about gastronomy, how would you describe contemporary Portuguese cuisine?
It’s quite difficult. It’s also difficult to describe traditional Portuguese cuisine because although we are a small country we have different cuisines because of different regions. What sets us apart from the rest of Europe is our glorious history and great discoveries. At that time, between 600 and 400 years ago, we’ve been to more than 54 countries. It’s fascinating that the Portuguese taught the Japanese how to make tempura and introduced chilis to Thailand. We went to China, Macau, Malaysia, India and more, then took things from Africa to Brazil, from Brazil to Europe–so many different things and flavors around the world that have evolved through the centuries. We are the only country in Europe that uses cilantro and the only one that uses white rice as a garnish, just as they do in China. And, of course, we have the Atlantic Ocean and our cuisine is very rich in seafood. Contemporary cuisine is inspired in many ways by those traditions and discoveries and of course our bountiful ingredients.
How many restaurants do you have and what’s your role in them?
We have 20 restaurants in Portugal and Dubai, UAE. Between Belcanto’s cuisine, the office and trips to oversee these establishments, I make sure to concentrate on the creativity of all the restaurants. For that, I’ve started a team last year with a couple of cooks that work with me to continuously create and twist.
Our restaurants are all diverse and we constantly adapt to new changes. I definitely love creating something new. That sensation is the most amazing thing in the world and that’s what I want to do every day. Innovation is my life and I am always trying to think of how I could do something in a different way. I also represent our brand and I understand the need to take care of people, guests and those who work with me. Those are the important things in my life.
With different concepts under your umbrella, what are some of your favorite ingredients to work with?
I respect the ethos of ingredients a lot. In Portugal, seafood is very special. I absolutely love Portuguese carabineiro and call it my fetish product–people go crazy about it, as it has an exceptional flavor with a bit of sweetness. I like to work with shellfish, different kinds of crabs, beautiful sea bass or sardines. You can do so many things with flavor when the seafood is fresh. We also have different kinds of meat in Portugal and Alentejo pork is something I am also known for.
I like to respect an ingredient and believe the main dish should be about the main ingredient with garnish and sauce that you can create in different ways. Take an example of the porco alentejano dish which is pork cooked together with clams–mixing land with the sea! It’s very traditional but also contemporary.
With two Michelin stars and #42 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, you grew to become a celebrity chef. What have you learned along the way?
I used to say that I wanted to work only with the best to try to become one myself one day. I had a chance to study at Alain Ducasse Cooking School and did an internship with him as well. There are many talented chefs out there, men and women who want to change the world, a lot like the big influencers we have today. But when people ask me who I admire the most, I often say I admire the ones that nobody knows, those who are working in a very hot kitchen right now. The ones working tremendously, the ladies cooking in the cantinas for students or the cook behind the canteen of big companies. They do all the hard work.
I’ve had the great opportunity to work with many passionate chefs. And I value their great attention to detail and they have all inspired me to be better at what I do. It’s how I acquired the drive and motivation to always do better and better. I didn’t go to a proper cooking school. In many ways, I’m self-taught and still learning a lot. One big lesson that I’ve learned with Ferran Adrià of elBulli was to see more than you have in front of you. If I look at a strawberry, I think of a season; fresh red strawberry, green strawberry, the seeds, the plant and then all the techniques I could apply to it. And now apply this lesson to everything in life.
You were the first chef on the cover of Portugal’s Men’s Health Magazine, looking hot and fit. What’s your secret?
I find it very hard to gain weight so it was challenging for me. It was not purely for the look, it was fun and I love challenges like that. For that cover photoshoot, I’ve trained and worked out vigorously five times a week for five months. It was very important for my mental health as well as a sense of achievement as well. I received great positive feedback and it was a very nice over-all experience. People saw that if I, with my busy life, could find time to exercise, they could do it too! It truly felt good to inspire others.
You are a top celebrity chef in Portugal, how do you deal with your fame?
I am not a fan of the “celebrity” part, sometimes I deal with it better and sometimes not very much. A few years ago when I started out, it was difficult. I’m not young now but back then I was the new generation of chefs who had a university degree and also traveled more, so people didn’t take me seriously at first. In the course of my journey, I learned how to deal with criticism. I received comments saying my creations are not Portuguese cuisine. It took a while for people to recognize my work and more so when I got the first Michelin star. But now things have changed; Portuguese gastronomy is gaining prominence and I’m bringing people to Portugal because of food and putting our country on the map.
What restaurants around the world are on your bucket list?
There are so many restaurants that are still to be discovered. During the World’s 50 Best Restaurants event in Singapore, I wanted to go to Odette but with time constraints, it was not possible. I want to go to Shanghai’s Ultraviolet. I’m very curious about the cuisine and eager to sample it. But when I travel, what I really want to do is visit homes with friends and savor authentic home-cooked food of a destination. I love finding those great connections whether it’s to try things on the street, to be able to taste an amazing dish, or discover a new ingredient. Those moments are truly special to me.
What’s new and exciting for you? New locations, new concepts or partnerships?
Our journey has been so colorful. Belcanto reopened in 2012 in the middle of the big economic crisis. We’ve gone through fears and changes, from the old to the new and from small to big. In 2019 Belcanto underwent a big renovation and moved to a new, wider space. We are studying a lot and strengthening our influence in terms of food.
We’ve recently opened Tasca in Mandarin Oriental Jumeira, Dubai, my first restaurant outside of Portugal. We are having a great time there and Mandarin Oriental is a fantastic partner. For now, we are going to slow down with new openings and concentrate on what we have.
Of course, I aim to grow as a professional as well. It wasn’t too long ago when we thought we would go under but one day I received a tag on Twitter from a guy who was having lunch in the Belcanto dining room. And he said, “I saw the future of Portuguese cooking in a martini glass.” I didn’t know who the guy was but he turned out to be Frank Bruni, a food critic of The New York Times. Two days after that we started received phonecalls and gained more guests. When you believe, anything can truly happen!