“A few years ago, I was having caldo verde (a traditional soup featuring collard greens and potato) when I was travelling to the region of Minho in the north of Portugal, and then I started crying. I got so emotional about that soup that something inside me changed. I wanted to cook to give people the same sensation.”
Chef José Avillez isn’t shy to admit his cooking is guided by his food memories and experiences. Nor is the ironman of Portugal’s blossoming food scene afraid to venture out to challenge himself. Over the past seven years, he has opened 17 restaurants of various levels and themes in Lisbon and Porto. He has been on television shows, released cookbooks and his own branded wines while picking up numerous awards along the way.
At the heart of Avillez’s repertoire is Belcanto, originally a half-century-old traditional restaurant in the historic, increasingly vibrant Chiado district in Lisbon. The chef bought the business in 2012 and has since turned it into a sanctuary of contemporary Portuguese gastronomy. The restaurant won its first Michelin star immediately in the same year and added a second star in 2014.
So much of the chef’s culinary journey is about the significance of different periods of time in his life — and timing itself. He manages to find time on his packed schedule for this interview and speaks calmly, but with gusto, regarding what cooking means to him.
“It’s a passion. I can transmit a little bit of my feelings, sometimes my concerns, my tastes, my culture and my history, my life story: always connected to Portugal but also influenced by travels that I did,” he says.
The bond that Portuguese people have with their national food deepens organically with time, dictated largely by their way of life. Avillez is no exception. He was born in Cascais, a satellite town of Lisbon that makes up the Portuguese Riviera, and grew up there close to the farm and ocean. Food, needless to say, made a strong impression on him.
“I always feel a connection with the farmers, vegetables and fishermen. Every time when I go to the sea, I feel the seafood around me. I remember my childhood there and the Sunday lunch at my grandmother’s house with typical Portuguese dishes like the rice with duck and the typical stews,” the chef reminisces.
However, his path to the kitchen was meant to be different than a regular chef’s. The realisation of cooking as his calling didn’t come until he finished his studies in business communication at university. Instead of going to a culinary school, he was mentored by legendary Portuguese cookbook author Maria de Lourdes Modesto. Avillez then went on to intern at various notable restaurants in Portugal and abroad, including Ferran Adrià’s elBulli.
The first big break in his career arrived in 2008, when he worked as the executive chef at Tavares, Lisbon’s most established dining institution. It was actually at Tavares that he had the first taste of a Michelin star in his career.
Moving out from Tavares in 2011, the talented chef established Cantinho do Avillez and the more luxurious sibling Belcanto the following year. The acclaim that both locations won proved that his previous success wasn’t just a flash of genius. Rather, he was ready to take his culinary work to the next level.
“After we left Tavares, there was a lot of expectation, so I think the biggest challenge was to always be able to exceed expectations. I think what I did right was being surrounded by a great team. It was hard work but with the right people. We stayed humble, knowing that we are always learning,” he notes.
Avillez lets the land and sea speak for themselves. At Belcanto, visitors are welcomed with fantastic produce sourced across the country. The dishes strike one as being neat and tightly conceived, in the sense that nothing is redundant. Every ingredient is there to make maximum impact. Such directness and honesty hark back to what Portuguese cuisine is all about, something that becomes more and more apparent to diners as the meal progresses.
“The dish that best symbolises Belcanto is called Dip In The Sea — sea bass cooked in low temperature with bivalve and seaweed. For me, it’s one of the most amazing dishes we have here. The way it’s cooked is like you’re in the sea swimming. You don’t have any other seasoning but only a few drops of lemon juice. You’ve got salt from the seaweed and the shellfish. It’s very natural and related to my memories of childhood, of being near the sea,” the chef says.
Now that he has built a restaurant empire, Avillez’s responsibilities have also multiplied. Even though he puts a lot of faith in his team, his mind — and the mailbox on his phone, for that matter — is never turned off. How much further does he plan to go or has he reached the highest miradouro (viewpoint in Portuguese), looking over Lisbon’s red-roofed houses?
“I don’t know. Twenty years ago when I started cooking, I had a lot of dreams. Now I’ve achieved a hundred times more than I could imagine. I’m sure there will still be a lot of mountains to climb, but I also need to give space to other young chefs. I don’t want to be the only name to represent Portuguese cuisine. That’s the only way to promote it,” he says.
When was the first time you came across the MICHELIN Guide?
It was about 25 years ago, no more than that. I’ve always loved food, but in Portugal, there weren’t a lot of Michelin-starred restaurants. I started to become aware of the MICHELIN Guide when I started to travel more from 13 to 14 years old onwards.
How was it like when Belcanto earned the first Michelin star?
It was very important. I actually got the first star at Tavares. Even it wasn’t my own restaurant, I still saw it as my project. After 10 months of working here at Belcanto, we got the first star. It was nice.
How did you celebrate?
We celebrated. We had a drink. The next day, we arrived earlier to start working more. In this business, we don't have a lot of time to celebrate.
What is the influence of the MICHELIN Guide on your life and career?
It’s an incentive and recognition for our work. The MICHELIN Guide is the biggest gastronomic guide in the world, so it’s a big honour for us to have two stars now.
What advice would you give young chefs out there who dream of getting a Michelin star one day?
Before that, they really should consider if this is something of their passion, because it’s a very hard life. And if you don’t love it, you’ll not achieve anything. Don’t be in a hurry, learn with the best, know the ingredients of the land and have fun.