Portuguese chef José Avillez’ main focus is to promote Portuguese gastronomy and to contribute to making Portugal a top gastronomic destination. The result? One impressive career that boasts multiple restaurants, multiple Michelin Stars, the number 75 spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for his world-renowned restaurant Belcanto, and a long lineup of different projects including TV-shows, books and signature wines.
Chef Avillez is not only achieving what he set out to accomplish, he is doing it with an immense curiosity and constant drive to keep learning. As a completely self-taught chef, he defines himself as someone who is as passionate about cuisine as he is about his country, and who embraces innovation without ever forgetting his roots and the tradition, quality, authenticity and worth of work they come with.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with the much praised chef and talked with him about his country, his accolades, the responsibilities of success, his boys and the sheer joy of a good tomato.
We know you have many restaurants, but let’s start with your most awarded, Belcanto. The restaurant itself opened in 1958.
“Yes, I was very young at that time [laughs].”
Quite young indeed!
“No, I’m kidding.”
You took over in 2012, was it ever a scary thing to take on an existing restaurant?
“Actually, my first experience in a fine dining restaurant was at Tavares, which is one of the oldest restaurants in Europe. When I started at Tavares in 2007 the restaurant had already been open for about two hundred and twenty-something years. To pick up a place that has so much history is not easy, and when we started Belcanto the expectations were very high because I had already received a Michelin Star at Tavares. To be in a place with so much history, come in and change the concept of the restaurant while having the expectations of all your clients resting on your shoulders … You can imagine the first three months were quite difficult, to say the least.”
How long before you got your first Michelin Star at Belcanto?
Wow. That’s quick.
“Yeah. In the first year we got it.”
Was it a relief?
“Of course. In theory it’s always amazing, but it’s also a big responsibility. The biggest difference between receiving a star and winning a gold medal in the Olympics for example, is that a medal can be put on your wall and nobody will take it away from you. A star can be taken away the very next year. So, you need to work hard to be comfortable with that. You could lose it all in a second and that’s a lot of responsibility.”
And now you have two.
“[Laughs} Yes, and now I have two.”
Because you are so famous in Portugal, have you ever thought of going abroad with the restaurant?
“Not with a Belcanto type restaurant, no. I think Belcanto needs to be unique. But we do have a few projects actually that we’re preparing abroad at the moment, we’re opening a simple concept in Dubai next year for example. Our goal is to promote Portuguese gastronomy outside of our country and showcase what we’re doing right now in Portugal. It’s a big challenge for us.”
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Portuguese food?
“Uhm, I think most people think that we only eat Bacalhau [salted cod fish], and others just don’t have a clue what Portuguese food really is. I think that what’s happening now – because we have so much more tourism these day – is an opportunity for us to show a lot of people who we really are and what we really eat. We have many different places with different gastronomies all across the country, so, it’s very interesting for people to come here and travel a little bit inside Portugal and see and taste all of it. This is also what we try to do with our basic menu at Belcanto, it showcases the best of Portugal by taking guests on a a trip around the country. From north to south to central Portugal, we try to show our guests different textures and inspirations from around the country to promote Portuguese cuisine.”
What must people try when they come to Portugal?
“The seafood, for sure. I think they should try go to the traditional restaurants but also go see the young chefs who are making modern Portuguese fair right now. And then of course they should always try the things they’ve heard of before visiting, things like Pastéis de Nata [custard tarts].”
What was your favorite dish growing up?
“I’ve always loved eating, I think I started cooking because of that. I prefer savory over sweet and I love homey foods like fresh sausage with cabbage – a stew we make with tomato, onions, carrots and cabbage roll with fresh sausage and white rice. When I was younger I really liked Bacalhau à Brás [brás-style cod], right now that’s actually one of the things we kind of specialize in at some of my restaurants. But I always like to try new things as well. However, these days when I’m tired, I stick to very simple food. Sometimes the best thing to do is to grab a fresh tomato from the garden and eat it with only sea salt and a little bit of olive oil. That’s enough.”
You were born and raised in?
“Cascais, twenty minutes from Lisbon, by the sea.”
What did your mother and father do?
“My mother was a social worker. She helped people with all different kinds of problems recover. My father had a couple of restaurants when he was younger, but he didn’t cook. He was a businessman and had different businesses. He passed away when I was seven though, so I have only a few memories. You’re still very young when you’re seven.”
Did your mother keep the restaurants?
“No. Actually, I think when he passed he’d already sold them. I remember celebrating my fifth birthday in one of the restaurants, but I don’t really remember too much else besides that for sure my mother did not keep the restaurants.”
What inspired you to become a chef?
“I never thought about becoming a chef really. I thought about having restaurants, but it’s so difficult to think of doing something like this when you don’t have an example to follow. Even if it was something or someone I would’ve seen on TV. You have to consider that twenty or thirty years ago in Portugal being a chef was only for people who didn’t do too well in school. Of course there were exceptions, but generally speaking it was for people who didn’t have that many prospects in life. Right now things have completely changed. I studied arts, I wanted to be an architect and I got a degree in communication and management. However, I always loved cooking. So, after my graduation I thought about what it was that I really loved doing and if I could see this being my profession. I went for an internship at Fortaleza do Guincho, a restaurant that holds one Michelin Star, and the second I entered the kitchen I felt that this was where I had to be. I felt this immediate sensation that I really loved doing this. And the rest is history. The things that we’ve achieved today are a hundred times bigger than I’d ever dared to dream back then – and I had big dreams [laughs]. Fifteen years ago my dream was to open a restaurant near my house in Cascais and to be able to just manage that. Now we have almost twenty restaurants and more than six hundred people working for us. I’m not really sure how we did it, but we did it.”
Now you’re the person kids see on TV as an inspiration for them to maybe become a chef.
“Yeah, that’s amazing. And a big responsibility again [laughs]. I’ve learned that in life nothing only has its upsides. Of course I’m very thankful for the things we’ve achieved – and I always say ‘we’, because it’s all team work – but it all comes with so many responsibilities. You really have to be careful with what you do and say because there are always people looking at you and at what your next move is going to be. But I’m very lucky to have people working with me who’ve been with me for fifteen years. People who are really passionate about the job, like I am, and people who truly understand my ideas and who convince me that sometimes I’m wrong and they’re right. That’s very important to me. I actually grew a lot professionally and personally in the last few years.”
How do you think being a chef and being this busy effect your home life?
“I’m married with two kids, two boys. When my youngest son was three years old he used to call me ‘my brother’s father’. He didn’t have the perception that I was his father too, he never saw me. That hurt a lot and that was the time I knew I had to make a change. In the last two years I made a conscious effort to put the things I want to do personally on my agenda and make them just as important as the things I want to do professionally. If work comes up at the time I scheduled for my family, I prioritize my family. This made my life so much better. Now the next challenge is to be with friends more, to be able to see my best friends more than once a year.”
Do you travel a lot for work as well?
“Yes. I did almost fifty flights this year already. Actually, I’m going to Madrid in an hour and I just came back from Dubai five days ago. Madrid today and then I have a flight to Bangkok a in a few days as well. So, yes, I travel a lot.”
You’re a busy man. And you did a lot of TV work as well, right?
“I did, but I stopped about a year and a half ago. You can still find me on TV, but I haven’t made any new shows. I really liked the work, but it took up a lot of time and energy which I didn’t always have. And, sometimes I’m not so comfortable having this public life and trying to balance it with a professional and a personal life. You really need to be able to manage them all very well and some days I can and others I simply cannot. So, we’ll see if I will make my return to TV in the future or not, but for now I’m happy to take a little break.”
You interned at El Bulli under Ferran Adrià. Do you think it’s important for a chef to have an example or a mentor in this business?
“Yes. I think you need to have references and examples to follow, or not to follow but to be inspired by. Ferran Adrià to me was a mentor ánd an example, not just professionally but also as a human being – he is a great philosopher, not too many people know this. In this business, and in life, you always need to be able to compare yourself to someone and to be able to look at your peers with respect. Being able to look up to your teachers, your parents or friends is the way you grow and the way you develop your work and your personal identity, two very important things.”
What do you think you would have done if you hadn’t become a chef?
“For sure something art related. I think I would’ve become an architect.”
You mentioned your team before, what is your process of coming up with new recipes?
“The creative part is the part that I do alone. For now. It’s quite a solitary process.”
Where do you find your inspiration?
“I always say that sometimes it’s everywhere and other times anywhere. It really depends on what you’re feeling and what’s in your mind. Sometimes I’m in my car, sometimes I’m at home on a Sunday relaxing and I start thinking about different ideas. That’s when I grab a pen and I put it all on paper. It can also happen when I see an empty plate and I think of something to serve on that plate. I get inspired by everything. Up in the air when I’m flying is when I have the most ideas. I can come up with an entire new menu when I’m flying. I’d like to think it’s because I need the clouds for innovation, but in reality it’s probably because my phone is off [laughs]. No emails or WhatsApp to distract me, I can really just be by myself for a few hours and let the ideas flow.”
What has been your favorite dish you’ve ever made?
“I think one of the most amazing dishes that I really like – and that we’ve actually been serving for ten years now – is a dish called ‘Dip in the Sea’. It’s a sea bass cooked on low temperature with seaweeds and mussels. We call it ‘Dip in the Sea’ because it really looks like you’re deep in the sea. It has an amazing sea aroma and you don’t have to add any salt or any fat. It’s very natural and something you could eat every day.”
What would you like your last meal on earth to be?
“Very simple: I think I would like to have a really good tomato with salt and oregano, a piece of bread and really good olive oil. That’s it. Or, another thing that I really like, soup.
Any specific kind?
“Simple, humble, full of flavor.”
What advice would you give a starting chef?
“Work hard and make a lot of sacrifices. This profession is beautiful, it’s amazing, but make sure you never get lost. Listen to your guests, listen to your clients, listen to the people who eat your food. Don’t listen to the critics because when they rave about you it can make you very happy, but when they’re negative it can get you down and you can get distracted. Most of all, you need to know that you’re going to have to make sacrifices, both professionally and personally. Even though right now is a very different time from when I first started in the industry and seventeen, eighteen hour days were the norm – when you’re young and you want to learn, you cannot think that you only want to work eight hours a day. You need to put in the extra hours and try to learn as much as you can. Do not stop learning. Don’t ever think you know enough, because it’s never enough.”
Last question, I know we touched on your opening in Dubai and the importance of making more time for your family, are there any other big goals left in life?
“I’m not sure. I used to say that I wanted to be happy, but I’ve learned that this is a pretty abstract concept. I guess I want to continue having fun, enjoy life and be with my family. And, of course, the goal at the restaurant is to have happy guests who love their dining experience. In my personal life I’m now facing the big challenge of educating my kids. I try to learn from the things I did well and the things I didn’t do so well to be able to take care of them and educate them in the best way possible. So, all in all, I think my biggest goal in life right now is to educate my boys well.”
Visit Belcanto or one of Chef José Avillez’ many other restaurants when finding yourself in Portugal. For a peek at all his work and travels in the meantime, head over to Instagram. And for one of Chef Avillez’ childhood favorites scroll on down! We have the privilege of sharing Café Lisboa’s Brás-Style Cod with Olives with you.
Largo de São Carlos, 10
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400 g of soaked cod Start by cleaning the cod, removing any skin and bones. Flake the cod with a fork. Heat the olive oil to 375 ºF – 190 ºC. Add the potatoes and cook until golden. Drain on paper towels and set aside. Finely chop the garlic and slice the onions into rings. Heat three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a pan, under medium heat, and then add the garlic and the onion. When the onion becomes translucid, add the cod flakes and let it cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, lightly beat the eggs and egg yolks together, season with sea salt, freshly-ground black pepper and finely chopped parsley. Set aside. Add the potato shoestrings to the cod pan and give it a quick stir. Add the eggs, stirring constantly until smooth. Sprinkle with more chopped parsley. Add the black pitted olives and serve immediately.
BRÁS-STYLE COD WITH OLIVES
Portuguese chef José Avillez' main focus is to promote Portuguese gastronomy and to contribute to making Portugal a top gastronomic destination. The result? One impressive career that boasts multiple restaurants, multiple Michelin Stars, the number 75 spot on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list for his world-renowned restaurant Belcanto, and a long lineup of different projects including TV-shows, books and signature wines ...
500 g potatoes, peeled and cut into shoestrings
Olive oil (to fry the potato shoestrings) + 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
3 peeled onions
1 peeled garlic clove
8 organic eggs + 4 egg yolks
16 pitted black olives
Freshly-ground black pepper
Chef José Avillez
400 g of soaked cod
Start by cleaning the cod, removing any skin and bones. Flake the cod with a fork.
Heat the olive oil to 375 ºF – 190 ºC. Add the potatoes and cook until golden. Drain on paper towels and set aside.
Finely chop the garlic and slice the onions into rings. Heat three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a pan, under medium heat, and then add the garlic and the onion. When the onion becomes translucid, add the cod flakes and let it cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, lightly beat the eggs and egg yolks together, season with sea salt, freshly-ground black pepper and finely chopped parsley. Set aside.
Add the potato shoestrings to the cod pan and give it a quick stir. Add the eggs, stirring constantly until smooth. Sprinkle with more chopped parsley. Add the black pitted olives and serve immediately.