José Avillez – one of Portugal’s brightest culinary lights
José Avillez is one of Portugal’s brightest culinary lights. He was the first chef in Lisbon to receive two Michelin stars, when his avant-garde Portuguese cuisine restaurant, Belcanto, earned its second in 2014. He now oversees an ever-expanding empire that includes the more casual Cantinho do Avillez, a new branch of which just opened in Cascais, and food-hall-inspired Bairro do Avillez.
We chat to this supremely talented and irrepressible chef about his mission to revitalise Portuguese food and helping to making Lisbon into one of Europe’s most exciting dining destinations.
Chef Avillez, you’re famous for your innovative take on your local cuisine – why do you think traditional Portuguese food needed a new approach?
We’ve always had very high-quality products: wine, cheese, olive oil, meat, fish and shellfish. However, Portuguese cuisine needed more projection – we have to show the world our extraordinary cuisine, which I believe is one of the world’s best. The fact that in the last few years Portuguese chefs have started to use these products, following the traditions and our recipe corpus, and have started to modernise classic dishes, has given more prominence to Portuguese cuisine.
Added to this, there’s the growing interest that gastronomy is generating all over the world, and the fact that chefs have started to travel more, creating a wider network. Moreover, tourism has also experienced continued growth and this has also contributed to this evolution.
How much do you look into Portugal’s past for inspiration versus taking inspiration from other cuisines?
My main source of inspiration is Portuguese cuisine, which is very rich and varied. The traditions, ingredients, flavours and influences are always on my mind. I’m very proud of our amazing cuisine and I would like the world to know just how great it is.
At Belcanto, I offer Portuguese haute cuisine. However, in other restaurants, such as Cantinho do Avillez, I offer a Portuguese-inspired cuisine influenced by my travels abroad. I’m curious by nature and I love discovering new cultures. This adventurous spirit is in the Portuguese people’s DNA. Over 500 years ago the Portuguese were responsible for the first globalisation phenomenon and gave an important contribution in showing numerous different foods to the world. We took and brought products with us, along with recipes and techniques.
My interest in international cuisines has led me to establish partnerships with other internationally renowned chefs. Lisbon didn’t have a very wide offer of international cuisines. So, I decided to make this bet on international cuisines. I could have walked this on my own, and have dedicated myself to studying other cuisines, but I chose to invite international chefs, knowledgeable and renowned for their work, to share their know-how and offer a high-quality experience. I have worked in partnerships with Peruvian chef Diego Muñoz, with Cantina Peruana, also with Mexican chef Roberto Ruiz, with Barra Cascabel and more recently, with Lebanese chef Joe Barza, in Za’atar.
Which dish or dishes of yours do you think you have given the most successful reworking of traditional Portuguese food?
The Portuguese pot-au-feu that we serve at Belcanto is a good example of how tradition can evolve as creative cuisine. This dish is an interpretation of the traditional Portuguese pot-au-feu. For this dish, we went looking for the essential, fearlessly recreating and reinventing, we worked on the incredibly rich flavour of the cozido’s broth, the cabbage, and evolved to a dish that represents all the flavour of a Portuguese pot-au-feu. We have a piece of cabbage, cooked on the broth, and the smoky flavour of the coal is in perfect harmony with the smoky flavour of the cured meats. This is the evolution of a dish and represents an evolutionary and creative path.
There’s also “Dip in the sea”, from Belcanto, a sea bass dish with seaweed, codium, bivalves and sea water. Although it’s not a traditional dish, I have to include it, because in Portugal we have the best fish and seafood in the world, and the purity of the flavour of the sea in this dish is absolutely unique.
How important are ingredients, and where they come from, to you?
Ingredient choice is critical. We choose high quality ingredients and value seasonality and non-industrial production. Because we have several different restaurants, we already use a very wide range of ingredients. We work with the best suppliers. We work mostly with Portuguese products, but also have to order a few products from abroad, especially when we consider the restaurants that offer international cuisines.
Do you feel like you, and other innovative chefs in Lisbon, have put Portuguese food back on the global dining map?
Certainly. There are many Portuguese chefs contributing to putting Portuguese food on the map. New quality restaurants and food stores are emerging and betting on high-quality Portuguese products. The culinary scenario is getting very interesting. Portugal is becoming a reference. I think we’ll have an interesting future.
You’ve just opened another branch of Cantinho do Avillez, in Cascais, west of Lisbon. Why did you choose this location?
I was born and raised in Cascais. For me, to be in Cascais with Cantinho,
my first restaurant, has special meaning – it’s like coming home.
Thank you, Chef Avillez, and all the best with the new restaurant and continuing to develop Portugal as such a lively and interesting dining destination.
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