Jose Avillez’s name is connected with many important chapters of lusitanian gastronomy. His most popular restaurant, Belcanto, won its 2nd Michelin star in 2014, a premiere for Lisbon. Other 5 restaurants, 4 books, 2 TV shows and 1 radio show have its signature, and in 2012 he guided Anthony Bourdain in Portugal’s capital, in an episode of “No Reservations”. We must confess, in that episode we “discovered” him. Two years later, we were sharing a table with Jose Avillez at MiniBar Teatro, the gastrobar opened in Chiado, his favourite Lisbon neighbourhood.
Jose loves food. You can tell that when he is talking about his favourite ingredients, about the people who influenced his career, about Portugal’s aromas, but especially about the taste of childhood. ‘I’ve always loved to eat. When I was litlle, Christmas was not about the presents, but about good food, cooked by my mother and grandmother. After that I have discovered my passion for cooking because I used to bake and sell cakes with my sister‘, says Jose.
On Ferran Adria’s steps
He decided that he wants to start a career as a chef after he studied arts and after that, marketing and communications. He worked with important names from the Portuguese gastronomy, such as Maria de Lurdes Modesto or Jose Bento do Santos, but also with some of the world’s most important chefs, such as Eric Frechon, Alain Ducasse or Ferran Adria. When he talks about Ferran, he has a blink in his eyes: ‘From the French chefs I have learned the discipline, the basic rules of French cuisine, what haute cuisine means. Ferran Adria, who created a culinary revolution 20 or 25 years ago, I have learned to think out of the box. I have learned that I should not have preconceptions about anything. The El Bulli stage proved me that not everything is what it seems and that you must open your mind in order to see more than what it stands in front of you‘, Jose tells us.
After the period spent at El Bulli, the world’s most popular restaurant at that time, Jose Avillez was named executive chef of Tavares, a national monument for the Portuguese, as he likes to call it. It was a little more than one year until Jose gained his first Michelin star. It was happening in 2009.
Two years later, he left Tavares’ kitchen in order to focus on personal projects. At that time, Cantinho Do Avillez, the contemporan Portuguese restaurant from Rua dos Duques de Braganca, no 7, was born. The famous Belcanto, awarded with one Michelin star in a few months from its launch, and other three restaurants, all in Chiado (Cafe Lisboa, Pizzaria and Minibar Teatro), came next. His sixth restaurant who has his name is Cantinho Do Avillez from Porto. Jose Avillez’s childhood dream of having a small resaurant in Cascais, with around 25 seats, has transformed in an gastronomical empire, “built” in only three years.
Work and team are the main coordinates which represents Jose Avillez’s success, as he says to us: ‘We have made it because we have a great team. It is a team which believes in my passion, but also in my madness. There are days when we are all tired and exhausted, but we know we are going in the best direction. We have to decide new things everyday. Sometimes there are changes which have to be made in a moment, but at the end we take the best decisions. We managed to create a business model‘.
Belcanto and the power of a tweet
These days, when you are talking about fine dining in Lisbon, you are saying Belcanto. It is the place where Jose Avillez releases his imagination and combines elements from Portugal’s history with local flavours. The restaurant has two tasting menus: the discoveries, which reminds us of the expeditions from 1400s and the Lisbon menu, a nice walk through the aromas of Portugal’s capital.
Belcanto enjoyed an instant succes, in which was implied Frank Bruni, the former restaurant critic from New York Times. In 2012, Bruni came to eat at four restaurants from Lisbon, and two of them were Belcanto and Cantinho Do Avillez. It only took one tweet, where he was saying that he ate at Belcanto the best meal in that year. ‘The next day, before the article even apperead in New York Times, we already had people coming from New York to eat here. Even today we have people who come to eat at Belcanto because of that article‘, says Jose.
With two Michelin stars next to its name, it is hard to reserve a table at Belcanto for the next month. Jose tells us that 85% of his clients are foreign and that he has to turn down many Portuguese everyday, because of the bookings made in advance. ‘It is a good thing that the Portuguese are starting to be open to new types of food. After the economical crysis in the past years, the market was cleaned a little bit and people started to understand that they have to pay for quality‘, states the chef.
Jose Avillez thinks that the culinary TV shows played an important role in popularizing the gastronomical phenomenon in Portugal. ‘The cooking shows have a great impact on food. They open people’s minds, they make them think about food. There are 5 or 6 years old children who don’t want to watch Cartoon Network, but my TV shows. Their parents bring them in my restaurants to get to know me.15 years ago, nobody around here knew what it is a carpaccio or a risotto, there weren’t any restaurants which served only sushi, for example. Now, these are everywhere. Different cultures come, bad restaurants close, good restaurants stay’, Jose tells us.
‘If it is about Jose…’
Even if it doesn’t drain as much tourists as other European cities such as Barcelona, Rome or Paris, Lisbon is starting to become a popular holiday destination. We’ve been convinced to come here by Anthony Bourdain, who came in Portugal’s capital in 2012. Jose Avillez was one of the three chefs who guided him through the city in those days, alongside Henrique Sa Pessoa and Ljubomir Stanisic.
The Belcanto chef reminds of that period very well: ‘When Anthony Bourdain came to Portugal, I must confess I was a little nervous, because the show was going to be broadcasted in the entire world. We had the chance to show the people what the Portuguese cuisine means. It was an important moment for Lisbon, for me, for Cervejaria Ramiro. I was speaking with the producer and I told him that we could go to eat at Ramiro. He contacted the restaurant owner, he told him that he comes to film with Anthony Bourdain, but he was turned down at first, because they were full. When he told him that he calls at my recommandation, the owner said: <<Ah, if it is about Jose…>>‘.
Now, everynight, there is a long queue at Ramiro. And it is like that for a reason. The lobster they serve there is excelent!
The food from Jose Avillez’s restaurants is different, but at the same time, it has common elements.. ‘At Belcanto, we try to get our inspiration from Portuguese cuisine, and in the other restaurants we try to combine it with influences from our travels, from other cultures. At Belcanto, we talk about art, Minibar is a gastrobar where you can eat with your hands, and Cantinho and Cafe Lisboa serve everyday food with a twist‘, he says.
At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the smile on client’s face. ‘Our main purpose is to make happy the ones who are sitting at our tables and to tell them a few things about the Portuguese cuisine. What we want to achieve in our restaurans is to revisit the Portuguese cuisine, a cuisine with a lot of history and with influences from all the corners of the world. I think we are the only country in the world whose national dish comes from outside the borders: bacalhau is not from Portugal, but from Norway or Iceland‘, says Jose.
Jose Avillez’s Lisbon is charming. It lays at the feet of Elevador de Santa Justa, it reminds the world about Camoes and Pessoa, it is crossed by both Tejo and the old trams, it vibrates at every glass clinched in Bairro Alto and it dances every night with the musicians singing in front of A Brasileira cafe. Either we talk about bacalhau a bras at Cafe Lisboa, Alentejo pork at Cantinho Do Avillez, Algavre prawn ceviche at Minibar Teatro or about an “Abade de Priscos” pudding at Belcanto, Lisbon is all about good food.
Jose Avillez’s 5 picks
Favourite ingedient in the kitchen: salt
Favourite food: seafood
5 culinary destinations: Basque Country, Lisbon, Paris, Tokyo, New York
Bizzare foods tried: insects, larvas, worms (all in Mexico)
Destination he wants to explore better: South-East Asia