With his deep-black mane, beard flecked with gray, and sharp features, José Avillez looks a bit like a Portuguese sailor straight out of the history books – one of those fearless types living at the turning point between the Medieval and Modern ages, who set off to sail the world and discover distant lands. “Without them, Portuguese cuisine wouldn’t be what it is today,” says Portugal’s most famous chef. “They returned on their galleons with all types of herbs, spices, and other foods that remain staples in our cuisine.”
These include what is by far the most Portuguese of ingredients: stockfish, which is made by salting and drying cod. Amazingly, not a single codfish has ever swum past the Portuguese coast, which makes the country probably the only one in the world whose national cuisine is based on a non-native ingredient. “Historians say that the very first sailors who headed across the Atlantic toward Newfoundland in the early 16th century returned home with their ships filled with dried cod,” Avillez says with that note of pride the Portuguese often have when they talk about their sailors.
Indeed, their travels influenced not only Portuguese cooking, but cuisines all over the world. Portuguese sailors and merchants were the ones who brought the South American chili pepper to every corner of the Earth, making it one of the most beloved spices in the world. The Portuguese were the ones who taught the Japanese the deep-frying technique, which gave rise to tempura – a name derived from the Latin word tempora, which is a reference to Catholic Lent. And it was the Portuguese who marinated their meat in wine and garlic when visiting India, a method they called “carne em vinha de alhos” – which inspired the Indian dish vindaloo.
With all this historical baggage, it’s no wonder that Avillez has a somewhat different relationship to local ingredients than do most of his colleagues in top restaurants in other parts of the world. “Many of the ingredients that are now considered integral components of national cuisines are actually from somewhere else entirely,” the 39-year-old says. “Portuguese food is hardly the only example of that. Just imagine Italian cuisine without tomatoes, or French food without potatoes – both foods that only came over here after the discovery of America. But here, the influences from Africa, South America, and Asia are just even more obvious.”
Indeed, Portuguese cuisine has certain elements that may strike other Europeans as exotic. Their frequent use of chili (called “piri-piri” here), for example. Or the countless dishes they make with rice, which is far less commonplace anywhere else in Europe – Northern Italy is one possible exception, but there it’s nearly always eaten as risotto, not cooked in water like in Portugal. And, above all, the intense aroma and taste of fresh cilantro, which is almost entirely absent from other European cuisines, but shows up here in surprising places, such as seafood dishes.
The boss in Portugal
Most Portuguese agree that the fact that Portuguese food is so trendy right now is largely thanks to Avillez and his internationally recognized success. If you ask the chef himself, though, he tends to downplay his own importance. “More than anything, we were just extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” says Avillez, who now manages 18 locations and employs an impressive total of 620 people. “When we opened Belcanto in the center of Lisbon in 2011, the economic crisis had just started in Portugal, which obviously made it a pretty bad time to start a fine dining restaurant. On the other hand, restaurants were closing all over the place around us, and many of them were for sale, so we grabbed the bull by the horns.”
Within just a few years, Avillez had expanded well beyond Belcanto (which now has two Michelin stars, and is listed in the guide as the best restaurant in the Portuguese capital); his corner of Chiado, Lisbon’s old city, is now known as “Bairro Avillez”. Bairro is Portuguese for quarter, and the name fits – it really is a string of locations that all belong to the popular chef’s culinary empire. There’s a deli that also serves food; a taverna offering simple, traditional Lisbon fare like stockfish croquettes; a seafood place called Pateo, which celebrates Portugal’s rich and varied fish tradition; Beco, a cabaret dinner theater; Cantina Peruana, the restaurant Avillez runs together with Peruvian star chef Diego Muñoz… the list goes on and on.
When it comes to going out on the town in Lisbon, there’s nowhere better than Chiado – and within it, Bairro Avillez. Every evening, it’s practically swarming with both locals and foreign tourists. There’s no sign of the economic crisis in any of the restaurants, at least in terms of customer numbers. “Lisbon has changed radically in the past couple of years, as has all of Portugal,” Avillez confirms as he hurries from one of his restaurants to another, greeting customers and staff along the way. “The crisis has been over for several years; tourist numbers are increasing radically, and have been doing so for years. It almost seems like the whole world discovered our country, its culture, and its food at the same time.”
Indeed, visitor numbers are rising so rapidly that many Lisboners have begun to complain that they’re concerned about the future of their city. “It’s true, sometimes it seems like a questionable development,” Avillez confirms. “But I’m not trying to complain about it. We never would have made it without tourists. Not me, not the company, not Portugal as a whole. So people shouldn’t complain, they should hurry up and find a way to steer this flood of tourists in a satisfactory way.” For example, he says, the capital urgently needs to expand its airport, its public transport, and its accommodation options.
Even during the crisis, Avillez says, he always knew it was only a matter of time before Lisbon experienced this boom – which was why he never considered giving up, no matter how difficult things got. Nowadays, he estimates that more than 50 percent of his customers at all of his restaurants are from other countries.
A Portuguese man and his Spanish mentor
“I was always convinced that Portuguese food had so much to offer – it was so unique and so full of variety – that this was bound to happen,” the chef continues. Although traditional Portuguese fare is rustic and hearty, with less-than-elegant ingredients often in starring roles, Avillez sees that as a challenge rather than a problem. “Ferran Adrià taught me that a good sardine is a far better product than a bad lobster,” he says. Before striking out on his own, Avillez spent several months working at elBulli, Adrià’s mythical (and now-closed) restaurant.
His Spanish mentor also taught him the importance of considering ingredients from multiple angles and interpreting them in multiple ways. “Fresh, ripe strawberries are wonderful things, for example,” Avillez explains. “You can eat them just as they are, or you can put them in ice cream or pie. But they can also be wonderful unripe – sliced very thin and eaten raw or pickled. And if you ferment them or preserve them some other way, they take on an entirely new dimension.”
Avillez says that’s why he’ll never stop re-interpreting, modifying, and adding to traditional Portuguese dishes. Sometimes, he laughs, it makes him feel like one of those sailors from bygone eras, returning from every journey with new and unfamiliar ingredients to enrich Portuguese cuisine even more.