In the empire of José Avillez, the ambassador of the New Portuguese Cuisine

At 39, he has 20 restaurants and 600 employees. A reportage from Lisbon, meeting an important speaker at Identità

23-03-2019
A close up of José Avillez, chef at Belcanto, 2

A close up of José Avillez, chef at Belcanto, 2 Michelin stars, and of 19 more restaurants in Lisbon, Oporto and Dubai. Behind him, his right arm David Jesus. Avillez will speak at Identità Milano on Sunday 24th March at 10.45 (photo Paulo Barata)

The magnificent light embracing the hills and the breeze rippling the Tiago river these days would be enough to justify a visit to Lisbon. In our case, however, we have a mission: entering the kingdom of José Avillez, the young man who is changing the features of Portuguese cuisine.

At only 39, the awaited speaker at Identità Milano (on Sunday 24th March in the Auditorium, at 10.45) is at the helm of a group that now includes 20 restaurants and 600 employees. It all happened very fast, starting in 2011, when the then enfant prodige from Cascais left Tavares – the historic restaurant (established in 1784) which two years earlier he had led to a Michelin star – and started his solo venture.

In January 2012 he opened Belcanto in Chiado, a scenic labyrinth of alleys around Baixa and Bairro Alto, famous because it is where Fernando Pessoa was born. Now the neighbourhood is more and more linked to the name of Avillez because to the flagship restaurant (one star arrived almost immediately, the second arrived in 2014), the young man added many more places in those small alleys: a few weeks before Belcanto  he opened Cantinho do Avillez, a magnificent informal place offering Portuguese cuisine (ah, that partridge pie!) created in an old internet café. Over the years it tripled, with branches in Parque das Naçoes, also in Lisbon, and Oporto.

Belcanto, Avillez’s flagship restaurant. In May he’ll move next door 

BelcantoAvillez’s flagship restaurant. In May he’ll move next door 

Let the show begin at Belcanto: cocktail Porto Tonic

Let the show begin at Belcanto: cocktail Porto Tonic

Belcanto: mini-sandwich with pork fat 

Belcanto: mini-sandwich with pork fat 

Belcanto: Carabineiros in two services. First service: a sauce with the heads of the crustacean and cod bladder 

BelcantoCarabineiros in two services. First service: a sauce with the heads of the crustacean and cod bladder 

Belcanto: Carabineiros, second service: head cooked at the table, under a crust of salt and seaweeds. Eat this with your hands

Belcanto: Carabineiros, second service: head cooked at the table, under a crust of salt and seaweeds. Eat this with your hands

Belcanto: Braised mullet with rice and cuttlefish, sauce of liver, vegetable caviar and aioli sauce with squid ink 

Belcanto: Braised mullet with rice and cuttlefish, sauce of liver, vegetable caviar and aioli sauce with squid ink 

In 2013 he opened Café Lisboa, an elegant after-theatre restaurant with a gazebo, in a wing of the Teatro Nacional de Sao Carlo, and Pizzaria Lisboa a restaurant offering simple Italian cuisine, with a Marano oven where they make a decent, thin pizza «My father, who passed away when I was very young, always made pizza to make me happy». In 2014 he opened Minibar, next to Belcanto: petiscos (Portuguese tapas), great cocktails and loud music, a format that 4 years later he extended to Oporto.

In 2015 he is only seemingly calm, as in 2016 he opens the most spectacular of his restaurants, called Bairro do Avillez. A small door on Rua Nova da Trindade leads to a three-fold world over 1000 square metres wide, with one hundred cooks and waiters walking up and down: as soon as you go inside, there’s Taberna, which offers simple product-based cuisine, and very high-quality cheese and charcuterie that you can take away. In the next room, there’s Patéo, a patio where they serve marvellous seafood (taste the Carabineros prawns and you’ll be satisfied for a lifetime) and then, after an unremarkable little door, there’s Beco, the most original of all. It’s a gourmet cabaret in a Twenties’ style, under vaulted arches, with a large mural artwork by the counter dedicated to Dita von Teese. Singers and comedians perform on the stage while they serve a surprise tasting menu, similar to the one at Belcanto.

Avillez is a theorist of diversification: «People have an increasing desire to enjoy different experiences and have fun. They don’t want just food. It would be a mistake to say that fine dining is over; it simply will represent more and more just one of the many options available». Sounds like Ferran Adrià - indeed he was a point of reference in the very early training of this young man – who together with his brother Albertcreated a similar neighbourhood-project in Barcelona (elBarri). For sure, it’s impressive to see such a polished version of Chiado: once a very poor nook, it now offers endless opportunities to have fun, especially foodwise.

Bairro do Avillez, three restaurants in one, at the entrance, the Taberna, charcuterie and cheese (mostly from sheep’s milk)

Bairro do Avillez, three restaurants in one, at the entrance, the Taberna, charcuterie and cheese (mostly from sheep’s milk)

Bairro do Avillez, second area: Pateo, patio, serving traditional cuisine based on excellent raw materials...

Bairro do Avillez, second area: Pateo, patio, serving traditional cuisine based on excellent raw materials...

...for example, Carabineiros, cooked with oil aromatised with coriander and peppers 

...for example, Carabineiros, cooked with oil aromatised with coriander and peppers 

Pastel de nata, the sweet emblem of Lisbon

Pastel de nata, the sweet emblem of Lisbon

Bairro do Avillez, third area: Beco the gourmet cabaret

Bairro do Avillez, third area: Beco the gourmet cabaret

But there’s still much more to say about Avillez’s colonies: one year ago he opened Cantina Zé Avillez in Campo das Cebolas: two rooms and a terrace overlooking the garden, where he serves traditional Portuguese cuisine. And he’s soon to open another place with a double soul: the simple counter at Rei da China and the more ambitious Casa dos Prazeres, serving South-East Asian food, in partnership with volcanic Argentinian Estanislao Carenzo. All this next to Pita, two windows dedicated to the famous Greek bread, with Middle Eastern seasonings …

Is it over? Not at all. Last week he opened his first establishment abroad, restaurant Tasca, inside the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Dubai, on Jumeira Beach: «I did so because in terms of cuisine, the Mandarin group gives the greatest guarantees internationally». Ambitious Portuguese cuisine in a very scenic context. Tasca, is also the name of another restaurant he owns, inside shopping centre El Corte Ingles, in the neighbourhood of São Sebastião. Then you must add all the partnerships with colleagues worldwide: Cantina Peruana, with his friend Diego Muñozin Lima, an ex pupil of Gaston Acurio and an old acquaintance of Identità; Cascabel in Mexico with Roberto Ruiz and Za’atar, a Middle-Eastern concept created with Lebanese Joe Barza.

Having said all this, it’s impressive that it’s José Avillezhimself who takes care of the creativity of each dish: «It’s what keeps me alive», he lightens up, «my reason for being, together with my family, of course». A fire of tradition unknown to most, kept together by great gourmands and masters likeMaria De Lourdes Modesto or Manuel Bento dos Santos. A constant research of the past, so as to shape the raw materials of the future.


David Jesus with Vicente Neto, chef of the first of three Cantinho do Avillez

David Jesus with Vicente Neto, chef of the first of three Cantinho do Avillez

José Avillez in front of Minibar in Lisbon: petiscos (small plates) and cocktails

José Avillez in front of Minibar in Lisbon: petiscos (small plates) and cocktails

Avillez is also a wine producer (JA red and wine) and has a brand of tinned fish too (photo)

Avillez is also a wine producer (JA red and wine) and has a brand of tinned fish too (photo)

«Did you know that tempura is a Portuguese technique?», we were told by our guides, right-arm David Jesus, another cook with a bright future ahead, and Monica Bessone, the smiling Communication manager. No, we didn’t. «We were the first in Europe to arrive in Japan. But by nature our people don’t like to show off their conquest». Like Chicken with foie gras and truffle cooked in a bladder, a great classic of 20th century French cuisine, which the French have copied from the Convent of Sao Pedro d’Alcantara, without mentioning the source, though.

A family of discreet people, enlightened but showing no prima-donna behaviour. People who colonised an entire neighbourhood: «The restaurants are so close to each other», Avillezsays, «that sometimes you see our waiters in the streets, taking a dessert from one restaurant to the other». They’re all directed by this visionary hard-working man, a lover of risk, obsessed by his profession. «The other day I dreamt I could no longer cook. I woke up covered in sweat».

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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