A future in the kitchen: An interview with Jose Avillez of Belcanto in Lisbon

Chef Jose Avillez has rapidly become one of the faces of modern Portuguese cuisine. He is
chef and owner of three Lisbon-based restaurants, one of which holds a
Michelin star.

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Part of the love I have for food and the culinary world is derived from the fact that it is universal. Every culture on planet Earth has its cuisine, its dish, its culinary history. Food is common-ground for all of us regardless of who we are, where we are from, or what we believe. To that end, I wanted to take a step in to a professional kitchen outside of the United States… metaphorically speaking, of course. :) 

Jose Avillez is one of the faces of modern Portuguese cuisine. He is chef and owner of three Lisbon-based restaurants, one of which holds a Michelin star. Chef Avillez was kind enough to offer some time for an interview. During our conversation we touch on how he got his start in the culinary world, the culinary world in Europe, and his own personal food memory. 

 

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Foodie Journal:
Dedicating your entire life to gastronomy and cooking requires a lot of
dedication. Can you describe when and how you realized that you had a desire to
cook and to make cooking your career?

Jose Avillez:
Ever since I was little I enjoyed cooking. I remember when I was around 5 or 6
years old I’d always go straight to the kitchen to see what was in the pan.
When I was 10 years old I actually had already set up a business selling cakes
with my sister. It was the most lucrative business I’ve ever had since it was
my mother that was buying the ingredients! But, really it was when I was in my
last year of studies in Business Communication that I realized that cooking was
my greatest passion and my future.

FJ: Obviously the
majority of people that I’m in touch with are based in the United States. Here
there are two ways to learn to become a professional cook; Working for a time
as a stagiaire [without pay] for a restaurant, or going to culinary school. Is
it the same for people who want to become cooks in Europe? Can you talk a
little about how you learned to cook?

JA: I went to
college to study Business Communication. When I signed up for it I still wasn’t
aware that my future would go through the kitchen. Like I said, it came to me
when I was already at the end of my studies and I met José Bento dos Santos and
Maria de Lourdes Modesto. My interest in cooking began to grow and I had the
opportunity to stage at Fortaleza do Guincho (on the Portuguese coast in Cascais).
That first day when I walked in to the kitchen at Fortaleza do Guincho my heart
began to race and I felt such huge emotions. It was really in that moment that
I realized I had found my path and really started to learn about cooking.  Afterward I did a variety of stages and
courses. I went through the Alain Ducasse School in Paris, and I was able to
stage at elBulli with Ferran Adrià. I consider the stage at elBulli to be the
decisive and transformative moment in my career. Ferran Adrià expanded my horizons
and, above all, both liberated and accelerated my thought process and my
creativity. When someone asks me what advice I might give to someone that wants
to learn to cook, I always advise them to study as much as possible and, if
they can, go to culinary school. Studying really enriches us and teaches us to
have good work methods.

FJ: So, linked to
that question, I’m curious. In the United States, the interest in the culinary
world has increased significantly over the past decade or two. We have a lot of
television programming, magazines, books, all with an eye towards cooking. Does
the same interest exist in Europe?

JA: Yes, the
interest continues to grow. Obviously the United States is far ahead by
comparison. For many years there have been television channels dedicated
specifically to cooking, and the diversity of programs continues to grow. I
think that we’re headed in that same direction because cooking is comforting;
it brings people together and offers up moments that we can share, unwind and have
fun.

FJ: What is your
style of cooking? What do you try to do in your restaurants as far as what you
put on the plate?

JA: My style of
cooking reflects my evolution and mixes all that I’ve learned, all my
experiences, the various influences, along with my feelings and fears. At the
moment I have three restaurants in Lisbon, all in the Chiado neighborhood:
Belcanto, which was awarded a Michelin Star [in 2012], offers a new kind
Portuguese-inspired fine dining and truly represents my evolution as a cook;
Cantinho do Avillez, a more relaxed restaurant, with many appetizers, entrees
and desserts that are Portuguese inspired, but with influences from my travels;
and Pizzaria Lisboa which offers a familiar and laid back atmosphere to enjoy a
variety of pizzas, as well as risottos, pasta dishes and desserts all inspired
by Italian cuisine.

FJ: There is a lot of
attention these days on molecular gastronomy and these new ways of cooking and
creating textures. Some European restaurants were really at the forefront, like
elBulli for example. There are some people who worry that because of that, some
just starting to learn might put too much emphasis on those new techniques. Do
you feel that there is a potential risk for those who worry more about that
style of cooking rather than focusing on learning the basics?

JA: In my kitchen
I have rules: the first is that flavor is the most important thing, and second
that the techniques we use are in service of the product. As is the case in any
area, in the kitchen it’s very important that you have a clear understanding of
the basics. Without that knowledge you won’t get anything done. I do believe
that scientific study in the kitchen has already opened, and will continue to
open doors to some very interesting new methods. That being said, though, it
needs to be done from the perspective of the technique used being in service of
the product.

FJ: As mentioned,
dedicating your life to cooking obviously brings with it a lot of time cooking,
eating, and being around food. Do you have a personal memory related to food
that you’d like to share?

JA: My life is
cooking. Because of that, many of my memories are tied to tastes. I was born
and raised in Cascais, near the sea. The memory of being that close to the sea
is very strong and is really a part of me, it defines me. I truly love cooking
fish and seafood, and let me say that I believe that in Portugal we have the
best that the sea has to offer in the world. I love creating dishes with the
taste of the sea. At Belcanto, we use algae codium, which has a very strong
taste of the sea. I loved eating it on the beach at Guincho.

The food of Jose Avillez

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