Recognized in Portugal and worldwide for his creative and contemporary cuisine, José Avillez has placed his name and many of his restaurants in the Michelin constellation. Audacious, he has created and reinvented classic Portuguese dishes with modern techniques and bold plating when he took the helm of the memorable Tavares restaurant, eight years after the turn of the century. Recently, this chef, his Belcanto has risen in the list of the 50 best restaurants in the world, now occupying the 25th place, further elevating national gastronomy.
What is so special about Belcanto that has always won awards since it opened?
It’s not one but a combination of factors that makes it so special. We use the best ingredients with a lot of creativity and inspiration in Portuguese cuisine. We also have a very dedicated team of staff. However, the price factor makes it more exclusive; currently bookings are open four months in advance – and I’m talking about dinner, because for lunch it takes longer, up to eight months. It’s a project that will soon be celebrating its 12th anniversary and that makes me very happy.
And now it’s the 25th best restaurant in the world. What is the reason behind this?
Portugal benefits greatly from being on everyone’s lips. More and more tourists visit us and with that they also look for our restaurants. It was a work in progress by all the team at Belcanto to earn this award or the two Michelin stars, one when it opened in 2012 and the other in 2014, keeping both until now. It always feels great for the whole team to receive these distinctions; it makes us all proud. I often say that every day we try to go farther. This means that every day we try to be a little better. We can always do better, there is always room to evolve. The real challenge is to exceed our customers’ expectations. That is our daily goal.
What was your first restaurant and what memories do you keep from those days?
It was Cantinho, which opened in 2011, three months before Belcanto; two projects almost at the same time. Belcanto was supposed to have been the first, but the works were delayed and it opened a few months later. From then on, it’s been a continuous learning process. I had already had other projects, such as catering, takeaway and a restaurant in 2004. In 2008, I took over the kitchen at Tavares, where I spent three years, and the restaurant received a Michelin star in 2009. But Cantinho was actually the first project, it was all a beginning, from the design of the space and the kitchen to the elaboration of the menu; everything was created from scratch. It was a place that no one believed would work out and twelve years later it remains a great success every day, at lunch and dinner, with Portuguese and other people coming from all over the world. Your first project always ends up having a special taste, it has a more democratic cuisine and you can visit it more often. It is a project that is always in my heart.
How was your experience in the historic Tavares?
I believe that people were surprised at first, but then they realized the recognition that the restaurant was getting internationally and what it would bring in terms of tourism, and also for receiving the Michelin star after a year. It was perhaps since then that people began to look at Portuguese cuisine in a different way. To be fair, other chefs, such as Vítor Sobral, Miguel Castro e Silva, Joaquim Figueiredo or Luís Baena, started before me to develop a new, more contemporary Portuguese cuisine, which gave me the opportunity to see further ahead and define my work. This hasn’t been the work of a single person, nor of a generation; it’s been the work of many people and many generations.
How did you decide that cooking would be your job?
I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but I didn’t think it would become part of my professional life; I thought I would be an amateur cook, for friends, as fun. But it wasn’t like that; nowadays I hardly cook for friends, and cooking has become my life. And when you love what you do and feel passionate about it, it’s inevitable. I started about 23 years ago, at that time I was fascinated by TV shows and I had an extraordinary mentor, Maria de Lurdes Modesto, who was the sponsor of my graduation thesis on Portuguese Cuisine.
But you didn’t graduate in Culinary Arts or Catering.
No. I studied Arts because I wanted to be an architect and I ended up getting a degree in Business Communication, and that’s where I did that graduation thesis. I think it was then that I realized that this is what I wanted to pursue as a profession. Then I took specific, one-off culinary courses, but I’ve always been self-taught.
At the moment, how many restaurants bear your signature?
There are sixteen of them, counting Bairro’s four concepts. There were others that have since closed, a lot due to the pandemic, but these are already a lot of work and plenty of entertainment, and we have a lot of fun working. Sometimes we also get tired, but business goes well, we have managed to evolve in the kitchen as well as in the dining room service, always with many daily challenges. We work with hundreds of people, even though it’s been increasingly difficult to hire, which can become a problem because of the training everyone has to have. But we are very happy with what we have done and created so far.
And one day you flew away and took your cuisine to the Asian continent.
It’s true, we opened Tasca in Dubai about five years ago, and, in 2022, we received a Michelin star. It was the first internationalization project, it’s located at the Mandarin Oriental Jumeira and has a genuinely Portuguese cuisine. In Macau, we have Mesa, located at the Lagerfeld Hotel – it is also with Portuguese cuisine, but more contemporary, using some local products and flavors. Despite being on the same continent, they are two very different but very interesting markets that we have enjoyed exploring. Both were very challenging. In Macau, it is very interesting to discover the many Portuguese memories that exist there, and there are also many Macanese who like our cuisine.
How many Michelin stars have you received?
It’s easy, 2+1+1 is four Michelin stars. These were for places with a chef. What happens in these circumstances, for example, when the chef leaves a place, the Guide often takes the star away. In my case, they are together because I have a chef in every place, who is also part of those stars as is also the whole team, and it’s important that people understand this. When one or more stars are awarded to a restaurant, that result and that restaurant only exist because of the whole team. The star is given to a service as a whole with excellent cuisine.
Cuisine or gastronomy? Which is more important to you?
For me, the most important thing in cuisine is the flavor. This is a phrase I often say when we discuss whether or not cuisine is an art or an aesthetic that you eat with your eyes; for me the most important thing is flavor, this is what I stand for. I also give a lot of importance to textures that can boost flavor. But I do not let myself surrender to techniques, although there is some temptation, especially for young cooks, to try to make the techniques drown out the ingredients and the dish itself, doing this to show more technique or knowledge, then we forget what is really important. I close my eyes and taste a dish, and what excites me, or not, is the flavor and the texture. It’s a bit different when it comes to techniques, but they have to be used well.
Maré is your newest project. Is it challenging because it’s so big?
Yes, but we are used to Bairro, with 150 seats with several concepts with a joint production kitchen. Maré, in Guincho, has about two hundred seats, although we are operating with 150; there is a closed terrace because it is windier. It’s a huge challenge. It’s also a place very close to where I was born, and there are many people I’ve always known who go there, so the symbolic charge is greater. We are very happy with the result, there are several very positive opinions, there is always something to improve, but, on the whole, it is positive.
A different concept has recently emerged in the middle of the Alentejo.
Casa Nossa is indeed a project a little different from anything we have done before. It is a house in an Alentejo estate, near Monsaraz, very exclusive and with total privacy, available for full board renting. It also has the particularity of having a showroom that can be used for presentations, which is great for companies. There are two swimming pools and direct access to the Alqueva lake, with a small river beach and private mooring for water sports. It’s great for groups of friends or private events.