Things were looking bright for José Avillez six years ago. He had been through two life-changing experiences first as a trainee at Ferran Adria’s legendary restaurant el Bulli and then clinching a Michelin star at the oldest and most prestigious Lisbon restaurant. The opening of Belcanto was the culmination of a journey that had seen him move from a business management degree to cooking. The restaurant was fully booked in the first few weeks for lunch and dinner.
José’s idea was to serve contemporary Portuguese cuisine, something that at the time was not common in Portugal at the time. People were asking him to serve classics but he had other ideas.
Then disaster struck. The financial crisis struck in Portugal and it threatened to bring everything down. “I was extremely worried because I had invested a lot into this restaurant. We stayed open and were serving maybe five lunches and 10 to 15 dinners. There were days we were serving no lunches and maybe 5 dinners. I started to get worried,” José told Food and Wine Gazette.
Unknown to him or any member of his team, a diner among these few people changed the fortunes of José and his restaurant. “One day we had a guest for lunch and we did not know who he was. It happened to be Frank Bruni of the New York Times. He wrote an article saying this was the future of Portuguese cuisine and raved about the restaurant. We started to receive emails, calls. The next week we were fully booked for lunch and dinner. 95% of people had reserved a table because of that article and it stayed like this for 6 months.”
The Portuguese chef had experienced the power of the media but also how crisis could be beneficial for entrepreneurs who have vision, persistence and are convinced about what they are doing. Today, the Portuguese chef employs over 500 people, has 15 restaurants in Lisbon with a first outpost outside Portugal set to open in Dubai later this year. Belcanto, his flagship restaurant is 85th on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
He says that the crisis served as an opportunity for the growth of his restaurant group because costs were low, rents were low giving him the possibility to invest at the best possible time.
He stumbled upon cooking by chance in his first year at university where he was studying a Business Management degree. He never dreamt of being a chef, he didn’t even know he wanted to be one. He had been studying art with the hope of becoming an architect and then changed to take a business management degree. In his first year, he started to take an interest in wine tasting, then pairing food with wine and started to invite his friends around to try his food and wine pairings. “It was only at this point that I really started to think that cooking was something I wanted to do more and more,” he said.
At the age of 20 he asked himself ‘what if I become a chef’
At the age of 20 he asked himself ‘what if I become a chef’. “There was nothing in Portugal at the time. We had women cooking on TV, my grandmother used to cook but my mother never cooked. I did not have any contact with people in the industry. I did not know the profession of a chef so it was hard as a teenager to decide what I wanted to do.”
He met one of the most influential authors of Portuguese traditional food by a stroke of luck (his uncle happened to know her). “He organised a meeting for me. I told her about my idea to pair food with wine and told her I wanted to be a cook. She encouraged me by telling me this was an amazing profession and after that I thought that this would be possible,” José told Food and Wine Gazette.
He was recently in Brussels, Belgium as guest of Christophe Hardiquest’s Bon Bon where he cooked with the Belgian chef at the second BON BON ORIGINS dinner.
“I had never been to cooking school. I tried to do some internships first in Portugal and then in France, Spain and Brazil and after a few years I opened my first restaurant thinking I knew a lot when in fact I knew nothing. I had to learn very fast because the door was open and people were coming in fast. I was very busy every day. From here I started to become more and more passionate about food though I also love the business side of food,” he said.
Some might consider not going to culinary school as a disadvantage but José does not see it this way. “My background has helped me a lot. If I had the opportunity to go back, I would not change anything, maybe just a few small things here and there. Studying for a business degree was extremely important as was having mentors from around the world because these opened new horizons and helped me connect everything. I don’t think I would go to cooking school if I had the option but I might have wanted to work with more chefs before opening the restaurant,” he said.
Despite not having any background in cooking, José still managed to secure a traineeship at el Bulli which he considers to have been life-changing for him. So how did he manage to get in when everyone knows how fierce the competition was, I ask him? “I was not accepted when I applied the first time. In the second year they called me. There was a Spanish critic who knew me and called Ferran and told him there is this nice guy who is also a good cook and suggested that Ferran calls me. I think I ended up at el Bulli because of this phone call. I went there and there were 56 interns from around 30 different countries and stayed for three and a half months. At the time I had a business, serving takeaway food so it was quite hard to leave that as I had 12 people working for me at the time.”
‘el Bulli was a life changing experience. It was hard, very intense but I learnt a lot’
José said the experience at el Bulli was life changing not just because he was able to learn to think outside the box and question everything but also because of the connections he made with other cooks from all other countries. “I have opened a Peruvian restaurant in Portugal with someone I worked with at el Bulli. I keep in touch with at least 10 cooks who were there at the time as well as Albert Adria. I learned at lot at el Bulli. It was a very important experience for me. It was hard, very intense because the service was 6 hours non stop and in total 1,600 dishes went out of the kitchen. It is a life changing experience,” he said.
On his return to Lisbon, he was offered the opportunity to work in one of the oldest restaurants in the world and one of the most prestigious in Portugal. In one and a half years he managed to clinch a Michelin star and that also turned out to be life changing. “When I was there I was trying to introduce Portuguese contemporary cuisine but clients wanted traditional food. They were coming to restaurant and telling me to bring them the cod, this or that. I had to change that and it was only after the star that people started to accept change. He stayed there for 3 years before opening his restaurant Belcanto, follwed by the other more casual restaurants he opened since then.
Two years ago, José invested further in Belcanto, increasing the size of the kitchen, decreasing the number of covers to 30. “We are fully booked every day and we have 35 people working in the restaurant. I am very happy, we have improved a lot but I think we can still improve,” he said.
José is not just known for his creativity but also his business acumen. “Ultimately you are running a business with a lot of people. I also like to do simple, casual types of food. It should be possible for people to enjoy a great meal from EUR 10. If you have good ingredients and use good technique and take care of your guests, they can have a great time. Creativity in this business is not just about new dishes,” he said.
Many of his restaurants started from the desire to create new dishes at his fine dining restaurant. “I wanted to cook stews, serve wraps, sandwiches, grilled fish or lobster but I couldn’t do it at Belcanto. During the crisis there were lots of opportunities and now that we are coming out of the crisis, we get proposals to open more restaurants. We have 15 restaurants and I don’t know how that happened. We will be opening more over the next 3 and a half years.”
He attributes the reason to his success to his staff. “Many have been with me for more than 12 years and have worked on all the projects we started together. My right hand man has been with me for 10 years. This is a good sign. Growing the business also helps their growth because they can start to develop projects, have their own ideas.”
José said the business was bigger today but it was also much easier to run than it used to be. “I am older now so I cannot do what I used to do 10 years ago spending two or three days not sleeping if I was busy. Today, I need to rest, I have children and that has also changed the way I look at things.”
He draws inspiration from Portuguese culture. “I am not a fundamentalist when it comes to produce. Sometimes I use some flavours from Asia but the bulk (95 per cent) has to be local.” He says Portuguese cuisine is influenced by culture, singers and artists. “Portugal had conquered many countries in the past taking food to Japan, desserts to Thailand. They’ve also brought home lots of influence from India, Africa, North, Central and South America. 400 years ago we did not have potatoes or beans, now they are a part of our food history,” he said.
Tradition is important but what you create today can be traditional in 100 years.
“As a Portuguese chef, I can create something that in 100 years could be traditional. Tradition is important but you can also create new traditions.”
He believes the biggest weapon a cook has is his memory. “If you do not have the memory you cannot create something new. If you have to try every ingredient before you use it, it becomes impossible. Today, i can create a dish in my head and I don’t even need to taste it to know whether it will work or not.
He is of the view that storytelling is also important when it comes to memories. Are these being lost today now that we are not cooking so much, I ask him. “There is a problem but I think it was worse a few years ago. Today, it is trendy for people to watch TV programmes like Masterchef and people start to take an interest in cooking at home. So it is better than it was a few years ago but we are losing traditions,” he said.
That is not necessarily bad according to him. “Most of the old dishes in Portugal and anywhere else in the world were created because of necessity. Fish was cured with salt, sundried, preserved in vinegar or olive oil because there were no fridges in homes. It was not for flavour but rather to preserve the fish. There are old recipes from Paris which combine fish with vinegar and you need to understand why. The reason is simple. When the fish was not fresh, people needed to disguise the flavour. The classic Portuguese recipe of cooking clams with cilantro and garlic takes less than a minute today. But the classic recipe tells you to cook the clams for 15 minutes. The only reason is that they needed to boil them to kill the germs since they were not fresh. It is extremely important that we understand these changes and to also change with the times. You cannot be stuck in the past saying that your grandmother or mother did it differently.
The fact that he is not classically trained may be a bit easier but he believes that ultimately it is about questioning everything. “You first need to question and then decide whether you want to change something or not. At el Bulli, Ferran was copying French chefs for 10, 12 years. Then one day he used cilantro instead of parsley and that was the start of a disruption that is still being felt today. Even older chefs would go to el Bulli for a week each year to learn new techniques. Ferran wanted to do new things and was not afraid of breaking some rules. Just because the French said this was the way it was done does not mean that you should follow them. You need to ask why?”
Creativity started with technology. Technology gave chefs the time to think and to create.
José believes that creativity started thanks to technology. “When you had a wood oven, you needed to go to the forest to pick up the wood, go to the market to choose the food, start to cook, clean everything and then prepare the dinner. With that sort of work, you could not be creative. Having gas, electricity, sous-vide and other technologies meant you could relax and think of new ideas. It is important to understand this. Creation did not come about from one day to the next. Chefs have been trying to do different things. In the first few years, René Redzepi and Massimo Bottura struggled. But the world has changed and they have helped change it. People are more willing to try new things, the economy is better and that is why Portuguese cuisine is also better. It is not possible to have a great restaurant without guests. And you need local guests. If a country is not doing well you cannot have fun when people are sad.
Six years down the line, José is riding the crest of the wave. Like other chefs, he also thinks of a three Michelin star even though it is he who speaks about it. “If I don’t mention it, you will ask me,” he said.
But his focus is to maintain his team, to grow stronger and improve one step at a time. “I would like to have a bakery and develop our work at Belcanto. For sure, if I look at the 10th anniversary I don’t want it to be worse than it is today. I don’t think we can do much better to improve the guest experience. There are a few touches we can add like serving a hot napkin or warming jackets in winter but these are minor details. As for the food, I don’t think we can serve better food. I think we can do it differently,” he said.