Within a decade, José Avillez has become Portugal’s premier chef and unstoppable entrepreneur.
Within a decade, José Avillez has become Portugal’s premier chef and unstoppable entrepreneur. With 5 restaurants, 2 Michelin stars, cookbooks, wines, TV and radio shows, he is nothing short of an icon within Portugal and in the international culinary community.
José Avillez grew up in Cascais, the breezy, breathtaking town by the sea near Lisbon. His passion for food sprang from his passion for eating. He tells a story of when he was three years old and was supposed to eat gelatin for dessert but couldn’t because it was still liquid and not ready. He went to bed angry and came down to the fridge at 3 o’clock in the morning to eat it, then later had a stomachache and puked.
My mother says I always did that. I came from school, went to the kitchen and tried everything that was being prepared for dinner, so it started with that. And then when I was 6, 7, 8 I started to cook. I woke up at 7 am, 8 am to see the cartoons and I went first to the kitchen to prepare some breakfast. Sometimes the breakfast was like stews from the day before and I changed [it] with something and put some different herbs.
When he was 10 he had a business with his sister in which they would bake cakes and sell them to their friends and family, who he continued to cook for throughout his life. He always had great food growing up and these experiences influence his cooking. “I always had good food in my childhood in Cascais near the sea. But even when I went for a weekend somewhere, I have family in different parts of the country, I always had good food and that’s very important for you to understand what food is about: to cook with your memories. Because you have good memories of food and then you [can] cook with your memories.”
But he didn’t always know he would become a chef. He studied art until 12th grade then went on to university to do a degree in Management and Communications. When he was 20 years old and close to finishing his degree, he made the brave decision to completely change career paths and try to become a chef. “My mother thought that I was crazy…You know 20 years ago in Portugal, to be a cook or chef was not so good…Of course the next one or two years, I had mixed feelings because I had a very hard life. I had my degree already, I had work, [that was] much more quiet and stable…But of course, when I started to be more involved every day I completely fell in love [with] the business…When I entered Fortaleza do Guincho, the first professional kitchen that I worked for, I felt my heart beating fast and I thought that, okay this is it.”
Chef Avillez completed his first traineeship in a professional kitchen, Fortaleza do Guincho, under Antoine Westerman. He went on to do many more studies and traineeships with José Bentos dos Santos, Alain Ducasse and Eric Fretchon at the Bristol Hotel. Then came his 3-month traineeship at elBuilli with Ferran Adría which definitely changed the course of his career.
[elBuilli] was like this life-changing experience for sure…I think I learned how to see more than what’s in front of me. It’s like thinking out of the box. But I learned also the passion that they had for everything they do…The cooks and the chefs there lost 7-8 kilos because they worked like 15 hours a day. Ferran is very, very clever and I think that he’s an artist and he’s a philosopher and also a cook. Maybe one of the most genius, genial people of this century. So it was very, very important for me to be in contact with him and be a part of that team that year.
Upon finishing his traineeship at elBuilli, he was invited to be the Head Chef at Tavares, the oldest fine-dining restaurant in Lisbon. After a little more than a year, Tavares was awarded a Michelin star and then Chef Avillez left to open his own restaurant and enterprise.
Now he has 5 restaurants under his name: 4 in Lisbon’s elegant Chiado district and one in Porto, plus a catering and takeaway service in Cascais. Each restaurant acts as an outlet for different visions, ideas and concepts.
His flagship restaurant in which he spends most of his time in and out of the kitchen, is Belcanto, a high class restaurant distinguished with two Michelin stars. Chef Avillez renovated the original restaurant in Sao Carlos square and reopened it in 2012. In Belcanto, the Chef serves signature gastronomic dishes that demonstrate his creativity along with his Portuguese roots, as each dish expresses a story or a part of history that he wants to share.
Right across the way from Belcanto in the same beautiful and charming Sao Carlos square, is Café Lisboa, where one can have more traditional, everyday Portuguese dishes such as codfish with tomato rice or smoked salmon salad in a bright, classy atmosphere. It’s the perfect place to have a gorgeous lunch or grab a coffee or drinks on the terrace.
Down the street from Sao Carlos square, is Mini Bar, which is a fun, exquisite gourmet bar with a theatrical theme. In a cool, swanky ambience you can enjoy drinks and tasting menus that feature a series of small, bite-sized courses of unpredictable items such as edible balls of Caipirinha and exploding olives.
Along the same street as Mini Bar, there is Cantinho do Avillez, which is a much more casual and informal dining place where guests can experience Portuguese cuisine influenced by the Chef’s travels around the world. Here one can have Algarve shrimps with Thai flavors or lamb tagine with couscous in a cozy, colorful atmosphere. There is a Cantinho do Avillez Porto with the same concept located in the second largest city in Portugal.
If all of that isn’t enough, Chef Avillez also has a brand of wine, JA Wines, which he launched with José Bento dos Santos and Quina do Monte D’Oiro vineyard. This brand includes red, white and rosé, served as the house wine in all of the Chef’s restaurants. He has authored cookbooks, in both Portuguese and English, and has hosted numerous cooking programs on TV. He currently has a radio show every morning where he shares recipes and answers questions from listeners.
With so many ongoing projects, his days can’t help but be long. However, he is constantly creating and innovating new dishes and projects, and it’s advantageous that he has many different outlets to distribute and share his creations.
I do more or less 16 hours a day. I have like 8 hours dedicated to food, to cooking, and 8 hours like managing…I think the creativity part is very important. Because I’m always having ideas about different things, especially about dishes. I have an idea for a dish, for example. And then I think [about] where I can serve this. Now, I could serve this in Belcanto, in Minibar, in Café Lisboa, [or] in different places. Or no, this dish is not going with the positioning of any of these places, so maybe I have to open a new one. Sometimes it happens like this. Or this can go for a book or this can go for a TV show. So I think about new projects normally because I have ideas of different dishes to serve.
To Chef Avillez, Portuguese cuisine and dishes are defined by his country’s historic tradition of exploration and exchange; a tradition that is rooted simultaneously in continuity and change.
Sometimes I do dishes inspired in some Portuguese landscapes. Sometimes I do dishes inspired in the discoveries, Portuguese discoveries from the 16th century. We arrived to Japan, we left the tempura and the castella there. We brought the tomato, the potatoes and the citrus to Europe. So we have influenced a lot of the world…So when I think [of] a dish that I can do, I think about the Portuguese tradition. Where I think that we as a people, we’ve traveled to discover the world, to get to know and to introduce many different things to the world in general. So I think we can still continue to do that…When I travel I bring [back] some influences. I try to leave something there also. So I’m always inspired in what is traditional in Portugal, but understanding that the tradition is also evolution.
This merging of tradition and evolution is most visible in Belcanto, Cantinho do Avillez and Minibar where one will encounter gastronomic dishes with familiar flavors and products combined with unexpected textures and appearances.
By opening multiple eclectic and high quality restaurants in the heart of Lisbon, Chef Avillez is personally spearheading the development of the city’s gastronomic and tourist offerings. “I think it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s a part of my country so I stayed here. Many people suggest to me, especially 5-10 years ago, [that I] go out and open a restaurant outside Portugal…But I decided to stay because I think that we have a lot of potential here. So we can bring foreign people to try our food, to see that the people are very nice, that we sometimes have very good weather and sunshine. And Lisbon for me, it’s natural to be here. It’s a very good place, especially at this moment because it’s growing a lot in tourism. I think it’s still not very well known for its gastronomic scene but it’s starting to be.”
Despite all his professional distinction and widespread recognition, José Avillez remains incredibly down to earth, personable and gracious. His present goals simply revolve around providing good memories for the people who eat his food in his restaurants and sharing a happy life with his family and friends. “Ten years ago I had this dream of opening a very small restaurant next to my house in Cascais and today I have I think a hundred times more than I dreamed of at that time.”
He also hopes that travelers from around the world will get to know Portugal for its cuisine and gastronomy. It is one of the ways he would like to leave his mark on the culinary world. “To try to keep Portugal and Lisbon on the map, the world map of food. And for people to get to know Lisbon also because of the gastronomic value: [for them] to travel to eat our food and not think that we only eat Bacalhau. That we have much more than that.”