Culinary Journeys

Meet the chef shaking up Portuguese food

John Krich, for CNNUpdated 16th March 2017
Lisbon, Portugal (CNN) — All around the historic center of Lisbon, there are dozens of "tascas" -- traditional hole-in-the-wall taverns lined with flowery patterns of blue tile.
Each offers a nearly identical menu of salted codfish or sardines and boiled potatoes, strong Douro wine and ultra-sweet puddings that symbolize Portugal for visitors.
But there's only one place to sample an edible "stone" made of codfish. Or liver mousse, or a flower-garlanded "bouquet" of tuna from the Azores, butter flavored with a popular local sausage, sea barnacles combined with pickled strawberry. Or a hearty Portuguese cozido stew reduced to a single cabbage leaf and paste essence.
That's because there's only one Jose Avillez.

Breaking traditions

In a cozy country where one man can still make a difference -- Portugal may be 10 centuries old but its population is barely 10 million -- this one chef is the main force in redefining his homeland's cuisine.
Avillez, 37, is the creator of Belcanto, the first Lisbon restaurant to earn two Michelin stars.
In Portugal, he's almost omnipresent, thanks to his six restaurants, four cookbooks, daily tips on radio and a popular TV series.
"Sometimes I wish I was alone cooking in a kitchen no one knows about," he tells CNN. "But friends keep telling me to keep going because I am the person who can do this."
With a dark beard and sculpted face reminiscent of Portugal's seagoing navigators, he's singlehandedly steering Portugal's tradition-bound cuisine toward its rightful place in modern-day haute cuisine.
"Our ancestors traveled all over the globe," says Avillez. "Now it's our turn to present the new gastronomic face of our country to the world."
While driven by pride in a rich, Mediterranean cuisine that he terms "still very underrated," Avillez is well aware that Portugal's experimentation and image lag far behind that of the country's larger neighbor, Spain.

Family disappointment

To gain inspiration, the young chef interned for a season at El Bulli, the restaurant near Barcelona that began the culinary revolution in so-called "molecular" cuisine.
"That's where I really started thinking out of the box," he says.
"When I began my career 16 years back, having earned a degree in business management, no one in my family wanted me to become a chef.
"The profession was looked down upon, with little status, no celebrity."
Avillez, whose family can trace roots back to nobility, was raised in Cascais, a picturesque port town turned resort along the Atlantic coast an hour from Lisbon, now a popular choice for Americans in retirement.
Here Avillez was exposed to the sights, sounds and especially the flavors of the sea at an early age.
No wonder Belcanto's menu is 70% local seafood -- which the chef declares "the best in the world" -- and features signature dishes like "A Dip in the Sea" and "The Bottom of the Ocean."

Food that tells a story

"Whether it draws on memory or landscape, every dish should tell a story," Avillez explains. "Just the way a painting tells a story too."
So his tasting menus are titled "Lisbon Menu" and "The Discoveries" -- referring to both Portugal's seafaring explorations and the many new tastes showcased here.
From the special new vantage point of a small "chef's table" lodged in a back corner of Belcanto's kitchen, diners can see how Avillez runs a very tight ship.
Closed-circuit TV shots of various kitchen stations are provided to follow the chopping and assembling action.
"What's most important is to respect your guests and respect your own vision by maintaining things at the highest possible level," he says.
To that end, Avillez has established a lab for new creations and a farm of his own on the outskirts of Cascais.

'Flavor comes first'

Belcanto Portugal food
Some 70% of Belcanto's menu consists of seafood sourced locally.
courtesy Nuno Correia
"The connection with Portuguese suppliers is always inspiring," he adds.
"But I don't think it's right to get fundamentalist about buying everything local. Flavor comes first."
At Belcanto, he more than proves the point with his modern cabidela, a peasant dish reinterpreted as a wreath of softened oxtail, chockful with smoked eel, and dressed in a beet sauce instead of blood.
Or the illusion of a clove of garlic that splits open to spill out almond milk.
He's especially proud of a humble xerem, a traditional corn porridge, transformed by an herbal sauce, clams and fish tripe.
"As Ferran Adria taught us at El Bulli, a fresh sardine is far better than an old lobster."
While he'll make more traditional dishes on request, and features them at the nearby Cantinho do Avillez and his other more casual outlets, his chefs seems eager to evolve further to feature the entire range of Portuguese ingredients.
Belcanto Portugal food
Belcanto's "The Bottom of the Ocean" dish.
courtesy Paulo Barata
"While we think of them as our own, Portuguese food is informed by North African spices, the foods of our former colonies in Asia and Africa -- and we were the gateway for tomatoes and peppers from the New World."
Now, thanks to Avillez, tourists can explore all of this heritage in a single meal.
"To think that people come here for a honeymoon or cross 10,000 miles for my food while I am promoting my city and country -- that's really beautiful."
No matter if the meticulously miniaturized presentation looks more Japanese than European.
With Jose Avillez at the helm, he can guarantee "there's Portuguese DNA. in every bite, a Portuguese soul in every plate."