JOSÉ AVILLEZ – ONE MAN SHOW
One Man Show
His restaurants are fully booked, his cookbooks bestsellers, his cooking tips extremely popular on radio and television: Portuguese José Avillez combines the talent of a gastro entrepreneur with that of a star chef.
May 2021, Reading time: 12 minutes
José Avillez’s two-star restaurant Belcanto serves a delicate lobster curry, among other dishes. Photo: Boa Onda
“The garden of the goose that laid the golden eggs” has been on the Belcanto menu since 2008 and will likely stay there. “If I remove that appetizer, there will be trouble,” says Chef José Avillez. He knows that many a diner comes to Lisbon’s elegant two-star eatery specifically for the egg cooked at low temperature with mushrooms, breadcrumbs and a gold leaf.
José Avillez is Portugal’s best-known chef. With his striking features, dark beard and agile figure, the 41-year-old looks more like a sailor. However, in fact he was the first Portuguese chef to receive a Michelin star and, until recently, the only one in Lisbon to have two – as recently as 2020, Henrique Sá Pessoa also cooked his way to a second star at his Alma restaurant. In addition: own TV shows, various cookbooks and almost a dozen restaurants. Among them the actually rather small restaurant Mini Bar. On an ordinary evening during the week every table there is occupied. At the bar counter, a group of young people courageously and increasingly cheerfully test their way through various cocktails. As a solid base for the stomach, they order shrimp ceviche, tuna tartare in a nori leaf with spicy soy sauce and beef croquettes with truffle mayo.
Pizzaria Lisboa recently took up residence on the gallery in Bairro do Avillez’s main space.
“People come to buy and because it’s so nice and you get hungry right away, they stay to eat.”
Mini hamburgers at the intimate restaurant Mini Bar.
The eatery is housed in an almost hidden back room of the Bairro do Avillez. Before José Avillez took over the 1,000-square-meter palace in 2016 and set up his “bairro” (neighborhood in Portuguese) in it, an architect’s office resided here, before that a print shop for over 100 years, and even earlier it was part of the Trindade monastery complex. In the entrance area now welcomes the Mercearia, a delicatessen where you can also eat. Showcases display wheels of cheese from the Azores, a variety of sheep’s milk cheeses from Évora, and bowls of fresh goat’s curd from the Douro Valley. Dangling from the ceiling are the famous black “Porco Preto” hams from the Alentejo; old-fashioned-looking shelves hold olive oils, wine bottles, fleur-de-sel, honey and whole stacks of the pretty cans with pickled sardines, anchovies or tuna – all “made in Portugal,” of course. “People actually come to buy, but since it’s so nice and you get hungry right away, they stay to eat,” José Avillez says with a smile. For these guests, a few tables are set up in front of a colorfully tiled wall, where jolly pigs’ heads gaze at a table full of sausages, fish, garlic bulbs and other tasty food. Azulejos (tiles) are part of Portuguese tradition – here they’ve just been interpreted a little differently.
Top: The Páteo restaurant at Bairro do Avillez. Middle: Ceviche of Algarve shrimp at Mini Bar. Bottom: José Avillez with his Manteigaria Silva team. Photos: Paulo Barata (2)
Tradition is very important for José Avillez, but he also loves to play with it. At the Páteo restaurant, located in the glass-roofed brick courtyard of the Bairro do Avillez, belly of tuna is preserved, but then served on a miso sauce with lime and ginger. Octopus salad comes to the table on a kimchi emulsion, and the Portuguese classic bacalhau à bráz, a kind of scrambled egg with cooked cod plucked into pieces, onions, potatoes and parsley, is served with a surprising “exploding olive” instead of banal black olives.
Avillez fans have known it for a long time. The exploding olive is made of pure olive juice wafting in a paper-thin skin of olive jelly that naturally “explodes” when you bite into it. “It’s a tribute to Ferran Adrià,” José Avillez readily admits. He serves it regularly at his Belcanto restaurant, the first and still the most famous of his empire. Belcanto is very Portuguese, very elegant and dignified but at the same time modern, casual, unconventional. Among the bestsellers on the menu is the “Carabineiro com cinzas,” a deep-sea shrimp from the Algarve, so named because its deep red color is reminiscent of the caps worn by the former military police. The head and tail are separated and fried for different lengths of time so that the cooking point is right for both parts. The ash that covers parts of the crustacean is made of rice and cuttlefish ink, which are first cooked together, then mashed, dried, deep-fried, ground and smoked. Also popular is the crispy suckling pig belly, served as a fine and perfectly rectangular slice on a pumpkin-orange puree and with a potato soufflé. Is that Portuguese? Yes, says José Avillez: “In Portugal, carabineiros are simply grilled. With me, the grill flavor comes in the form of ash. Suckling pig with oranges is also a classic. However, suckling pig is usually braised in the oven and served in generous slices. I cook it sous vide and then briefly place it skin side down on a very hot grill plate.”
“My friends tell me to keep going like this. They say I have to because I can. Someone has to do it.”
Like most Portuguese, he believes his country’s cuisine has always been good. It’s just that no one knew that, certainly not abroad. José Avillez has his own explanation, free of any vanity, for the rapid rise of Lisbon’s gastronomic scene. “People know more about our cuisine now,” he says, “Portugal had over 16 million visitors in 2019, which is a good three times as many as ten years ago.” The growing tourism brings money into the country and guests into the restaurants. Above that, more and more Portuguese can afford to eat well, which is why young ambitious chefs now have the necessary funds to invest in qualified staff and expensive ingredients. And they have an audience that takes note of and honors their skills. He himself is no exception: “When I opened my first restaurant in 2012, I didn’t expect that there would eventually be more than ten.”
Portugal is a small country with just over ten million inhabitants. That’s where one person can make a difference. And even though José Avillez would sometimes like to work in a completely unknown restaurant, he knows that’s not possible: “My friends tell me to keep going like this. They say I have to because I can. Someone has to do it.” He uses almost all the possibilities of catering: from starred restaurants to pizzerias and from delicatessens to cabarets. It seems like a well thought-out strategy. No wonder: José Avillez studied business communications and graduated with a thesis on the appearance and identity of Portuguese gastronomy. Still, when he decided to pursue a career as a chef, his family wasn’t thrilled.
“My parents didn’t want me to become a chef,” he recalls, “a chef was looked down upon at the time. A chef, they thought, would not make it in terms of reputation or fame.” One can be so mistaken. José Avillez, in any case, is now an international star, and 2019 he opened his first restaurant abroad. Tasca resides in Dubai’s luxurious Mandarin Oriental, and from there he now promotes the long-underrated Portuguese cuisine, or his version of it.
Small but a real happening: the Mini Bar, well hidden in a back room of Bairro do Avillez.
The Avillez empire at a glance
On the menu at the two-star restaurant are the dishes that made José Avillez famous. Here you’ll find the Golden Egg, the Jump in the Sea, the Carabineiro with Ash and the popular suckling pig. Accompanied by a great wine selection. belcanto.pt
Photo: Boa Onda
Casual as a bar and there’s a DJ, too! The creative and often surprising dishes come to the tables in “petisco” format; you can and may eat almost everything with your fingers. minibar.pt
Photo: Boa Onda
The covered patio at Bairro do Avillez is specialized on fish. Portions are designed so you can order several and share, which makes sense with all the good mussel and seafood dishes. bairrodoavillez.pt
Photo: Bruno Calado
Cheerful and family-friendly, this new pizzeria is situated on the gallery in Bairro do Avillez and serves not only Lisbon’s best pizzas, but also other delicacies from the Mediterranean. Bestsellers include the Pizza Gigi, the mushroom risotto and the perfect tiramisu. pizzarialisboa.pt
Cantinho do Avillez Lisboa/Porto/Cascais
Casual, cool, intimate and with excellent cuisine. You shouldn’t miss the canned tuna with ginger-lime mayo and the octopus with sweet potatoes there. The best accompaniment is the house wine JA, bottled especially for José Avillez, from the vineyards outside Lisbon. cantinhodoavillez.pt
Photo: Nuno Correia
José Avillez’s first restaurant outside Portugal opened in 2019 at the luxurious Mandarin Oriental hotel in Dubai. Located on the sixth floor and offering Cinemascope views of Dubai’s skyline, the restaurant serves Avillez’s best-selling cuisine: Portuguese classics given a modern interpretation. mandarinoriental.com/tasca