Rui Paula

rui paula - 7Gastronomy is increasingly gaining fans, from housewives trying to improve and vary their same old recipes, to foodies and, consequently, young people trying to be like the famous chefs. One of those chefs is Rui Paula, for sure, a charismatic figure that won the Portuguese love when being a jury in the television hit, MasterChef. Winner of the Chef of the Year award in 2014, at the “Flavors & Senses – The Best for 2014”, he’s influenced by his roots and memories of traditional flavors, which nowadays he tries to recreate with other clothing and technique.

We went to know him better at his latest restaurant, Casa de Chá da Boa Nova and talk a bit about tradition, cuisine and future.

With origins in Douro and Trás-os-Montes, the cuisine was always a part of your life?
I was born in Porto, but indeed my entire family comes from Douro, and there I opened my first restaurant, there I have all my roots. I grew up watching my grandmother cook and from there I bring the biggest memories of flavor. So yes, it was always a part of my life, of course, and will always be.

What was the turning point on deciding to become a Chef? How did that happen?
I opened my first restaurant, Cêpa Torta, in Alijó, being a bit of everything, in the kitchen I had an employee of my grandmother and myself, with my little knowledge about what was a restaurant and its management. We did traditional cuisine, which was what we knew, but, above all, good. After 3 years the restaurant began to be in high demand, and it was then, seeing the client’s satisfaction that I decided I really had to embrace that career, because indeed the cuisine and the restaurant business has much more science than it seems. It was in that moment I thought if I wanted to evolve I had to start seeing other things, know and learn the techniques, so I said to myself there was only one solution, go to kitchens where people were more advanced than me, and I started to do some internships, both in Portugal and abroad.

In fact, your career is somewhat atypical, rare are the chefs starting in a traditional cuisine and then improving it to a more contemporary and avant-garde cuisine. What made you do that change?
It was the always wanting to know more, and also the different concepts with which we are working in our restaurants. When I opened DOC I wanted to give a different clothing and presentation, more careful, to the yet typical dishes of the region, like the alheira samosa. When I wanted to open a restaurant in Porto, it had to be different! Today we have three restaurants, and given the concept I work with I cannot have three equal restaurants, and once I don’t want to enter the line of sandwiches, hamburgers and tappas restaurants, that are so in fashion now, I decided to focus on what I could do and increasingly improve the technique and the visual so that people would feel an evolution when they looked at the dishes, but never losing the nature of the flavor, that is the brand of my cuisine.

rui paula - 2And how does your creative process work?
Today, the creative process goes through several phases, from the lack of inspiration (laughs) to an exhaustive search, lots of research, some headaches and also some sleepless nights. For example, the Azores Squid (dish of the menu at Boa Nova) took almost two and a half months to create, this because I like my dishes to have that different technical mark, but also when people taste them, they feel delighted – and that’s the hardest part! To sum up, the most important is the flavor, visually it has to be very appealing and all the technique has also got to be there.

Fortunately, nowadays, it’s not just me creating the dishes, we have a few more people thinking and creating, who besides the hard work from the daily life of a kitchen, also go home to research, study and even dream with new things.

It’s also a way to stimulate the team!
Yes, it’s an incentive for them, and it’s also a part of the process of their education and evolution as professionals. It’s also not just me going out, we visit many restaurants around the world and some people leave to do internships. In the end, it all comes together for the creative process.

And what about your inspirations?
My inspiration is the Portuguese cuisine, and essentially its flavor! Then in terms of technique is the French cuisine and the Spanish avant-garde. I‘m essentially looking to recreate Portuguese flavors with different techniques.

rui paula - 4What dish gave you the most pleasure to create?
Until today it was exactly the one we talked about, the Azores Squid, mostly because it centers everything in the dish, the beauty and the flavor in a particular way.

And your favorite dish?
I really like Octopus fillets with octopus rice accompanied with stewed cabbage.

Your career has been marked by an almost constant presence in Television, what importance do you give to that?
That’s not totally true! I have a career with around twenty years and television appeared with the show Praça da Alegria, seven years ago, with a weekly presence, short after opening DOC. Now, of course is very significant, especially when doing good things like MasterChef, which is the highest point of my television presence and it is in fact a good show, with a huge production, around 100 people working on a daily basis.

And of course, television helped me getting known, not so much in terms of people coming to my restaurants, but for the recognition of knowing I’m a chef with a solid career, talking about me and even for the consolidation of the name Rui Paula.

DOC, DOP, Brazil, Vidago Palace and now Casa de Chá da Boa Nova, how’s it like managing all these kitchens?
That’s the worst part! Well, at DOC, DOP and Casa the Chá, I have my wife in one, my brother in the other and I spend the most time in the last one, although of course circulating by all the kitchens. Right now we are around 60 people in the company, some are with me for 8/9 years, both in the kitchen, the dining room, and only with lots of confidence in these people it is possible to manage and control all our restaurants with a very positive balance. The chefs in Brazil also work with me for many years now and only that way you can be associated with a restaurant outside our country. At Vidago it works kind of the same way, with some rotation of the team, for being a Hotel.

Not everything is wonderful, and all this is only possible when there’s total commitment to the goal, many times over family and friends. It must in fact be, above all, much in love with what you’re doing.

rui paula - 1Speaking about this last space, Casa de Chá da Boa Nova, is the Michelin star the biggest goal?
I would honestly love to have it. First because I think we’re doing a good job, I don’t feel any big flaws, on the contrary, we have everything well organized, a quiet service, without stress, a magnificent landscape and in the kitchen we work with the best ingredients and always fresh produce. Secondly, because Casa de Chá is far, not in the center of Porto and I think that helps us accomplish a few more goals. But, obviously, I can’t be working and thinking about that, I’ll continue to do what I know, flawlessly, not least because our prices are already star prices and our clients don’t allow us any mistakes. Now I can’t give a star to myself, let’s wait and see what the future brings. In the meantime I continue to work for my clients, because they’re the most important, giving them the max in food and the max in service.

How do you see yourself in 10 years?
I see myself working! I can’t see myself any other way. I already took the foot of the accelerator in many things and I won’t certainly open any more restaurants and that’s saying a lot. Partnerships and consultancies like Vidago or Brazil may not be out of the picture, but the most important is to focus the maximum in this project that is Casa de Chá.

And an advice to the young people who dream of becoming Chefs?
That they don’t want to be Adriá, nor Avillez, nor Rui Paula; the best is to not think that way. First you have to know how to do good tomato rice and then you have to know how to lead a team, know what’s like to deal with people, to buy products and gain a profound memory of flavors. So, the best advice I can give is to focus, do all that job, taste well the food and after knowing all that, lots of sacrifice spirit and going to a good restaurant to learn everything, from shopping, to the products used, the concepts and the restaurant’s own way of working – and this takes time! You have to be cooks before being chefs and only then create your own identity.

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 Versão Portuguesa

Photos: Flavors & Senses

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