José Avillez

Some people dream, others create and other people do, and then there are geniuses who reunite all these features. José Avillez is one of those genius figures with all things necessary to success. He is a hard worker, communicator, humble, and above all he lives with great passion and intensity, because unlike Fernando Pessoa says, dreaming isn’t enough for the deed to be born.

We met him at his new restaurant, the Cantinho do Avillez, in Porto, the first one outside his “Kingdom” in Chiado (Lisbon) and the sixth one in just 3 years.

From an internship at Fortaleza do Guincho to the first Michelin star at the age of 29, just over 13 years have passed, how do you look at that time?
I look at the past thinking it was all very fast and intense. Some years I just forgot they’ve passed, with a whirlwind of things happening at the same time. I met some people at the time and nowadays I’m not sure if I know them or not. But I look at that time with joy, feeling all of it was worthy, even because sometimes between being successful or not, the work does not differ much and many times people work the same and don’t succeed. So I thank those I have to thank, to the luck and some other factors responsible for us being successful.

Three years have passed since the opening of the 1st Cantinho do Avillez to which followed another five restaurants and a Michelin star. Wasn’t it all too fast?
It was. If 3 years ago a prophet told me I would open 6 restaurants in 3 years, I would say he was a bad prophet, because he wasn’t guessing anything right. In fact I didn’t think it was even possible, because I know the work everything involves. But it happened… fortunately things went pretty well, 3 years ago we were 17 people working at the company, nowadays we’re 138 and things work with, for example, Cantinho being a success since the first day, and Belcanto, in which it takes some time in advance to make a reservation.

With all the work, all the dedication, with the family being a little left for second plan and friends almost leaving to be present, the cuisine must really be a big Passion…
It is a big passion, yes, that was born with my pleasure for eating. It is my own demand to do good and wanting to do better, it is a great responsibility and above all a commitment I live with great Passion.

And that turns out to be a way of motivating the team…
Yes, but in a natural way. The team is the most important in all of this, by the way, I usually say that I’m the locomotive of a series of wagons that follow me and many times the locomotive turns off, simply because I can’t bear it anymore, because I’m tired, and I have these wagons that keep me moving with their strength. Because of that I know that I made many people who are with me grow up. The fact that I’m not always there babysitting causes people to grow up or to leave. And if many fell by the wayside, others grew immensely with the level of the requirements and the intensity of everything happening.

So let’s talk about your inspirations and influences…
I think that this always crosses with the personal course, what I ate since I was born to what I eat today, what I ate at my grandma’s, at my parents, the travels I made, among other things. Everything that is done today is the result of what’s behind, therefore the influence of Maria de Lurdes Modesto ( the Portuguese version of Julia Child) or José Bento dos Santos (most important Portuguese gastronomer), who still being my teachers, are also great friends today. Ferran Adrià probably above all others, for having opened my horizons, for the fact of having lived with him, being side by side and exchanging ideas. But also people I didn’t work with, Andoni (Andoni Aduriz – Mugaritz), Quique Dacosta or Joan Roca, people who, curiously, in a time a needed the most, supported me more than other Portuguese chefs. Also national references like Vítor Sobral, Miguel Castro e Silva or Joaquim Figueiredo, people that made the difference in our restaurants by the time I started. Also Ducasse, because of the perfection and the entrepreneurial side. Reading, I’m very much influenced by what I read, for example I remember reading Soul of a Chef and Making of a Chef  from Michael Ruhlman and I remember those books changed radically my way of seeing things.

All your restaurants have different concepts. How does a creative process that embracing work?
Belcanto is a little the continuation of my work as a chef/author of Tavares. Others are much to the image of what I wish to find in other restaurants, in reality what I’d like to eat when I go out. Every dish is created somewhat based in what I’m in the mood for eating, therefore not having in any menu, a dish I don’t like or don’t enjoy much. I’m far away from having the formulas for guaranteed success, it is a lot of work, a lot of observing the market and see what people are looking for.

How does the trip from Chiado to Porto come up?
The Cantinho do Porto happened much by request of clients that visited us and asked me “so when are you going to Porto?”, people from cities around here, for instance, Aveiro or Guimarães who frequent Porto for eating and who constantly where leaving us messages on Facebook and because we believe the city is in the right phase.

Do you also think Porto is trendy right now?
A lot of people say it is, but I don’t think it is being trendy, people are starting to know Porto, and the city is being fixed up but keeping a different typical look that Lisbon doesn’t have, probably because it’s bigger. There are more tourists and I get it, people are very nice, the food is good and this (Porto) is really beautiful. For me, trends are just for fashion or for those things that miss quality, because when the quality is there, things last.

And this Cantinho do Porto?
The work conditions in this Cantinho do Avillez are much better than the ones in Lisbon, we have a team working with me, in some cases for many years. We’re on a street that is starting to develop, indeed I don’t have any other restaurant with this many people walking by, at all, so I think this has everything to work out fine, keeping humble and listening to people. Gladly we’ve been working very well, we were nicely welcomed by people, since clients to our colleagues.

Porto is a different city from Lisbon, will the city influence the menu? As Lisbon has been doing with the other restaurants?
We started with a similar offer from that we have in Lisbon, because I want to make kind of a stand here, but slowly, and because that’s implicit in the idea of Cantinho, the goal is to adapt a bit to the region. I don’t wanna come here and do the traditional dish Tripas à moda do Porto, but it is possible I’ll do a take of the Tripas, or the Francesinha or the Filetes de Polvo. Influenced by the city but always with a personal touch, with my twist.

If you could choose only a dish that represents this Cantinho?
It is very hard and I’ll tell you why. In Lisbon the “Bacalhau com migas soltas” (Salted Cod) is one of the most emblematic dishes, here it is a dish that divides people. For their experiences and expectations, people expect a more intense dish than the idea of the Bacalhau transmits.
But, for example, I can choose the poultry livers with Port wine jam, the Peixinhos da Horta and the Hamburger. Here in Porto the scallops and the “eat with a spoon” veal have been having a good output.

And in the future will we see other José Avillez restaurants in the city?
(Laughs) It is not foreseen, but I don’t say no, I don’t know… But there are many people saying “I love Cantinho, but you could also bring Mini Bar here”, obviously I’ll never do anything just in that direction, also because there are bills to pay. Above all, we are very focused at Cantinho now.


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