How This Lisbon Chef Built a Restaurant Empire That Makes People Literally Weep
“At Belcanto, people start to cry because they get emotional about a dish,” says José Avillez, the first Portuguese chef to earn a restaurant two Michelin stars. “The first time that happened, it was strange because you get scared that something is wrong.”
Lisbon, the oldest city in Western Europe, is pieced together by steep hills and narrow streets, making you deeply regret that croissant you had for breakfast. The unavoidable cardio of navigating the city, however, does not deter José Avillez from regularly visiting his six restaurants spread across Lisbon. “I work very hard not to fail,” he says.
Avillez is the chef and owner of Belcanto, the first Portuguese restaurant to earn two Michelin stars. Belcanto opened in January 2012 with a staff of 12 people, and after just eight months, Avillez earned its first Michelin star, and in 2014, its second. His staff has grown from 12 to 320, serving 45,000 meals a month. There are 25 cooks for 30 seats—meaning diners get more attention than students at small liberal arts colleges. Despite the massive growth of his six restaurants and the hectic task of managing them, Avillez stays focused on the singularity of each dining experience. Sometimes this means making people cry.
“At Belcanto, people start to cry because they get emotional about a dish,” says Avillez. “The first time that happened, it was strange because you get scared that something is wrong.”
Avillez’s path to culinary renown mimics the unpredictability of Lisbon streets. In college, he studied architecture, then switched to business and communications. When he realized that he wanted to be a chef at age twenty, his only prior experience had been baking cookies to sell with his sister at age ten. While he never attended culinary school, he finagled his way into training at Ferran Adrià’s iconic El Bulli, located in Roses, a village overlooking Catalonia’s Costa Brava. Here, his perspective on food shifted.
“Classical French cuisine told us to follow certain rules and techniques, but Ferran did something different with his ingredients,” says Avillez. “For example, a strawberry now in May or June is very good, but one month ago, it is still green or white. If you pick up a strawberry like that and make a pickle—in a different phase of its life—it’s a whole new ingredient.”
Avillez’s birthplace of Cascais, a seaside village twenty minutes from Lisbon, will always serve as his primary inspiration.
“What we do now is about what we did since we were kids,” he says. “Our first soup, the first time we went to the beach. But the food is about my life. It’s the Portuguese gastronomy, the soul, the landscape, traditions and customs.”
Take Avillez’s course “Dip in the Sea” (a sea bass with seaweed and bivalves,) Portuguese pot-au-feu and Abade de Priscos pudding with pork greaves, raspberry and wasabi sorbet.
“Now it’s easy to go around and try the same food everywhere, so I think people come here to understand modern Portuguese cuisine,” says Avillez. “I saw a Brazilian woman posted on Instagram a few weeks ago, ‘I understood Portugal after going to Belcanto.’ That is a great compliment because it’s what we try to do: to travel around Portugal and have guests understand our culture.”
I join Avillez one night as he makes the rounds, hiking up and down Lisbon’s old streets. We visit Cantinho do Avillez, a relaxed space influenced by his travels, serving globally-minded dishes like giant red shrimps from the Algarve with Thai sauce, meatballs with green curry and steak tartare with “NY-style potatoes.” We are soon off to Bairro do Avillez, a deceivingly spacious venue where you can buy local delicacies from the mercearia.
As we move towards the back of the restaurant, the space transforms, each room offering its own décor, energy and menu. If you look up, you can see an empty balcony filled with tables; here, Avillez will serve a Peruvian menu starting next week. With the success of Belcanto, Avillez feels he can take more risks.
“When I started in 2007, this kind of modern Portuguese cuisine almost didn’t exist,” he says. “It was quite difficult for me at first because people would say, ‘This is not Portuguese.’ The Michelin star is a great responsibility, but it’s very good for us to grow.”
In the very back of Bairro do Avillez, past the wooden door and black velvet curtain, there is an intimate, low-lit room dedicated to cabaret. The space was once an 11th-century chapel of the Trindade Convent. Suddenly, we’re in Beco, Avillez’s newest restaurant. A woman in a satin corset sings, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” while customers are served sorbet in the shape of diamonds. There is a drink called “Narcissus” that is served on a mirror.
Over dinner, I am taught the Portuguese word saudade, which is a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing, often brought on by listening to fado, Portuguese music. It was only as I found my way home that I finally understood saudade. I already longed to be back in Beco, sipping cocktails in an old convent, but even more so, I longed for another meal by Avillez.