‘Creating something new, while at the same time respecting traditions’
Star Portuguese chef José Avillez talks about the word ‘respect’ – a word that rarely appears in the culinary lexicon – about cooking with his nanny, and also tells us why exactly Japan is called Japan.
Photo by Manfred Klimek
DW: José Avillez, you are a famous chef and are viewed as a role model on the Portuguese culinary scene, in that you teach and advocate a vibrant, regenerative and reawakened style of cooking. What would you recommend for young Portuguese chefs? What ought they to pay attention to?
JA: This question has been posed to me quite often in recent days... Now, in Portugal we have centuries of living culinary tradition. Admittedly, we are a small country, but we have many diverse regional styles of cooking, and marvellous foodstuffs. If you, for example, travel to the Alentejo, or down to the Algarve, the food there tastes totally different. There are only a few countries where this is the case.
The wide-ranging wealth we have of products, techniques, recipes and traditions – all of this must be explored, and must be respected. I think that we are now creating a New Portuguese Cuisine in our restaurants, but our style of cookery cannot and should not merely be a note-for-note retrieval of traditional Portuguese cookery. My team and I are of course inspired by the traditional recipes and the individuals who created these recipes. But we are not those people.
DW: Why no objective retrieval and restoration of traditional Portuguese cuisine?
JA: This is best expressed with an anecdote: few are aware of this, but Portugal’s sweet dishes have their roots in the country’s convents and cloisters. Why was this? A simple and astonishing answer: the nuns wanted to find a use for egg yolks, because the padres needed just the whites for starching their collars. So the sisters made desserts from the yolks. And since there were no refrigerators at that time, they used a great deal of sugar as a preservative – for two dozen egg yolks, about a kilogramme of sugar. Today we can leave out more than thirty per cent of the sugar, and the recipe works better than it did then. So we are making something new, while respecting the traditions.
DW: You speak frequently about respect. This is a word one does not hear all that often in cooking and gastronomy.
JA: I think that respect is not only important, it is essential. Respect for traditions, and respect for the diners. Since we started with our restaurants five years ago, guests are content with paying more than 200 Euros for the tasting menu. That is still unusual for Portugal, but it makes it possible for us to put all of our culinary projects into practice.
DW: And your international guests are very important in this regard, no?
JA: If I had no guests from foreign countries, I could just as well close down my restaurants. And it is not only about the proportion of international visitors, but also about how much these folks are willing to spend. Diners from northern Europe are content to spend substantially more money on the meal. As well as more money for wine. Their gastronomic aesthetics function at a different level, based on a higher standard of income.
DW: Do your international guests influence your approach to Portuguese cuisine?
JA: We don’t adjust our style of cookery with the thought of reaching more Portuguese natives or more international visitors. But sometimes clarifications become necessary. Above all with the traditional Cozinha Portuguesa, traditional Portuguese cuisine, which a diner from another land might not be familiar with. This is primarily the case with family-style dishes, which we serve on large platters to be shared by everybody at the table. These are the dishes that awaken memories. And for a diner from outside Portugal, it is occasionally difficult to communicate, because (s)he does not have the same memories and associations as we do. But with native Portuguese diners, it has a couple times happened that they’ve broken into tears at the table, because we served them a dish that tasted just like it did when Grandma made it – understandably an emotional matter. But many nations share these or similar emotions connected with food and drink. And for this reason I believe that our traditional Portuguese cuisine communicates with the foreign guest in a way that their soul as well will be moved.
DW: What’s your take on the various basic products and ingredients?
JA: I like – as do all Portuguese – all sorts of organ meats and offal. For some international guests this raises a big red flag.
DW: Many Portuguese live abroad. Just like the Italians. So why has Portuguese cuisine not yet attained an image as prestigious as that of the Italian? Do the Portuguese cook only for their own cultural community?
JA: Well, first one has to realise that there are ten times as many Italians in the world as there are Portuguese. I think, however, that the essential difference has been and remains that the products associated with Italian cookery are available all over the world. And this is true precisely because there are so many more Italians. In my opinion, it is more a question of the export possibilities, and the major brands one encounters all over the world. And in addition, we Portuguese are very proud of what we do, but we are just not good salesmen.
DW: What do you think of the Alentejo and its regional cuisine?
JA: The Alentejo is one of my favourite corners of culinary Portugal, because the region is certainly very rich in gastronomic tradition. But the Alentejo is very unique – it is always dry and the soil does not contain a great deal of nutrients. So the natives there, out of necessity, created many various dishes with only maybe two or three ingredients. Like with bread, garlic, coriander or pennyroyal. Out of this dearth of basic product they have managed to come up with more than two hundred different dishes. A bit of dried codfish here, a little chouriço there... You’ve got to make it with what you got.
When a pig is slaughtered, virtually every part of the animal will be utilised. Including the ears, the snout and the blood. Or another example from the Alentejo – from all of Portugal – we have the world’s best fresh fish in the waters off our coasts. But what do we eat? Salted cod. We call the cod our true friend, because it is always available, and always affordable. Every home out in the country in the Alentejo – and not only there – had in earlier times before the advent of refrigeration one or two dried codfish hanging in a cool place. And that for six to eight months.
JA: And here I’ve got another little anecdote for you: centuries ago, at the time of the great seafaring explorers, many of the mariners and captains came from the Alentejo. And when they boarded the ships to sail across the oceans, they took everything with them to bake bread on board – because there was no bread to be found anywhere else. But when they finally arrived in Japan, according to legend, somebody was heard to exclaim Já pão! which means ‘they’ve got bread’. And thus the name Japan comes from this Já pão. I will admit to a certain degree of uncertainty, whether this is true or not, but it is a good story...
DW: You know the culinary traditions of your country very well. When did you begin cooking? At home? With your mother?
JA: I grew up in an upper middle-class family in the Cascais region. My mother did not enjoy cooking, but I always loved to cook with my grandmother. My father was also happy in the kitchen, and he was a hunter. Unfortunately, he died when I was six years old, but then there was also my old nursemaid, my nanny, who loved to cook. And since she had been my father’s nursemaid as well she knew all of the traditional dishes.
DW: At what point did you decide to become a chef? In an upper middle-class household it is somewhat unusual to choose a non-academic profession.
JA: This is true. And the inspiration came late as well. Actually, I first wanted to study architecture. It wasn’t until I had turned twenty-one that I began to consider becoming a chef. And at first I could not mention this to my mother; she would’ve said I was crazy, because back then the culinary profession did not have a good reputation. This has changed considerably; there is a true foodie-culture, and not just in Portugal. Today people have become aware that the way one eats is another aspect of culture in the larger sense. And one approaches other nations via their culinary cultures.
DW: In closing, one more question, about the Mediterranean influence on Portugal. Where does one observe the Mediterranean lifestyle in Portugal, and primarily in the Alentejo?
JA: You’ve just got to look around you. Our coastline is all on the Atlantic, but 95% of our climate is Mediterranean, and as a result, bread, olives and wine are most important foodstuffs.
DW: And coriander? Simply the most typical Portuguese herb?
JA: Coriander – or cilantro if you’re speaking American – is indeed very popular. But this is not true all over Portugal. Nobody in Oporto would use coriander leaves in their dinner as a regular thing. But it is a typical Alentejano ingredient. That is the fascinating and exciting thing about Portuguese cuisine – you can drive six hours in the car, and every sixty miles you find a different style of cooking.
Interview by Daniela Wiebogen.