"That’s how my Alentejo tastes!"
Alentejo’s top chef José Júlio Vintem talks about how he come to the stove from outside the kitchen, the Mediterranean taste of his homeland, the season of meat, and why when he cooks he prefers to believe in God than in the technology of his kitchen equipment.
José Júlio Vintem, you are an outsider in the gastronomic world, how did you end up with your own restaurant Tomba Lobos in Portalegre?
When I opened my restaurant in 2002 I had never cooked in a restaurant before in my entire life. Everything began when I quit my old job. Previously I was a technical consultant in the field of job safety working for a large international car manufacturer, something far removed from the work of a chef. On the 23rd of March 2002, I remember it all exactly, at 3pm my boss rang me and gave me a raise, but then told me that in June I would lose my job. Completely shocked, but also completely without a plan, I rang my wife and asked her what I should do with my life now. She answered, „José Júlio, you always wanted to have your own restaurant. Come on. Let’s open our own restaurant. I know of an empty place, maybe we’ll be able to rent it. If it’s not expensive and we can do it without a great investment, then we really could start our own restaurant!” Shortly after that I rang the owner of the empty restaurant, drove over and had a look at it, and at 5pm on the same day we had our own restaurant. Crazy what can happen in two hours, or?
So you are an autodidact?
Yes, but by that point I had already cooked a great deal at home, eaten and tasted a great many things. Also in my parental home in Alentejo there was a lot of cooking and tasting – the simple, earthy cooking of the region with our great local products. And through my previous job I’d travelled a lot. My clients always took me to the best restaurants. I always thought that I could have cooked those things better myself. With the products of my homeland, with my olive oil that is so much better than all the other olive oils I’ve tasted. I was continuously comparing. When I opened my restaurant everyone was knocked out and said that I had developed my own “cuisine”. I cook simply with a maximum of three main ingredients per dish. And I cook as purely as possible. Everything I cook is regional and seasonal. I only use naturally grown products from very small producers all of whom I know personally.
Through the principal “local and raw” Scandinavian cooking became world famous. However, you cooked “Nordic” in the South of Europe before “Nordic Cuisine” even existed.
I could cook “my cuisine” any time anywhere simply by going to the market, closely examining what was in season, was of high quality and came from the immediate area. It would, for example, be completely absurd if I put foie gras on my menu. We don’t need either truffles or an enormous amount of butter. The greatest danger for contemporary cooking is the globalisation of food products. Through that all manner of dishes and tastes are becoming ever more similar. Also right around the world the cooking methods became ever more similar. The whole world is using “sous-vide”, by which vacuum-packed products are cooked at low temperatures. Cooking culture today is based on many machines and high-tech in the kitchen. Of course I value that, but, for example, I prefer to cook with fire rather than with low temperature ovens. With them you can cook to the perfect point, but with fire you can employ far more techniques and as a result of that you achieve a more complex result.
Do you want to tell us that young chefs can’t really cook any more?
No, I certainly don’t want to say that. But for me there are two types of chefs: the ones who believe in technology, and those who believe in God when they are cooking. I value technology, but when I’m cooking I trust inspiration, instinct and God.
Can you give us a dish that that stands for Alentejo, some kind of “homeland dish”?
Yes, perhaps I can. It is the dish on my menu that I can do the least for as a chef, a dish which speaks only of the products, that is of the terroir: Pétalas de Toucinho (bacon blossoms) made from lard, lemon, garlic and thyme. The white bacon of the local black-footed pigs and the other ingredients spend just one minute together in the oven. That’s all: something very simple with very few ingredients.
How would you describe Alentejo cuisine?
Like many other regional cuisines it is poor people’s food and therefore very creative. The poor had nothing and therefore cooked what the region had to give. So, no filet mignon, rather pigs ears, chicken cockscomb or brain. In Alentejo we always cooked the entire animal, from the pig’s nose to its tail. In hard times people had to find simple ways to give basic foodstuffs more flavour. As flavour enhancers and “spices” they used olive oil, garlic, aromatic herbs, vinegar and cheese. The most important thing is not to supress the taste of food products, rather to intensify and improve their own inherent taste. My cuisine is authentic, because it reflects the region. And today that’s exactly what many people long for: good, honest food.
Can Alentejo cuisine be considered a type of Mediterranean cuisine?
Of course! The food here has a lot to do with the Mediterranean climatic zone. The people of Alentejo eat “Mediterranean”, that is they eat fresh seasonal foods, a lot of vegetables, olive oil, fresh aromatic herbs and fish, from the Atlantic. But most importantly this culinary term means taking time for meals together – that is Mediterranean, that is Alentejo!
Before, when we were in the kitchen, you spoke of the seasons that nobody knows any more. What did you mean by that?
For example, almost nobody knows any more that there is a season for meat. The meat of the black-footed Alentejo pigs has a season of only a few months. In the autumn the pigs begin eating acorns and continue until the winter begins. That’s why pigs slaughtered in summer don’t have the same taste as those slaughtered early in the year when the flavour of the acorns is manifested in their fat.
Interview by Caroline Derler.