The fragrance of coriander wafts into the air as José Avillez rubs the leaves with his fingers. “I used to hate coriander as a child”, he says, “but now it is probably my favourite ingredient. I love that it’s still considered exotic in much of Europe, but in Portugal it has always been integral to the taste of our kitchen.”
Avillez weaves between the market stalls in the Mercado da Ribeira in Lisbon, stopping here for a chat, there to buy a bag of ripe beef tomatoes – which he describes as “the flavour of summer” – and on to see what the fishermen have brought in. His presence does not go unnoticed. He is one of Lisbon’s best-known faces – the owner and manager of 16 restaurants, author of cookery books, and a television star. His dishes range from simple paper twists filled with spicy pork-skin popcorn at Taberna to “the garden of the goose that laid the golden eggs”, featuring eggs, cheese, truffles, mushrooms and chicken jus, artfully laid out on a plate at Belcanto, a restaurant with two Michelin stars.
He’s off again, to the waterside, skipping over the black-and-white calçadas – cobblestones. “This city is the greatest inspiration of all for me,” he says, waving his arm over the River Tagus, “the way its special light bounces off the water, illuminating the old tiled facades. This is a capital with culture at its heart. I walk its streets and I feel its history at every corner.”
Walking is not something that comes naturally to Avillez, it transpires. He prefers to go at life full tilt. Indeed, he says, “almost twice a week I have a dream that I am flying, or rather hovering, but not walking.” His pace would exhaust most people but his energy is paradoxically at its most obvious – according to his assistant – when he is on a long-haul flight; forced to sit still, he funnels ideas into reams of emails which arrive at the office in a deluge as soon as he lands.
His next stop is Manteigaria Silva, an old family store, its ceiling hung with hams. Outstretched arms welcome Avillez, faces split into wide smiles. “I feel alive and young and old and Portuguese all at the same time here!” he laughs, before dashing into the back to see the unctuous sheep’s cheeses, stopping to taste a hand-sliced, melt-in-the-mouth presunto (dry-cured ham), as he chats with owner José Branco. They have worked together for a long time, each recognising in the other a respect for quality and a passion for the bounty of their country. Even before that, Avillez remembers the excitement of coming in as a child.
“My culinary memories go way back, to childhood Christmases where the presents paled in importance to the food: the smell of the stuffed turkey roasting and the breakfasts of rabanadas (a Portuguese version of French toast). “I remember a birthday party,” he says as we wind our way through narrow streets towards Belcanto, “when I was about five and there was a birthday cake there, but for some reason it was made of paper and I was so disappointed that I cried with fury.” At that age he was already lifting lids off saucepans to taste the contents. By 12 he was trying out recipes on his family, keen “to have something ready for my mother when she came back from work.” One recipe was for meat croquettes, a dish he has perfected over the years. Today they are bestsellers at his Cantina Zé Avillez, but they still provoke a bittersweet memory of “me standing sadly in my kitchen at home, with the desire to please through my food and the frustration of having added too many breadcrumbs and not enough egg.”
“Not all chefs need to be artists,” he says, “but they do all need to be generous, to want to give pleasure to others. If I had to compare the craft of being a chef with one of the arts, it would be architecture, where you make a house for someone to live inside.”
Avillez’s house is on the cobbled streets of Lisbon’s Chiado, close to Belcanto. It looks onto the birthplace of Fernando Pessoa, a 19th-century poet, philosopher and prolific novelist. “At 18 I was given a volume of Pessoa’s poetry”, he says, “and his way of looking at things, his belief that nothing is the way it seems, appealed enormously to me.”
That sleight of hand echoes in his dishes like his version of cozido à Portuguesa (a meat, vegetable and sausage stew) – an example of how he balances tradition and modernity. He is proud that it captures the exact taste of an old favourite in a contemporary interpretation. “If you close your eyes,” he says, “you will think that before you is that traditional dish; if you taste it, rich with smokiness from grilling the cabbage on the Josper grill, you will sense that it is that traditional dish. But open your eyes, and it is not what it seems.” Its presentation is neat and modern, a re-arrangement of the same ingredients for the 21st century.
The same holds for his rendition of sea bass, replete with avocado scales, dashi, pistachio oil, lime zest and sea blite, a herb. “It pays homage to the Portuguese who were the first Europeans to arrive in Japan and their shared 16th-century history.” But his food is not all about weighty ideas: in his rich and glossy pudding, “Choco”, chocolate ganache sits beside a dark pool of chocolate and cuttlefish ink, its name evoking both ingredients – in Portuguese, choco is the word for cuttlefish.
The sea, ever present in the Portuguese psyche, is referenced in many of Avillez’s dishes. “The smell of the sea is important to me,” he explains as we walk along the breezy shore in Cascais, the fishing town where Avillez grew up. “So is the fragrance of the aromatic pines that grow in the sand dunes. Forests and their characteristic smell relax me when I am walking in them in a way that nothing else can.”
We pass a seafood restaurant, Mar do Inferno, where he was first taken as a child for family Sunday lunches. “We used to eat bruxas (mantis shrimps), which I adored.” He still goes there, sharing the bruxas with his children. “I still love them.”
“That is another flavour from the past,” he says, pointing to Santini, an ice-cream shop. “My grandfather was a friend of the founder and we used to persuade him to stop when he was bringing us back from school. I would have strawberry ice cream in a cone. It was so good.”
The walk brings us back to Belcanto, shortly before the start of dinner service. A buzz emanates from behind the closed kitchen door. Avillez sits down at a table in front of a wall covered with white ceramic plates, some crumpled, some flat – but all blank, as if flaunting their emptiness, waiting for his ideas. On another wall is a kaleidoscope of colourful butterflies. “It reminds me of my entomologist grandfather,” he explains, “but also of the metamorphosis of a raw ingredient into a dish that, when eaten, is over.”
Avillez’s need to chart the unexplored is something he shares with more distant forebears: the naval navigators who were responsible for Portugal’s Golden Age. He has taken many of the same foods and spices that filled their ships and proudly put Lisbon on the culinary map.