José Avillez is more than just a Michelin-starred chef. With four established and successful eateries in Lisbon, the young entrepreneur with a marketing background also owns a takeaway and a pie chain, provides consultancy services, is involved in catering, writes and publishes books, and has his own television show. No wonder he regularly works a 16-hour day!
‘Each dish tells a story and sets out to stir the emotions of those willing to try it’
FROM AN EARLY AGE, José Avillez had a love of cookery and food. As a child, he would spend three or four hours a day, after school, in the kitchen with the housekeeper. Around the age of ten, he and his sister used to make cakes to sell to their family and friends. His father, who died when he was six, had owned three restaurants, but was not himself a chef. Avillez didn’t originally set out to become one either. It was only during his final year of studying marketing that he realised his heart lay elsewhere. Nevertheless, he still went on to first train as a sommelier, before undertaking several trips, training courses and traineeships as a chef, amongst others with Antoine Westermann at Fortaleza do Guincho, at Alain Ducasse’s school, in Eric Frechon’s kitchen at the Bristol Hotel, and at the renowned El Bulli – a step which really catapulted his career.
Born in 1979 in Cascais, an elegant seaside resort just west of Lisbon where he still lives, Avillez’s memories are all centred on food. ‘Portuguese cuisine brings tears to my eyes,’ says the chef. ‘My life is cooking. I was born and raised in Cascais. The memory of being that close to the sea is very strong and is really a part of me, it defines me. I love creating dishes with the taste of the sea.’ After finishing his training with Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, Avillez went on to become Head Chef at Tavares in 2008. In less than a year, he was awarded his first Michelin star. In 2011, he left Tavares to open his own restaurant, the Cantinho do Avillez, in the trendy Lisbon district of Chiado. Just a couple of months later, he took the huge risk of taking on the nearby Belcanto, an establishment founded in 1958, next to the São Carlos National Theatre, with a strong reputation and respected history. But, within a year of his taking over the kitchen, following extensive refurbishment, this restaurant was also awarded a Michelin star, and then the second one in November 2014. Going from strength to strength, Avillez went on to open the Pizzaria Lisboa (a tribute to his father) and Café Lisboa, part of the São Carlos National Theatre.
Aside from these four eateries, Avillez also owns a takeaway service in Cascais, JA at Home, and, together with the H3 hamburger group, he runs the Empadaria do Chefe pie chain. He provides consultancy services, is involved in catering, writes and publishes books, and has his own television show, JA at the stove, launched in 2012. Together with José Bento dos Santos and the Quinta do Monte D’Oiro vineyard, he also owns a brand of JA wines. In 2010, he was voted Chef of the Year by the magazine WINE, and last year he won this same title from the prestigious gastronomic blog, Mesa Marcada, who also voted the Belcanto as Restaurant of the Year.
Avillez is reluctant to categorise his culinary style, preferring just to call it ‘inspiration cuisine’. ‘My style of cooking reflects my evolution and mixes all I’ve learned, all my experiences, the various influences, along with my feelings and fears. Each dish tells a story and sets out to stir the emotions of those willing to try it.’ Having worked with the molecular gastronomy of El Bulli, Avillez agrees that scientific study in the kitchen may lead to the development of some interesting new methods. He is, nevertheless, keen to reinforce that his culinary rules – and 22 commandments – focus first on flavour, with the techniques being used purely in service of the product.
Avillez, who regularly works a 16-hour day, describes chefs as being like fashion designers: artists, but with the ability to collaborate. ‘If you are an artist, you can live your whole life by yourself as a painter,’ he says. ‘In the kitchen, that’s not possible; you need a team trained to think like you. You could be a very good cook, but a very bad chef, because you don’t know how to transmit your knowledge to the people who work with you. That’s my biggest challenge.’ Luckily, it seems to be a challenge for which the rising star Avillez is more than fit.
José Avillez will be leading a street-food safari across London in December 2014.