Originally published in USA Today 10 Best
A self-proclaimed “dreamer,” José Avillez is a Portuguese chef and restaurateur who has, in recent years, opened over ten unique establishments, earned two Michelin stars for his most renowned restaurant, Belcanto, and in the process, reinvigorated an entire neighborhood in the city of Lisbon.
Known widely throughout the culinary world for his contemporary Portuguese cuisine and restaurants with menus as creative as the distinctive and diverse décor, award-winning Avillez continues to surprise and delight his loyal food-loving enthusiasts.
His restaurants offer diverse culinary adventures, with a whimsical style, clever recipes and presentations that are a treat for the senses from beginning to end. In addition to the highly acclaimed Belcanto, a few of his other establishments include Bairro do Avillez, Mini Bar, Pizzeria Lisboa, Cantinho do Avillez.
A theme among a number of his restaurants is “expect the unexpected.” Several are home to a “secret” dining room, as well as a deft attention to fascinating detail.
For example, his Rei Da China is a tiny, fast casual Asian-inspired eatery that once inside, reveals a passageway to another (completely different) stylish and elegant restaurant, Casa dos Prazeres. It’s an establishment he created in partnership with chef Estanis Carenzo.
Chef Avillez explained, “I have a passion for cooking. Regardless of the style, I always bet on quality and my goal is to offer truly pleasurable moments to people. If I had to name the restaurant style that truly defines me as a chef, I would definitely choose Belcanto. At Belcanto, I offer a contemporary Portuguese haute cuisine. This is the style that truly expresses the course of my creativity and reflects my evolution.”
Interior of Bairro do Avillez — Photo courtesy of Jose Avillez
With an abundance of energy and creativity, Avillez takes pride in his Portuguese roots. He said, “Portugal is an amazing country. It’s small but very diverse in terms of landscapes and geography, from the north, to the south, to the beautiful Madeira and Azores islands…We have a great cuisine, great products, amazing wines, and we Portuguese are one of the most genuine and welcoming people I ever met. It’s very rare to find this combination.”
He added, “My culinary philosophy is: flavor comes first and technique serves the product. At my restaurants, we always bet on quality in terms of ingredients and service.”
For traveling food-lovers who wish to experience his Lisbon restaurants, he recommends starting their culinary journey at the landmark Belcanto, which recently moved to a larger location nearby.
Belcanto interior — Photo courtesy of Jose Avillez
He suggests, “For someone who comes to Lisbon for the first time, I would recommend the ‘Evolution Menu’ at Belcanto because I think it offers a very interesting and unique approach to Portuguese contemporary cuisine. I often say that even tradition evolves.
“When we talk about contemporary cuisine, and when we talk about creative cuisine, we are actually going through a constant process of evolution. We fearlessly recreate, reinvent and revisit traditions and recipes because we believe we can always do better, or, at the very least, walk uncharted paths. The evolutionary process of a dish represents all of our evolutionary and creative process and paths.”
For a chef with a multitude of award-winning restaurants serving life-altering dishes, it can’t be easy to choose your favorites. Avillez reveals that he’s partial to a few, such as the “Dip in the Sea,” a sea bass dish served at Belcanto featuring a variety of seaweed and shellfish arranged in a fantastic nautical-inspired presentation.
Seafood specialty — Photo courtesy of Jose Avillez
He said, “The flavor is amazing. I grew up in Cascais (a Portuguese beach town) surrounded by pinewoods and the sea, so this dish evokes childhood memories in me…It defines me.”
He also enjoys “Brás style” cod, a flaked cod sautéed with onion, shoestring fried potatoes, eggs, minced parsley and olives that’s served at Café Lisboa. “I really like this dish because it comforts me, it takes me back to my childhood. I perfected the recipe over the years.”
For dessert, Avillez adores the classic Portuguese pastry, pastel de nata, which is on the menu at Bairro do Avillez. “Pastel de Nata is a thin base of puff pastry filled with cream and eggs. I prefer light cream puffs, with a very crisp dough and a not-too-sweet cream, served warm with a dash of cinnamon powder on top. I like custard tarts so much that I created my own recipe for pastéis de nata.”
Pastel de nata — Photo courtesy of Jose Avillez
In addition to building his restaurant empire, Avillez has authored cookbooks, hosted radio shows and has been featured on several television cooking programs. Most notably, he appeared on “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” in 2012.
Avillez shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, he is continuing to partner with international chefs and develop Asian restaurants in an effort to rediscover and rekindle the gastronomic connection between Portugal and Asia. He continues to be inspired by today’s multicultural aspects of Lisbon and plans to continue to offer an authentic, sensory-focused cuisine.
He says,”We are striving to contribute to boost the international notoriety of the Portuguese market by inviting chefs from abroad to bring their cuisines to Lisbon: Diego Muñoz with whom we opened Cantina Peruana, Roberto Ruiz with whom we opened the Mexican restaurant Barra Cascabel, and Estanis Carenzo, with whom we recently opened two Asian restaurants, Rei da China and Casa dos Prazeres.”
Currently, chef Avillez and his team are busy with their next projects, and although they are not revealing much at the moment, it’s only a matter of time before the next restaurant is revealed…sure to offer plenty of culinary specialties and elements of surprise.