Portugal’s restaurant scene
Portuguese chef Paulo Morais often gets strange looks when he tells people what he does. He looks traditionally Portuguese and speaks with a Portuguese accent. So perhaps the confusion is understandable when people find out he is a sushi chef.
Paulo Morais runs arguably Lisbon’s top Japanese restaurant, Umai, but has spent 25 years defending his ability to make Asian food as a Westerner.
“I feel because of that I need to make even better,” he tells me.
“Because I’m not Japanese I need to work even harder to compensate that part and feel myself I did the best I could. And now, 25 years has passed, I feel ok. I don’t mind anymore about what people say or think as long as they try the food and see if it’s good or not.”
It’s not such a strange idea, though, a Portuguese chef working with the cuisine of a foreign country. I had never thought about it before but Paulo explains to me how the Portuguese were actually the original innovators when it came to global food. Hundreds of years ago, through sea exploration and trade, they revolutionised what different cultures ate.
“We were all over the world,” he says.
“We changed the way the world is now eating because we brought the chilli from Brazil and brought it to Africa and brought it to Asia – it was us. We brought the spices back to Portugal, we brought the rice to Africa and to Brazil. So we change everything. So if there are some people who should have the right to say something about global food it should be the Portuguese because we mix everything.”
Paulo Morais is one of the chefs at the Rota das Estrelas (The Stars Route) food festival in Portugal. I meet him at the opening events on the island of Madeira, hosted by Porto Bay Hotels. (I’ve got more information about the festival in my story about The Stars Route.)
Although there are chefs from across the world here, the majority are Portuguese and it’s a good chance to find out more about the restaurant industry in the country. Unfortunately it’s a mixed grill of success and disappointment.
The disappointments mainly stem from the past and the perception of the scene at the moment. Portugal – and Lisbon in particular – has struggled with reputation for many years and has never been seen in the same light as nearby countries like Spain, Italy or France.
You only need to look at the prestigious Michelin Guides to see how that manifests itself. Spain has 159 restaurants that have been awarded a Michelin star; Italy has 328; France has 610. Portugal has just 12.
Portugal’s Michelin Stars
Miguel Laffan is another Portuguese chef at the opening events of the Rota das Estrelas food festival and he has just been awarded a Michelin star for his restaurant L’And. He believes the renaissance has started.
“You have to grow,” he tells me.
“We cannot stick to our food and not change anything. We have to try to make it better and try to have some adventures.”
He thinks festivals like this one – which will hold another six events this year across the country – are a perfect way to showcase Portuguese food and raise its perception. Although he likes to put a unique twist on his dishes, he also tries to use conventional Portuguese cooking methods.
“It’s a very rich country and has very good fish,” he says.
“It has very Mediterranean flavours – a lot of onion, garlic, tomatoes, olive oil. You have beautiful meat – great lamb and great pork. It’s a small country but with so many influences.”
It’s partly about the food – but also partly about business and culture. The financial crisis hit hard in Portugal and many of the country’s restaurants suffered. Paulo Morais says it has been uncommon recently for chefs to own their own restaurants and that’s something the Michelin Guide sees as a negative, for example.
But there’s a lot of hope as things improve. Miguel Laffan, for one, is optimistic about the future.
“I’m sure Portugal will be in 5 years where Spain already was,” he tells me earnestly.
“It’s our time now, we’re getting there. In five years now, I’m sure… I hope.”