Jose Avillez has two Michelin stars with Belcanto, now he has opened Tasca in Dubai
20 years ago, when I started to cook, my dream was to open a very small restaurant near my house with 22 seats”, José Avillez tells me. We’re sitting in Tasca, his restaurant in the brand new Mandarin Oriental Jumeira hotel in Dubai.
The opening of Tasca means Avillez now operates almost as many restaurants as his first dream concept had seats. But this is his first one outside of Portugal and the start of a whole new adventure for the Portuguese chef who rose to fame as the head chef of Restaurante Tavares which won a Michelin star in 2009.
Avillez followed that up by opening Belcanto, his flagship restaurant which boasts two Michelin stars and each year moves up the World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ long list, currently sitting at 75.
But as with many of the Michelin gang of chefs who have come to Dubai in recent years, Tasca is not fine dining, Avillez instead calls it “fun-dining”. Much like Massimo Bottura’s Torno Subito, it’s a relaxed affair, with the name itself a Portuguese word for a “small, humble [restaurant], where we can eat, drink, and be with friends and family” says Avillez.
With the potential to go up to 180 seats and views on one side of Downtown Dubai and the Arabian Gulf on the other, Tasca is neither small nor humble. It does have a warmth during the day time that makes families welcome, while being able to switch effortlessly to something chicer and trendier at night.
It’s the first time Avillez has faced the challenge of cooking his home cuisine in a foreign land and he admits that it’s “difficult to travel with typical food. If the water is different — and it’s always different — it completely changes the dish”.
To combat that, Avillez says that they find the “identity” and “inspiration” of the dishes they want to create but give them a “different cooking point”, “different seasoning sometimes”, and “different ways to present”. This leads to him saying that Tasca is not “typical” Portuguese but the concept is “really Portuguese”.
Unlike many chefs who come to the region, Avillez says they have not tried to add any Middle Eastern influence. He concedes there are a couple of slight adaptations to local tastes but it remains completely Portuguese focused.
He was fully involved in the creation of the concept — “100%” — and has visited eight times prior to its opening. The first of those occasions was over three years ago, well before the Mandarin Oriental Jumeira was built, when “they had only a big hole here”. It meant Avillez and his team could design the restaurant to his exact specifications rather than attempt to shoehorn a concept into an already existing space.
With Portuguese cuisine in Dubai currently peaking at Nando’s (okay, a slight exaggeration), there’s plenty of room for a fantastic restaurant to flourish, and Avillez believes that a different style of food and Portuguese hospitality will help it stand out among the 11,000 or so other venues in the city.
And while Portuguese cuisine may not have found its niche in the Middle East yet, Avillez says he sees its influence everywhere.
“Every time I travel worldwide I can see big relations with Portuguese gastronomy. We conquered more than 50 countries and we left a lot of influence. So what we are today is this big melting pot of everything that we did, everything that happened in the past. What I do today is also that. Everything I’ve tasted since I started to eat, but also my history, my genes. Also the history of Portugal and the world.”
Tasca also represents a rest from what Avellez calls the “responsibility” of Belcanto’s Michelin stars.
He compares it to winning gold in the Olympics, saying: “The medal you win and you put in your bedroom and it stays there. The Michelin star they give you and they can take it away after one year. So the responsibility is huge. More than that, for me, I was the first Portuguese in Lisbon to get a Michelin star so it was extra responsibility but also a great honour for me and my team.”
Avillez was also the first to have two stars in Lisbon when Belcanto was awarded its second in 2014, which he calls “special”, but says that all that really matters to him is that “people sit at the table and have an amazing experience”.
He was perhaps always destined to be among the Michelin greats, with a gastronomic education coming from the likes of Alain Ducasse (one of only two chefs to hold 21 stars in his career) and Ferran Adria (chef of El Bulli, the first restaurant to top the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list five times), and he holds the pair in high esteem.
“I think both of the different styles were important for me,” he explains. “With Ducasse and the French cuisine I learned more about the basics and the techniques. With Ferran I learned to sit outside the box, and maybe I did an upgrade to not think about the box and to let your creativity go further and further.
“The French had the big tradition in classic food and they developed the so called nouvelle cuisine, but they had a lot of rules. When we think about creativity, the rules start to disappear and the only rule is it has to be very good.
“So I learned that with Ferran. I was with him from season 2007 and I looked every day in his eyes and saw the creativity, but more than that, the genius inside of him and saw the fear inside of him. And that’s human, and that’s very important, and that made me want to be better and better.”
That hunt to keep improving still exists in Avillez, who cites Juan Roca (chef at three star restaurant El Celler de Can Roca in Spain) and Rene Redzepi (of two star Noma in Copenhagen) as two of many chefs around the world that impress him at the moment.
“The good thing about this sector is you learn until you die”, he says. “Even in Portugal when I travel one hour and a half from my house I discover new things. I go to someone’s house and taste a dish I’ve never tasted before.”
Avillez has come a long way from that dream to open a 22-seat restaurant, and he knows it, saying he has “achieved 100 times more than I ever imagined”. But as he continues to learn, he continues to dream bigger and wants to put Portuguese cuisine on the map.
He says: “We want to promote Portugal’s gastronomy, to promote Portugal’s brand all around the world. Maybe one day to have a third Michelin star, maybe one day to go up on the [World’s 50 Best Restaurant’s] list.
“But more than that I need to be comfortable in what I am doing and to maintain the family style management that we have. Now the team’s got bigger with a new family here in Dubai — people from 15-20 different countries. That’s very special.”