With a multitude of restaurants under his belt, one of which is arguably among Portugal's most famous, Jose Avillez, I presume, will be harried, full of one-word answers, and eager to talk about his Michelin-starred Belcanto restaurant in Lisbon. However, Avillez is none of those things. Instead, the accomplished 39-year-old overarchingly displays one endearing trait: humility.
"A lot of the people who work beside me are much better than me," Avillez says, leaning over a bare wooden table in his new Dubai restaurant. "I have an amazing team." The chef has brought some of them with him to the UAE to open Tasca, a Portuguese restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Jumeira, which opened last month.
Situated on the sixth floor, the relaxed dining spot fuses the best of what Dubai has to offer: gleaming Burj Khalifa views through the floor-to-ceiling windows to one side, and from the other a glittering glimpse of the Arabian Gulf across a pool-speckled terrace.
However, despite the impressive mise en scene, Avillez wants the restaurant to be without a modicum of fussiness or pretension. “Tasca is the word for a casual restaurant in Portugal, like you have the bistro in France or a taverna in Spain [and Greece],” he says, downplaying any ideas of formality as he gestures to the linen-free tables.
"Having the pool, and being able to serve some snacks and some drinks there, we have a completely different experience. This almost could be the Maldives." Then he points towards the world's tallest tower, barely visible amid the Downtown mid-afternoon haze.
"And at the same time you can see that. Those two things make it unique, to have that more relaxed area, to be able to have lunch or dinner outside, with the lighting from the pool."
What's on the menu
This unrushed, leisurely aesthetic extends to Avillez's contemporary menu, with the chef focusing on small plates at his Dubai restaurant. "I'm bringing small portions to share. There are some dishes to eat with your hands, and others that you use your knife and fork, but the idea is to share everything," he explains. "It's not food to think about – it's food to eat, to share, to have fun. It's not fine dining, it's fun dining."
The cuisine predominately takes inspiration from his native Portugal, where his portfolio of restaurants – spread across Lisbon and Porto – includes Cafe Lisboa and Cantina Ze Avillez. "We conquered a lot of countries, we travelled around all the world," says Avillez of the Portuguese. "We brought a lot of influences back, we left a lot of influences there. Portugal was very influenced by Arabs, so I feel at home in the Middle East."
Such influences can be found in the chef's chicken peri-peri, named after the chilli pepper found across Africa, and adopted by the Portuguese in the signature dish's spice blend. Cooked sous-vide and then grilled, served with a side of smoked avocado and expertly crisped fries, it will banish all thoughts of a certain chicken restaurant chain from your mind.
Tasca is also swimming in fresh seafood (excuse the pun), from codfish and octopus to red shrimp and lobster, which is brought to the city from Portugal and cooked in the restaurant's open kitchen. Carnivores might instead prefer Avillez's version of the bitoque: Wagyu beef topped with a quail's egg and truffle sauce, while vegetarians will struggle to order just one serving of the tempura avocado, still surprisingly green and substantial inside its spiced, battered casing. "We also play around with different Portuguese desserts, the pasteis de nata, known as the custard tart, but served on a millefeuille like the French one," he adds.
A glistening orange globe, formed from mandarin ice cream encased in a fruity sorbet, is a particular standout, with the concept borrowed from Belcanto.
Partnering with local chefs
While this may be the chef's first venture outside Portugal, his dalliance with the region is long-standing, having visited Dubai many times before. Avillez, who has many cookbooks to his name, even opened Za'atar, a restaurant dedicated to Lebanese cuisine, in Lisbon last September. "I always do a project in partnership with a local chef," he says of the eatery, which he opened with Tyre-born chef Joe Barza. "It's important for people to understand that I don't know everything about food. I know a bit about Lebanese food and I love it, but I need the help of an expert to bring it to life."
Avillez is used to working with the best of the best, having interned under Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adria and Jose Bento dos Santos, before branching out on his own. Decades later, though, the chef says he is "still learning" – and he's now sending those working under him to do the same, with some of Tasca's cooks visiting Portugal to become at one with the nation's gastronomy.
"I want to show people the cuisine's variety; the balance between the fish and the meat and the vegetables," Avillez says of his hopes for his Dubai restaurant. "Portuguese food is something that people know a little about, but they don't know why. I want them to understand, 'oh, that's Portuguese'. That's very important to me."
Matters of the heart
Also crucial to the chef is his family, who he takes pains to prioritise, despite his many spinning plates (laden with bacalhau, no doubt). "I like to take care of people, starting with my team and my family, and my guests," he says, acknowledging it can be difficult to balance his many proprieties. "But I have an amazing team. That's the only chance for me to be able to balance everything and to be able to see my wife and kids."
At home, you’ll still find Avillez in the kitchen, with the chef admitting he doesn’t get to cook as much as he used to at work. “That’s why I normally cook at home on Sundays and Saturday nights, to relax a little bit. I have chickens and a vegetable garden, and I cook from that for my family.”
Having spent years building up his business, Avillez hopes to devote more time to his family going forward, he reveals when quizzed on his professional bucket list. "There are a lot of things to do, the world is so big. I need to reconsider every one of my ideas and dreams," he says.
Focusing on training and development is one of his interests, as is introducing more casual food with a Portuguese twist to his menus, he adds. But, for a gastronome, it's matters of the heart, rather than simply the stomach, which he is focused on. "I want to try to be happy, but not giving myself that as a goal, because if it is a goal it's impossible to achieve," he says, sagely.
“There’s a sentence that I really love – there are a lot of things you can learn living every day like it was the first, but you could be having more fun if you live every day as the last. It’s finding the balance between both that I enjoy.”