A jetty with a scattering of fishermen’s huts, the cooling April sea breeze and the sound of the waves. This is the setting chosen by chef Óscar Molina (Ibiza Gran Hotel) and the Portuguese chef José Avillez (Belcanto restaurant) to relax, enjoy a beer, and get to know one another. Within a few hours, they will both be working at La Gaia on the exclusive four hands dinner by José Avillez and Óscar Molina they have designed to mark the opening of the restaurant for the new season. Neither shows the slightest sign of nerves and, although they barely know one another, their mutual admiration and empathy are there for all to see. We have the feeling that something big is cooking up in the kitchen at La Gaia…
Since receiving its Guía Repsol ‘Sun’, La Gaia has been enjoying a particularly good patch. Two years ago, its executive chef chose to travel to Peru for his holidays, so that he could immerse himself in its gastronomic culture; last winter, he did the same thing, only to a different destination—this time he chose Japan. “We’ve incorporated more Japanese influences into our menu,” explains Molina, adding that “the gastronomic concept of La Gaia is constantly evolving,” drawing particularly on Peruvian, Japanese and, of course, Mediterranean gastronomic trends.
For his part, José Avillez is one of the great masters of Portuguese cuisine. “I’ve always had so many dreams, and fortunately, thanks to my team, I’ve achieved 100 times more than I ever imagined,” he says. His restaurant, Belcanto, has been recognised with two Michelin stars, but currently, Avillez heads up a chain of 13 restaurants with very different culinary concepts. “We serve lunches and dinners at prices from 8 to 200 Euros. There is a common thread running through them, but they are all very different,” he explains.
Sitting comfortably near the jetty, the two chefs chat together. “Are you ready for this evening?” asks Óscar. “I’m ready. We’ve created three dishes that I believe will go really well with your cooking. We’re very happy, and we had a wonderful dinner yesterday,” replies Avillez, referring to the dinner hosted by Óscar the previous evening to enable him and his team to familiarise themselves with La Gaia’s new menu. “I loved that coconut and beetroot dish… It had a contrast of sweetness and acidity, and such interesting textures,” recalls José Avillez, and Óscar replies: “You mean the marinade. With that dish we were looking for vegetarian options, because I find it very difficult to think of options where you have to find substitutes for animal protein. I’m a great believer in marinades, which are very much a feature of the local cuisine,” says Óscar. “In Portugal, too, we use marinades a lot,” replies Avillez, “They have a certain complexity thanks to the different types and combinations of vinegar you can use,” he adds.
“Do you think there is a great deal of difference between Portuguese and Spanish cuisine?” asks Oscar. “I believe there are many differences, but there are also plenty of similarities. Unlike you, in Portugal we use a lot of coriander and rice as simple side dishes,” observes Avillez. “But that is similar to the South American concept, isn’t it?” adds Óscar. “It’s Asian, it’s Arabian… we also have a strong South American influence. The rice side dish arises out of the custom of sharing dishes; it’s a very Asian concept, and coriander is common in Arabian cooking. We do contemporary Portuguese cooking. It’s tempting to think that we are influenced by Spanish cuisine, but in fact, it is the basis of Portuguese cooking,” replies Avillez.
You have reached the heights: you have won the chefs’ equivalent of an Oscar
The pair continue discussing their kitchens, how the crisis has affected the restaurant scene of both their countries, and their own businesses in particular. “You have reached the heights: you have won the chefs’ equivalent of an Oscar,” Molina observes admiringly, “So what comes next?” “What comes next is to go on working,” answers Avillez. “At Belcanto, our cooking is evolving rapidly, but I believe that good cuisine should not be the preserve of the wealthiest. You can cook good food from 8 Euros to 200, and we’re creating different concepts to appeal to different people. Also to promote the industry, Portugal, and particularly Lisbon as a gourmet destination. Now, I’m working with chefs including the Peruvian Diego Muñoz and the Mexican Roberto Ruiz; I also have plans to open an Asian restaurant and a Lebanese restaurant… We want there to be a wider choice for people who visit Portugal,” explains Avillez. “But I believe that what is happening in Portugal now is in some measure thanks to you,” points out Molina. “Well, I think that I may have contributed something, but I’ve been very lucky with the timing. I could have done the same thing three years earlier or three years later and it wouldn’t have been the same,” is Avillez’s modest reply, and he adds, “The growth in tourism being experienced by Lisbon is encouraging many younger chefs to develop their cooking.”
“Let’s see when you open something in Spain…,” remarks Óscar. “Let’s see when you open something in Lisbon”, retorts José. They both laugh. “Well, what I want more than anything is for you to enjoy yourself this evening,” says Molina. “Of course, this experience is a great way of getting to know our work, but also we can spend time together, enjoy ourselves with our new teams… I’m sure we’ll have a great time,” responds the Portuguese chef. Raising his beer glass and clicking it against Óscar’s, he says “to this evening.”
This experience is a great way of getting to know our work, but also we can spend time together, enjoy ourselves with our new teams…
José Avillez’s kitchen is never without ingredients such as coriander and, of course, seafood: “In Portugal, we have some of the best seafood in the world,” he declares. Apart from fish and seafood, soya and ginger are among Molina’s favourite cooking ingredients. Both belong to the generation of chefs that possess tremendous technical ability, and have succeeded in developing concepts with a strong identity. Both are great admirers of the Adrià brothers—Avillez had the opportunity to undertake a placement with Ferràn, and maintains that he is still his guiding star, while Molina has worked with his brother, Albert: “He is a great person, and has helped me a great deal, both personally and professionally,” he says. Both are enjoying one of the most successful periods in their professional careers. They are moving in the same direction, and they complement one another enormously. Their similarities, but more so their differences, turn these two chefs into the ideal gastronomic duo. That evening, the offerings of these two chefs combined exquisitely, exercising all five senses of the diners through a carefully selected range of flavours, textures and aromas. As the meal ended, the emotion, smiles, hugs and applause of both teams showed that it was not only the guests who had had a wonderful evening. That night, La Gaia had witnessed pure magic—a true gastronomic feast.