The restaurant Alma, by Henrique Sá Pessoa, which received its first star in the 2017 edition, reached this year the second star, duly classified as an “exceptional cooking”, as announced by Michelin, during the presentation ceremony of the Iberian guide 2019, which took place in Lisbon.
He is one of the most well-known chefs in Portugal and needs no introduction: Henrique Sá Pessoa. But those who watch culinary programmes and the tasty recipes presented by this face, often don’t see what was behind his long and successful gastronomic career. Face Food Mag tells the story.
The interest in cooking appeared late and a bit by accident, as Henrique Sá Pessoa says that throughout his childhood he didn’t have a very strong relationship with food. Since he had asthma problems until the age of eleven, and considering that this respiratory problem reduces appetite, he was always a troublesome child at meal time. Nowadays, so many years later, he underlines what his mother tells him: “you were always picky, which means you already had a sense of taste, you didn’t eat badly, the difference is that you didn’t eat everything”. A selection which was considered healthy and already with a keen sense of good cooking.
He always got references from his parents, who cooked very well, and unconsciously the calling started growing. Everything starts with an exchange programme in the USA. He discovered his interest in cooking while attending a lecture about the Cordon Bleu Institute, a renowned gastronomy, hospitality and management school, where he would later study. He explains: “my passion was playing Basketball, but with cooking I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and understood that was it”.
Until 1999 he lived in London and worked at the Park Lane Hotel. In 2000 he moved to Sidney, Australia, to work at the Sheraton on the Park Hotel, during the Olympic Games of 2000. Two years later he returned to Portugal to be part of the team of Lapa Palace, of the Orient Express chain. Afterwards, at Xarope restaurant, in Cascais, he occupied for the first time the chef position, which he also took at La Villa restaurant, in Estoril, and at Bairro Alto Hotel, in Lisbon. He also took a position as first-class chef at Hotel da Lapa, in Lisbon, and was chef at the Sheraton Lisboa Hotel Spa.
The first restaurant, Alma, is born in 2009: “back then we called it alma (soul) because we were leaving the comfort zone of being in a 5-star hotel, Sheraton, and left with four or five people from that comfort of the hotel and that routine, to dive into a street restaurant with a bank loan, at a time when we were entering the biggest crisis in history” says Henrique. It was therefore necessary to have a lot of soul for this business to work. At an initial phase, the project was very calculated and all steps taken were very well measured, just in case crisis would be around the corner.
I think things happened when they had to happen at the right moment, if I hadn’t won a star at the age of 30, I might have lived the latest 10 years differently, and I don’t regret anything that came when it came
Alma strategically changed its location and moved to Chiado, in Lisbon, and in three years achieved a tremendous success. Nowadays, it has a two to three months waiting list. Why? The cuisine is apparently simple “but there’s soul in the atmosphere, in the food and in the people” Sá Pessoa describes. The team is seen not as a fundamental ingredient for success, but rather as the real success in its essence, “I am the face, but if I didn’t have my team I wouldn’t be who I am and it’s a bit unfair not to acknowledge that, I am only the maestro”, he highlights.
A good chef is one who can keep teams with him for longer. “Back then Daniel and I bet on a young and energetic team, with the will to learn”, he describes. Nowadays, he recalls the first speech he gave to his team about the expectation of working for a Michelin star: “the dream must be yours, I can only help you fulfil the dream”. The motivation was to all members of the restaurant, and with it came the will to learn every day and end the day with a feeling of fulfilment.
Creative Atelier: with gastronomy but not only!
It’s a space where anything can happen! When chef Sá Pessoa opened the Atelier at Marvila, on November 2017, his first goal was to have a space for creation. To experiment, far from the fame and turmoil of his restaurant Alma, and which could also work as an exclusive “supper club” to receive 12 diners at one single table, in private events or more intimate dinners. Two years later, having received two Michelin stars, the Atelier achieves an even greater reputation. Even because it’s the only space where one may enjoy an experience of such closeness with such a renowned chef. However, that concept is not enough. “We believe this atelier should be more than a research kitchen for Alma, more than having two or three dinners with chef Henrique Sá Pessoa, but should also be a welcoming space for young chefs to do pop-ups, a kind of creative space where we could create a calendar of events and where anything can happen”, Sá Pessoa explains.
The challenge was to maximise the use of the facilities, namely with wine tastings, or even to escape gastronomy and hold fashion events, workshops, events which open doors to innovation, which often remains hidden. “For that space to be alive besides the presence of Henrique Sá Pessoa, for it not to be important only because I’m there” the chef highlights, with the simplicity that defines him so well. The main mission is for people to see the Atelier as a partner. “For me, it’s much more important to leave a legacy to young people who I know are doing a fantastic job but maybe don’t have the exposure, and I can use my image to help them, I find that rewarding and think the sector should be more united”, the chef concludes.