João Rodrigues, Journey to the centre of the Portuguese product

João Rodrigues. Feitoria restaurant, Lisbon

João Rodrigues © ffmag

Located along the banks of the Tagus River, in the Altis Belém Hotel & Spa, the Feitoria restaurant evokes the golden age of discoveries: adventure, risk and history. The restaurant initially offered a gastronomic experience based on Portuguese identity and the national culinary tradition of distant and exotic flavours fused with influences from the East, but its executive chef, João Rodrigues, has transformed the concept into a new challenge called ‘Materia’.

For a long time, Feitoria’s menu was called ‘Viagem’ [Journey], but the concept has evolved over time. “We have transformed many things in the restaurant to forge new paths. Our kitchen’s discourse focused on travelling around the world; we have now decided to take the journey inwards. And that is precisely the basis of the new concept.” João Rodrigues created ‘Materia’ as a personal project that he developed together with his team at Feitoria. ‘Materia’ “emerged from the idea of showing the best of our country to foreigners and the Portuguese themselves: our menus use products that few people are familiar with. Our intention is to present those wonderful Portuguese products that are yet to be explored”.

Materia’s purpose is to present those wonderful Portuguese products that are yet to be explored

“When we think of fine dining, we imagine an academic kitchen; but I have begun to abandon that idea in order to focus on Portuguese treasures and riches in terms of product,” explains the chef. “Portugal only has two borders: the ocean and Spain. That forces us to look inwards in search of the best things to offer,” he adds.

Seafood and cod. Restaurant Feitoria, Lisbon

Seafood and cod © Silvia Martínez

“In Feitoria we believe a dish should have no more than two main ingredients. ‘Materia’ looks at the historical and social side of Portugal to do something different and show my perspective on my country,” he explains. “The idea of ?‘Materia’ emerged when I was looking at Instagram: I noticed that photos of products generated more interest than those of dishes,” he recalls. That is why in ‘Materia’ the product is placed at the centre of the relationship between people and food. “A story is the easiest way to pique your customer’s interest: the story of the product they are going to taste, the process and journey it went through to reach the table. That also generates more trust and familiarity with the customer, which is another reason I enjoy explaining that story to my guests,” says the chef.

“There are many people who do not know the difference between a farmed shrimp and a wild one. How can we help people distinguish them? I believe this difference should be explained to them by someone,” he continues. This is precisely what ‘Materia’ is about, giving each product the value it deserves and supporting small producers who give their body and soul to their project. “We have to support those producers who are not well-known. A solid and positive relationship between buyers and producers is essential. We have to improve the whole process and the product sales system to grow more sustainably. I think we can learn a lot from local producers because they devote a great deal of passion to their work,” states João.

There are many people who do not know the difference between a farmed shrimp and a wild one. I believe this difference should be explained to them by someone

‘Materia’ offers various menus that head chef João Rodrigues and the rest of the Feitoria team design with the collaboration of other guest chefs. For this, they invite a Portuguese chef and one chef from another country. Rodrigues and these two chefs travel to the region the Portuguese guest chef is from and learn about the best products in the area. The international chef is ‘challenged’ to design a dish using any of the raw materials from that region, and is not allowed to use any ingredients from his native country. “The idea of ??these menus is to refine flavours and create a common thread throughout all the dishes. The menus include descriptions of each dish and of the star product: its producer, the region it comes from, etc. We have had foreign customers telling us that they really appreciated this gesture because it has helped them understand the origins of these raw materials,” says Rodrigues.

Scarlet shrimps. Feitoria, Lisbon

Scarlet shrimps © Silvia Martínez

Last year João Rodrigues presented ‘Materia’ at the Portuguese congress of chefs, where he explained that he wanted to tour the country and meet the many producers out there. “My objective is to create an application that tells the story of each producer and their products, which will also serve to help other chefs find the best products. This platform would work as a kind of database which can be used by chefs looking for quality raw materials,” he explains. The project has recently achieved UNESCO’s international support, but for the moment it is João himself who bears all the expenses of the trips he makes. During these journeys, he counts on the support of a photography and writing team who assist him in immortalising each producer’s story, and the story of their products. João assures us that he dedicates the little free time he has to this cause, and hopes to be able to count on more sponsors in the future.

Although ‘Materia’ is a personal project, Rodrigues says that it is almost impossible to draw a line separating himself from the restaurant. “I can’t dissociate the restaurant from the project because, although the restaurant isn’t mine, the idea is and Feitoria is the vehicle I use to move this concept forward,” he says. Feitoria received a Michelin star in 2012 and has been awarded three Repsol Guide ‘Suns’, among many other awards and recognitions.

João Rodrigues began his career in Feitoria as sous chef and in 2013 he took on the position of head chef. He is one of the most talented chefs of his generation. He has recently developed a very personal and consistent kitchen whose base is the product. The work of João Rodrigues has been widely praised by specialised critics. In 2015, the International Academy of Gastronomy awarded him with the distinguished title of Chef d’Avenir. A year later, he was elected ‘Chef of the Year’ by the Boa Cama Boa Mesa Guide, by Wine Magazine and by the Mesa Marcada Awards jury. And despite all these recognitions, he says he never dreamed of being a chef.

João Rodrigues. Feitoria, Lisbon

Chef João Rodrigues © Silvia Martínez