Chef Rui Paula

The helmsman

Interview: Paulo Gonçalves
Photos: João Saramago

Rui Paula welcomed us at the Casa de Chá da Boa Nova, that magnificent restaurant on the rocks designed by Siza Vieira.

Next to the Leça lighthouse in Boa Nova, and just a few metres from the Atlantic, the Casa de Chá is one of only three of the restaurants belonging to this chef who has already won two Michelin stars.

You sold cars, fruit juice and even tobacco. When did Chef Rui Paula feel the “call” of the kitchen?

The kitchen is something that has always been a part of me. Honour is due to my grandmother’s farmhouse, where animals were raised (many) for sustenance. At times there would be 50 or 60 people at the table for a meal made by her proud hands. I was involved in the whole dynamic, the aromas, the details of identity surrounding gastronomy that furnished me with the best references that enable me to be who I am. However, on this path there was a diversion into a marketing course that taught me important lessons that were applied to the sale of cars and other things. But the support of these references I received in the kitchen impelled the 26-year-old me to open my first restaurant, the Cêpa Torta in Alijó.

What defines your cooking?

My cooking is basically a cooking of remembrance. Remembering the things I tasted in childhood, the good vegetables, the good meat, the good fish, etc. And of course the importance of the care that should always be taken with the products, with their quality and their preparation.

Preserving the flavour and freshness, and then presenting it well, are the principles we never renounce.

As I said, references that are in my head where, with a modern and inventive look, I prepare food in a historic laboratory based on several generations of culinary recipes.

What is your favourite dish?

My favourite dish is octopus rice with octopus fillets and then stewed cabbage: cabbage that is first boiled and then sautéed in olive oil, garlic, flour and vinegar. This is a delicious meal!

You have three top restaurants. How do they differ?

It is their unique aspects that differentiate the three restaurants.

DOC, in Folgosa, is an open window on the breathtaking scenery, which was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011, lapped by the River Douro in the very heart of the Douro Wine Country. Then we have DOP, which is a part of the Palácio das Artes-Fábrica de Talentos in the historic heart of Porto, a World Heritage site. The final part of the trio is the Casa de Chá da Boa-Nova in Leça da Palmeira, Matosinhos. In a building designed by Siza Vieira, a national monument right above the sea.

What these three restaurants have in common is the food they serve, the good service and a wine cellar to match.

You recently created an Instagram page with a number of videos. Do you feel the need to innovate and attract new customers?

This was a result of the pandemic. With the doors of the restaurants closed (because of government measures to contain the spread of Covid-19), we felt the need to reinvent ourselves, to stay active, to create, to do something that could also be useful to those who follow us. To promote the importance of healthy eating, I took traditional dishes and gave them shape in a simple and effective way. And the result was very positive.

What is the main ingredient to being a chef?

I would say there are many necessary ingredients. First of all a love of making things, a spirit of sacrifice, humility, hard work and a desire to never stop learning. We can also add other traits, such as being a good leader, a good manager, and nowadays a good communicator.

You have two Michelin stars on your CV. Do you want a third?

Michelin Stars are a reflection of the work done so far. Our ambition is to be even better at what we do and how we do it, and this is where our desire to climb one more level in this category fits in, because in truth it fits with the values of the Rui Paula group which are, as I said, continuous dedication, growth and quality.

What advice would you give to a young person starting out in the kitchen with the ambition of becoming a chef?

The best advice I could give a young person with ambitions of becoming a chef is to gain a profound knowledge of their country’s gastronomic culture. Every recipe, every flavour, every detail. A basic knowledge of identity could open the door to a signature cuisine in the next phase.

Does Portuguese cuisine have flavour?

There are no words to describe our cuisine: Flavour! It has a lot of flavour. If there is food that warms the soul, it is ours. The fact that it is eclectic provides us with a very interesting variety of flavours.

What does Portuguese cuisine need to become more visible internationally?

Before the pandemic, Portugal was on a good road, with lots of restaurants offering good food, providing excellent service and with a fine wine list. Tourists came and enjoyed themselves.

However, what is it that is missing that is preventing it from achieving a higher international profile?

The existence of high-quality Portuguese restaurants abroad, both with and without Michelin stars. It is important to define a concept that works well, that shows off Portuguese wine and transmits the recipes in their spaces. As an example, there are many Japanese and Italian restaurants around the world that have managed this “upgrade”.

The Portuguese have not (yet) made this leap. With a commitment to quality and to meeting these conditions, then I do not doubt we will have more success.

Sustainability is one of humanity’s greatest challenges. A challenge facing governments, institutions and citizens. How do you promote this in the Rui Paula Group?

In the Rui Paula Group, sustainable development is intimately linked to social responsibility. Through the implementation of an internal sustainability plan, we are making a contribution to global sustainability and, at the same time, we are influencing everyone: staff, suppliers, producers, distributors and customers. Changing behaviour is key to the sustainability of the planet. It’s the so-called domino effect.

Is sustainability felt at the table?

Yes, in a number of ways. We always give preference to fresh, local and seasonal products, we use all of the produce to reduce food waste, the cleaning and disinfecting products we use are environmentally certified, we use only the water and energy that is absolutely necessary…

What significance does Portuguese cuisine have for the country’s tourism potential?

Portuguese gastronomy is one of the world’s greatest cuisines, both now and in the future. With the discoveries, we influenced and left our mark on many of the world’s cuisines, and our food has a tradition of strong flavours while also being healthy and varied. Our gastronomy is of enormous importance to Portugal’s attractiveness as a tourist destination.

More than half of the Portuguese population is overweight. A good diet can contribute to reducing these numbers. How does the Rui Paula Group feel the responsibility to raise awareness?

The Mediterranean Diet is considered to be one of the healthiest in the world, and the basis of our cuisine is healthy dishes such as soups, stews and casseroles, olive oil is our main source of fat, we have a range of fruits and vegetables and we eat a lot of fish. The Rui Paula Group has implemented this diet in the creation of our dishes, and in the size and variety of each product, in order to ensure a healthy balanced diet.

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