Why you should care
There’s more to contemporary Portuguese cuisine than cod and sardines. Henrique Sá Pessoa is ready to show it to you.
Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson. Survey the landscape of celebrity TV chefs and critical ingredients appear to include a hot temper, a loud voice or a larger-than-life ego. But Henrique Sá Pessoa just proves this wrong.
This soft-spoken 37-year-old from Lisbon is quietly leading a culinary renaissance in his country, where he’s nicknamed “Portugal’s Jamie Oliver” for his popular TV shows Entre Pratos (Among Dishes), Ingrediente Secreto (Secret Ingredient) and Chefs’ Academy.
I’m a simple guy, and I like honest food.
— Henrique Sá Pessoa
He appears completely unfazed by fame, almost shy. Maybe it’s because he never aimed to be a celebrity, actually wanting to be an accountant while dreaming of becoming a basketball player.
“Both were good ideas actually,” Pessoa tells OZY, “because you need to know numbers to run a restaurant, and team building is crucial in a kitchen. I was point guard, so I’m used to calling the shots.”
As he speaks, his eyes wander involuntarily toward the bar to check that everything is running smoothly. Talking about himself, his humility borders on bashfulness, but he’s obviously coiled and ready to jump back behind the stove and bark orders at the first sign of trouble.
We’re sitting in front of his third and newest restaurant, a trendy food stand that opened just two months ago in one of Lisbon’s most emblematic markets, Da Ribeira. The minimalistic space has a casual atmosphere attracting a wide variety of customers, from well-off tourists to local workers who sit at long tables to enjoy a roasted octopus salad or a suckling pig sandwich.
“We have such good ingredients in Portugal that you don’t need to make things complicated for them to be delicious,” he says, talking about this new concept. “I’m a simple guy, and I like honest food.”
This is obvious from the way he dresses — basic jeans, shirt and perfect shave — to the pure white, minimalistic décor of his flagship restaurant, Alma, where he serves traditional recipes with a contemporary, international twist. The menu includes creations like strawberry gazpacho, cod ravioli, Azores cheese fondue, lamb shank with hummus and lemon-scented mussel risotto.
I didn’t grow up cooking with my grandmother or smelling herbs.
— Henrique Sá Pessoa
Even his TV show Ingredient Secreto is refreshingly straightforward. Each episode focuses on a single ingredient — from octopus to coffee — and with his calm and casual tone, Pessoa helps viewers discover surprising culinary possibilities, such as complementing a chicken burger with grilled pineapple.
His backstory is not your typical chef. “Sorry to disappoint, but I didn’t grow up cooking with my grandmother or smelling herbs,” he says joking. “I didn’t even like food that much as a kid!”
The cooking bug bit him as a teenager. At 16, he could only make one dish, spaghetti bolognaise, but he obsessively improved upon it until his pasta was legendary among family and friends. It wasn’t until he went to study his senior year of high school abroad, in Pittsburgh, that he dropped his accountancy ambitions.
“A chef came to speak to my class, and I realized that was exactly what I wanted to be,” Pessoa says.
Upon his return to Portugal, he spent a year working odd jobs to save money and enrolled in Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts, where he instantly felt at home among pots and pans. “I knew I’d found my place because I’d never been so eager to take exams,” he recalls.
More inspiration came when he moved to London and married an Australian who was waiting tables. “The late ’90s was a great time to be there because there was a culinary revolution taking place, something similar to what’s happening in Portugal right now.”
Still, success working in fancy hotels and restaurants — he was named Portugal’s Chef of the Year in 2005 — did not bring satisfaction.
“I was making good money, but something was missing,” Pessoa says. “I needed to prove to myself that I could do it on my own.” So he decided to open a restaurant where he would combine his love for Portuguese food with the latest techniques from London and some Asian touches from Australia, where he worked briefly. He named it Alma — soul.
His timing was terrible. It was 2009, Portugal was at the height of its financial crisis, Pessoa had a 1-year-old baby daughter and he was going through a divorce.
Still, he persevered. Alma has been fully booked for years and recognized as one of the country’s best eater ies.
…being a father is more important to me than having a Michelin star.
— Henrique Sá Pessoa
“What Pessoa is doing is very important for Portugal’s gastronomic scene,” says culinary critic Duarte Calvão. “Alma is a very good restaurant and also proof for young Portuguese chefs that it’s possible to try new things and succeed.”
Inspired by his days in the U.S., Pessoa has also opened another atypical space, Cais da Pedra, a high-end hamburger joint with 180 seats, a cocktail bar and a stunning view of Lisbon’s riverfront. The sleek, slightly industrial-looking space with long wooden tables and an open kitchen is packed with hip, good-looking youngsters munching on salmon burgers or sipping on pink mojitos while listening to the in-house DJ.
Still, he might be spreading himself too thin. “Pessoa is a star, but Alma is not being very innovative lately,” says Calvão. Writing cookbooks, being the face of the most-watched culinary shows in Portugal and representing his country in international events like the 2014 World Gourmet Summit evidently leaves little time for creativity.
Pessoa admits that juggling so many things is a challenge. “I know I haven’t progressed as fast as I could in Alma, but I’m also very clear that being a father is more important to me than having a Michelin star.”
This year, he says he’s determined to turn the restaurant into the ultimate example of Portuguese culinary ingenuity, showing how versatile and surprisingly delicious traditional ingredients can be. That’s why he is closing it for four months and moving it to Lisbon’s trendiest neighborhood, Chiado. “It’s exciting. My team and I are ready to offer an entire new menu and take our cooking to a higher level.”
Gastronomy is a competitive universe, and staying on top is only for the best. Pessoa appears to be setting the stage for Portugal’s new gourmet scene with his unusual secret sauce: humility.