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"Avista is not the same every day"



João Luz is the chef at the Avista restaurant, and his restaurant was awarded the Bib Gourmand by the Michelin Guide for the fourth consecutive year. He began his journey with PortoBay at the Il Gallo d'Oro restaurant, where he worked for nine years, until he accepted the challenge of heading the kitchen at the Avista restaurant when it opened.
Find out more about Chef João in this interview.


How did your passion for cooking come about?
It came about through my grandmothers. The conversation between grandmothers and family accounts for 80 to 90% of the cooks in this area. It comes from grandmothers, mothers, fathers; that is just how it is. Many times my parents went to work and I stayed with my grandmother. She cooked for my grandfather, my aunts and anyone else at home and I always liked tinkering, ‘sticking my nose in’, helping her with whatever she was doing. Always with care, of course, especially that grandmotherly care: ‘be careful with the knife, be careful with that fork, the flame will burn you’ and so on. This is where it all started, where my curiosity was aroused, wanting to touch things, wanting to understand why. I always had adult supervision, but that's how it started.

Tell us a little bit about your professional career.
When I finished 9th grade I had to decide, like all young people, whether I wanted to continue with secondary education or vocational education. Of course, parents always want their children to go to secondary school, which ends in the 12th grade, then university, but I wanted to follow a path that was more geared towards what I liked, more towards what, at the time, I thought I had an aptitude for, which was the kitchen.
My parents supported me and I enrolled at the Hotel School, where I started my vocational education. I finished the course, did an internship in hotels on the island and at the end of the 3rd year I started working and that was when I had doubts and concerns. I wanted to understand why, how, when, what if I did things differently; which can happen. As my curiosity continued, I felt the need to look for something more, which is why I went back to studying. I entered the Escola Superior de Hotelaria e Turismo do Estoril, on the degree course for food production and catering. It was three intensive years, years of a lot of theory and learning. There’s an incredible difference between the people who teach us and the professionals – these are people who really have a vocation for what they are teaching, who know what they are saying. It was with the course internships, both in Portugal, in the Algarve, and abroad in Madrid and Barcelona, that I expanded my horizons and had to leave the island of Madeira. Leaving home and being alone is something that enriches you both personally and professionally... at the time you are not aware of how much, but being abroad, studying and managing your life, home and studies, cooking, cleaning the home, all of this means that you have taken a big step, which is very important and very good for you. You become much stronger emotionally because you have to let go and you don't have parents to make your life easier.
When I finished my degree I decided it was time to return to Madeira, to my roots, because you only value what you’ve got when you no longer have it. It's a cliché, but it's true. I had been away for three years. I came here whenever I could, but each time I came here I appreciated it more. When you are born with an acquired talent, you don’t value it or notice it.
As soon as I returned, I had the opportunity to join Il Gallo d'Oro with Chef Benoît Sinthon, where I worked for five years. I grew, and learned a lot. We had a fantastic team, motivating, full of goodwill, and a desire and hunger for cooking, which made us challenge each other and steer the ship successfully into port, becoming different and better professionals in the process.
After that, Portugal went into a major recession and I ended up emigrating to Oxford for four and a half years. It was tough and different, and it was risky. A different country, where the language was not ours, where we had no one. The beginning was more difficult, but with perseverance you can achieve anything. It was a new country, a new culture with people from all over the world that enriched me in an incredible way and gave me a vision of the world beyond what I had known up until then.
After four and a half years I decided to return to Madeira, and contacted Chef Benoît to return to Il Gallo d'Oro, where I stayed for another four years. At the end of this time, the Avista project, Les Suites at The Cliff Bay, came up.

What was the whole process of opening the Avista and the hotel like?
I was involved from the beginning with the designers of the kitchen, to understand the number of covers, the space, the dining room, the number of tables, where the equipment would be located, what the dimensions were.
When I was offered the opportunity at Les Suites, I was also given the opportunity to travel and see what was being done abroad. We went to mainland Portugal, made a few more trips and experienced different restaurants and then, when we returned, we came back so much richer. We saw what the market was offering; of course we already had our own ideas and our focus, but it was so we could study. When we returned, as soon as the kitchens were designed, we started testing our menu at the Blue Lagoon pool restaurant at The Cliff Bay hotel, even before we opened Avista. That way, when we opened the restaurant we would already have received some feedback from customers.
This whole process made me feel as if Avista was also a little bit of me, it was my baby. What’s more, Avista was established in the same year as my daughters were born and so I feel enormous affection for it. It was a busy year in emotional and work terms, but it's all worth it looking at where we are currently. Avista's position in the local market is proof that the work of the entire team is paying off. The work of the kitchen, the dining room, the pantry, maintenance, marketing, all the people who help us grow and evolve. We all deserve to be congratulated! Avista is a high-quality project. When people want something, be it an evening out, a snack, a lounge in the afternoon, when they want to watch the sunset, when they want to go upstairs to the Asia and have an incredible gastronomic experience, Avista is the right place.
We open in the morning to make breakfast, and throughout the day we get through many services: lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, we have the pool, room service, the Asia. We have a very large offer for our customers.

As the chef mentioned, Avista's success is due to the entire team and everyone's contribution. But to what extent does the dining room impact the work of the kitchen?
A restaurant is like a dance for two. There is no kitchen without the dining room and there’s no dining room without the kitchen. It's not worth emphasizing one more than the other, because in a dance for two, in the end the score is awarded to the couple. Therefore, both partners have to make the right steps, with the right movements, so that in the end the music with all that’s involved in this dance will give the customer a much better and more satisfactory experience. So, in my view, the dining room and kitchen are 50/50. It is not worth the kitchen team (cooks, pantry, pastry chef) giving their best in terms of creativity, plating, service, focus, combinations, if the dining room doesn't know how it was prepared, what goes into each dish, whether there are pickles, brine, how long it takes to cure and so on. The dining room team needs to have a story to tell the customer and make the experience more enriching. If you don't have a sommelier who can advise you how to pair the dishes, who has incredible knowledge of the more than 130 bottles on the wine list, who listens to the customer who in turn ends up with another upgrade to their experience. Then there are the bartenders who serve the house's signature cocktails, classics and inventions to customers who come early and enjoy the lounges.
All of this means that people who visit us get to have a real experience. They come early and spend an evening at Avista, hence the importance of each and every member of the team so that we can, in fact, provide the best to the customer.

With so many services at Avista and different roles in the kitchen, what does the day-to-day life of a chef actually entail?
The life of a chef is, above all, about managing people. Managing emotions and feelings. We all have our own and we have to listen to everybody who works with us. We spend many hours in the restaurant, and the team has to feel that the Chef is with them. My entire team knows that they have someone here they can count on, someone they can talk to and let off steam, that they have a shoulder to lean on. It’s also thanks to this that the Avista team has a low turnover, because there is this companionship and commitment from everyone. We have a good working environment and coming to work is not a burden. People enjoy it, and take pleasure in what all the others are doing; and when that happens there is harmony.
We are all interconnected, despite it being intensive work. It involves a lot of emotions, which involves a lot of adrenaline; we have to control it and make it a positive point. Having a sense of organisation and expertise about what we are doing, all the work we do is not just mine, it’s ours. I can create and dream up a dish, but if the team doesn't support me, these things won't be of much use to me. In fact, they will only cause me problems because no-one will be able to replicate it.
This year Avista turns five and we have a stable team that knows what the customer is looking for and expects. We know how far we can go, but of course we always try to get more. Put another stick on the fire and see how much it burns. This is what also motivates us and makes us research new products and techniques that help us to enrich ourselves and improve the menu.

What motivates you most in the kitchen?
What motivates us most is wanting to know why and, above all, wanting to please the customer. Knowing that we have to be able to deliver to the customer who visits us the experience that they are looking for at Avista.
Avista is not the same every day. Although we change the menu twice a year, spring/summer and autumn/winter, not every day is the same. Why?
A carrot is the same everywhere in the world; but the level of sugar contained in a carrot produced on the island of Madeira is much higher than that of an industrial carrot. The Madeira mango is smaller, has a much greater concentration of flavour, and has more fibres. Imported mango is creamier, but doesn't have the complexity of flavours that we have here. We have technical sheets for all our dishes, but these technical sheets have to be adapted because the ingredients are not always the same and the flavours vary. Despite being the same ingredient, recipes need to be adjusted to the time we are preparing it. We always need this sensitivity to all the details, which helps us question things on a daily basis and makes our days different. No two services are the same.

Avista is very concerned about the choice of produce it uses, as the chef mentioned - the origin of the ingredients causes their flavour to change. What is the impact of the PortoBay garden and the suppliers it chooses?
This is what the customer in our restaurant gets that they cannot get at other establishments. Supermarkets buy in volume, in bulk and they always negotiate the lowest price. Our concern is to give the customer an experience and the best product that the market can give us at the moment.
These types of producers, naturally, end up producing smaller quantities and are often only able to supply one restaurant. It forces us to adapt, in terms of recipes and dishes.
In the restaurant and hotel industry we must be committed to bringing these producers together, because just as we need them, they need us. Without support from the sector, regional agriculture risks going out of business and then we are all the losers. It is the customer who at the end of the day did not enjoy the best quality that this product and ingredient could have had.
The PortoBay vegetable garden appeared at an incredible time. We have two farmers who do an extraordinary job: Richard and Leonel. We call them for what we need, for the ideas we have, for the season of the year, the volume for the production we need. And they are able to provide us with these products. We are able to get these organic products, without additives, without chemicals, and this is reflected at the table. For example, coriander that comes from the garden is much more intense. If a recipe calls for 10 grams of coriander, with coriander from our garden I will only use 2/3 grams. Ten grams is the amount you need if you are talking about industrial coriander, produced in a greenhouse, in bulk, where the amount used is much greater and what is delivered to us is not as intense as what comes from the garden. The same goes for asparagus, artichokes, dill and many other things. These seasonal ingredients, which make us adapt the dishes slightly throughout the season, also enrich the experience.

What is the best part of your job?
Seeing when customers are at the table - they take their first bite, they look at each other and nod their heads and their eyes smile. I think that is the best part; it's what gives us the most pleasure and enjoyment in what we do. Seeing that others react emotionally, that they have an experience, that they are really enjoying what we have been preparing throughout the day. It is very satisfying when others recognise our work.
Another moment that is very good is when the customer gets up to leave, and before leaving they reserve a table for the next day. It is these two gestures from the client that give me the most pleasure.

What are the biggest challenges in the restaurant?
Managing people. What is a restaurant without people? Nothing.
If a machine could do what we do, it would save a lot of money… the biggest cost is labour. But a machine cannot. It doesn’t have the sensitivity that a person has, to provide a service, to provide experiences, to meet the customer's desires.
For example, the sun moves throughout the day, so the sunshade also has to be moved, but it is the member of the hotel staff who is aware of this, who sees that the sun is beating down on the customer’s back or head. This is what takes you the extra mile, what makes you pay attention to the service and the customer. That's what makes all the difference.

How do you see the future of the restaurant?
The future is a step by step process. Work today and let’s see tomorrow. You have to plan the next few years, where you see yourself in five years’ time for example, but it’s not a straight line. You overcome several obstacles, which also makes your work different every day. The challenges of these setbacks make you grow, evolve, achieve more and get better.
For this, again, team organisation is fundamental. Maintaining a stable team. Right now, when I want to convey my ideas, I look at the team and they already know what I want without saying anything. These days, I don't talk about recipes, but about ingredients and we manage to create a dish which comes from being together a few years.

Receiving the Bib Gourmand distinction for four consecutive years is obviously a great source of pride. What did it mean to you?
It was recognition, in addition to our customers, from a body like Michelin, which is the same body that evaluates starred restaurants. The inspectors who evaluate are the same; they spend the same time on the recommended ones, on the Bib Gourmand, as on the Michelin Stars. The requirements have to be the same, the Guide has to be the same and they are committing to that restaurant, they are giving their name to that place.
Of course, when we received the Bib it was a surprise. It was a great source of pride for the teams and it was validation of all the work we have been doing over the years, and that we have maintained.

Over all these years of work, has there been any one moment that particularly stood out for you?
Working for almost 10 years at Il Gallo d'Oro was something that really made its mark on me. I learned a lot, acquired a lot of knowledge and managed to grow as a person and as a professional, thanks to the entire team there.
Something that also had a big impact, and is essential in this profession, were the trips I took. When you travel you broaden your horizons, you bring with you all the flavours you taste, the people you meet, the cultures you encounter. The places you eat, the new ingredients you discover. All of this enriches you a lot in professional and personal terms, bringing more creativity, making you want to do more to be better.
Each of us is the sum of the baggage we bring with us, which in essence are the trips we take and our life experience. For me, studying abroad and emigrating were defining moments. Despite being difficult, they were fundamental in making me who I am today as a person and as a professional.

After this recognition, what are your next goals and ambitions?
Our main goals and ambitions are to continue searching and evolving. Tasting a lot, experiencing new flavours, acquiring more knowledge, new techniques and ways of working with ingredients.

Do you have any advice you can share with your professional colleagues?
Above all, perseverance. This is a profession that requires a lot of dedication, endeavour, commitment and, above all, a love for what you do. It's an area where you need to have taste, where you always have to study, be interested and want to know more. You have to keep updating yourself, tasting a lot, eating in new and different places and, above all, travelling!
In my case, I am a fan of books. Every month I buy a book to enrich myself, learn, innovate, create and develop new dishes and flavours with the teams who create the menus. AIl the knowledge I acquire inspires me to create new things. The basis of everything is incessant curiosity; always wanting to know more and why.

What is your favourite dish (to eat)?
What I like most isn't exactly a dish; it's not something you eat at the table. For me, food represents family, friends and conviviality. There is nothing that gives me as much pleasure as getting together with the family and having a picnic in the mountains, in the heart of nature, where the noise of the cities cannot be heard. Spreading out a table cloth, and everyone getting together for the evening to talk, laugh and share the moment. Having a family barbecue is without a doubt my favourite thing.

And what do you most like making?
I've been through a number of phases. There was a phase when I really enjoyed working with animal protein, especially large animals with different parts that allow you to cook in different ways. I also had a stage when I was more focused on different birds and game meats. Sea products, such as fish, shellfish and crustaceans, always feature heavily on Avista's menus, bearing in mind that we are next to the sea and in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Working with vegetables is also an amazing challenge. For example, a customer who orders a dish with beetroot will find different colours (purple, yellow, chioggia) with different flavours, textures and techniques that will give people a different experience.


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15 NOVEMBER 2023

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