Talking with chef Vítor Hugo at Peixola
At Peixola, as the Portuguese name implies, fish is the main raw material, a divinely cooked fish, which is then split into several different dishes that make up the tasting menu. This is the restaurant where Vítor Hugo does his magic tricks. A chef, like all chefs, shy and discreet, but eccentric at the same time. He arrives with a Napalm Death t-shirt, from a time when, to many, heavy and thrash metal depicted the kind of music one wanted to hear during an effective catharsis. Vítor Hugo is from Linda-a-Velha, “which, in the 90s, was the national flagship of Portuguese hardcore and even my friends’ kids already have bands and write ‘Linda-a-Velha Hardcore’ in their shirts and they do tattoos.”
Elsa Garcia – Vítor…
Vítor Hugo – Nobody calls me Vítor, it’s Vítor Hugo (laughs).
EG – I know that you used to cook to your grandmother and you’ve read French cookbooks.
VH – I was raised by women only, almost – you can’t notice that, but it’s true (laughs) – by my two grandmas, my aunts and by my mother whenever that was possible. My grandmother worked as a cook in a tavern, she did things like açorda of tomato, fried fish (food that I do love). So I used to go with her to the restaurant and I enjoyed cooking stuff at home. When I was eleven years old, I set my mom’s kitchen on fire and I took a beating.
EG – How did that happen?
VH – I was making some béchamel, standing on a stool, and when I was about to pick up the pot with a cloth, it started to burn my hands, and so I threw it right on the oilcloth floor, which caught fire right away. I still managed to extinguish it, but the consequence was a giant black spot right in the middle of the floor. She was quite “happy” with that.
EG – Did you start to cook around that age?
VH – I only started to cook well after I was 20. My first job as a cook was with Jean Zaragoza, chef of Estufa Real. Before that, I started as a kitchen assistant at CCB (Centro Cultural de Belém), and I had to take my piercings off when I was hired, which were many (laughs). Throughout the first six months my job was: to peel two bags of onion, two of carrots and a sack of potatoes, do two buckets of mayonnaise with chopped onion, and two buckets of mayonnaise with cassé tomato (peeled, seedless and finely chopped tomato). As a result, I’m the world’s best dude when it comes to making cassé tomato, chopping onions, and peeling potatoes and carrots. A lot of training, many hours and only one day off a week. I left after that but I still returned two times: one as a chef and the other as an executive chef.
EG – Such a great promotion.
VH – I always return to all the places where I once worked, at least once more. I haven’t returned to Eleven yet, because I don’t have the time to. I left Eleven to manage two restaurants of the franchise 100 Maneiras, but I really like Koerper, he’s a great man. I still remember when I was working at Eleven, and we manage to get one Michelin star back, the next day I quit and Joachim said: “But… Shrek?”. He called me Shrek!
EG – Why?
VH – He used to say “Vítor Hugo, I have a lot of cooks in here, I will not remember your name. Can I call you Shrek?” “You, chef, can call me whatever you want to”.
EG – Picking again on that topic of getting a Michelin Start at Eleven, what did you say to Joaquim Koerper to justify your departure?
VH – I said “Because I want to. We’ve won that star. It’s done. It’s said an done”. Then I decided to go to 100 Maneiras and, when I talked to Ljubomir, I couldn’t even recall that I had done a champagne risotto with pan-seared scallops and beurre noisette, which he loved to the point where he asked to meet me.
EG – And how did you end up at Peixola?
VH – Well, during the time when I was still working at 100 Maneiras, I started providing consultancy services to Champanharia do Cais, in Cais do Sodré, and then I kept doing the same sort of work for Espumantaria do Petisco in Castelo and, last year, we opened Espumantaria do Mar at Palácio do Chiado. That was when I made the decision to leave 100 Maneiras.
EG – Why did you decide to quit?
VH – Because I was there for three years! Enough of that! In the meantime, the shareholders of this company knew that I was about to leave and so they made me a proposal where I’d assume the leadership or the management of the group’s kitchens. Peixola then joined those three kitchens. I liked the concept, but they lacked freshness, control.
António Néu – Do you like to control everything?
VH – Do I!!! Of course. I get crazy if I don’t control everything, from the doses to the accounts.
EG – Let’s get a hold on all of your path until you reached where you are now.
VH – Armazém F was the first place where I had the leadership, then I was the chef at Casa México, in Rua Dom Carlos I, Lisbon’s best Mexican restaurant by a mile. After that I returned to Armazém F, already as the chef of both their spots, then CCB, as a banquet chef. Then, I worked at Justa Nobre in Torres de Lisboa (good spot, good school, good everything) and then I inaugurated Rio’s in Oeiras. Then I went back to Kais and CCB. Now let’s pause because the fondant has arrived.
EG – Fondant of what?
VH – Caramel!
EG – So good. Must be my favourite dessert.
VH – Let me add that the ice cream is also made here. After four years at CCB, I took a “sabbatical license”. I was tired of it and I left with some money in my pocket. It happened during the 2012/2013 crisis. After eight months I made the decision to work again and Joachim Koerper called me for a job interview. I wanted to go to Eleven, to learn more and Joachim told me: “I can’t do it today, because I want to be in the kitchen to have everything ready for you. Tomorrow at 8 a.m.”. And that was it, I worked every single day for a couple of months, from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. That’s the only way we can get one Michelin star back. Otherwise it’s not possible.
EG – Have you ever did a cooking course?
VH – No, but I spent 20 years cooking.
EG – Self-taught. And this tasting menu. How did you reach its concept?
VH – It’s easy to pick the concept, because it’s fish-focused, and I prefer to eat and cook fish a thousand times more. I think it’s more elegant. I like the touch and, when the fish is really fresh, it smells like water, it has the smell of water and tastes like the sea. It makes you think about a whole lot of memories, the sea, the iodine, the rock, all you need is a forkful and you’re there. What you enjoy about food is not only the taste, but the memory it gives you, and in fish you have: the freshness, the chipping, the delicacy, the elegance. I picked several things to arrange the menu, for instance I added a sauce to the butterfish mouse, one that I learned to do with Ljubomir’s mother.
EG – So, basically, your kitchen is a fusion of several situations that you experienced.
VH – Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render to Ljubomir’s mother the things that are Ljubomir’s mother’s. That’s it in a nutshell. Nobody invents anything, we do marriages, some more successful than others. So we have this mousse, which has an Eastern inspiration. Then the carpaccio of scallops, which is much sweeter, more sugary, but I balance things up with olive powder, hazelnuts and truffle oil.
EG – After the cuttlefish tartare, which almost made me cry.
VH – Because I like to feel the presence of the flavour! If it has wasabi mayonnaise, I must feel it, it cannot be just a tiny scent.
EG – And then the details. You use edible flowers in almost all your dishes!
VH – Indeed. I like some more than others. I particularly enjoy pansies. Perhaps because I’m a hopeless romantic. I like pansies and roses very much, but they wither quite quickly and so I end up choosing Chinese carnations.
EG – What you really like is to juxtapose contemporary cuisine with the Portuguese one.
VH – Yes. That’s why the fish soup you tasted today must be like a really classic soup, filled with flavour, filled with fish and consistent to the point where the spoon can stay poked, firm and rigid in it for three days. And then we add several spices. I do a mixture of 27 spices of mine.
EG – And finally the fondant!!!
VH – The fondant is a classic, the only thing I changed was the fact that we started to do our own ice cream. It’s more laborious, but it’s worth it. When I did chestnut pudding for 100 Maneiras, I did it with lemon verbena ice cream. Why? Because my grandma used to do roasted chestnuts with lemon verbena tea. It’s an incredible combination, the verbena’s fresh flavor, just outstanding, and then the pudding… I always go back to my grandma’s recipes.