Michelin Guide hosts debate in run-up to first “all-Portuguese” Gala
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Michelin Guide hosts debate in run-up to first “all-Portuguese” Gala

The iconic gastronomic guide held a debate in Portimão to discuss “The Value of Gastronomy in the Tourist Experience”.

Countdown has started for what is set to be Portugal’s most anticipated night in the history of national gastronomy. On February 27, the first exclusively Portuguese Michelin Gala will be held at the NAU Salgados Palace in Albufeira, where the national stars for the 2024 Guide will be revealed.

To kick off the celebrations, Michelin held a debate on February 6 at the Museum of Portimão, where a star-studded panel of speakers, including award-winning chefs, a reputed food journalist and industry leaders, discussed “The Value of Gastronomy in the Tourist Experience“.

For over an hour, moderator and TV journalist Paulo Salvador prompted his guests to candidly share their vision of “how gastronomy can become a powerful engine to bolster the Portuguese tourism sector and influence its cultural identity”.

Michelin Guide hosts debate in run-up to first “all-Portuguese” Gala
Lídia Monteiro (Turismo de Portugal) and debate moderator Paulo Salvador.

Quality was the first topic on the agenda, with José Avillez, ambassador of Portuguese gastronomy and chef of the Belcanto**, Encanto* and Tasca by José Avillez* restaurants, affirming “What we have to do from now on is [focus on] quality across various sectors. In training, without a doubt, but also of producers and ingredients, and retaining quality“. To illustrate his point, he told the story of a sweet potato supplier from Aljezur who drove to Lisbon to sell his product. “His van was filthy, with potato sacs strewn across the floor and no scales. I told him I’d keep the sweet potato and taste it, but I wouldn’t buy his potatoes if they didn’t come properly packed and in a clean van with scales. He returned with all I asked a week later, and today, he is still our supplier”, highlighting how being demanding with suppliers leads to improvement.

But it isn’t just about direct suppliers. It’s also about offering fresh products in the cities, explained the chef, “The Ribeira Market (Lisbon), for example, attracts many tourists and, apart from the fish section, offers very poor quality products”, adding that “There is no respect for seasonality”. For him, access to quality products in tourist areas is crucial “because it also allows visitors to see what the country and the city offer in terms of gastronomy“.

Michelin Guide hosts debate in run-up to first “all-Portuguese” Gala
Chef José Avillez

A requirement that is transversal to every gastronomic outlet. “In a fine dining restaurant, but also a tasca, at a street-food festival, in all expressions of our gastronomy, the experience has to be positive”, adds Lídia Monteiro, Member of the Board of Directors of Turismo de Portugal, who broached the next hot topic: Foreigners’ perception of Portuguese gastronomy.

Playing a significant role in the perception of national gastronomy, bacalhau divided the panel. The tourism official shared the example of an episode of Master Chef Australia in which a Portuguese contestant presented a dish to show that Portuguese gastronomy is much more than “chicken and pasteis de nata”, as it is perceived in Australia. The dish, which, according to Monteiro, the jury described as divine, was Bacalhau à Braz. “The jury’s experience of this dish was completely different from what the contestant described as the perception of our gastronomy in Australia. It is precisely this gap that we want to work on and reduce“, she exclaimed. “And I think that Michelin coming to Portugal with its own guide will certainly help us change this perception and reduce this gap.

Michelin Guide hosts debate in run-up to first “all-Portuguese” Gala
Chef Marléne Vieira

On the other hand, chef Marlène Vieira (Zunzum Gastrobar and Marlène Restaurant) admits to sometimes refusing to serve bacalhau to tourists who come looking for it, “Because I think my job as a Portuguese chef is to give them much more than that“.

Food journalist Rafael Tonon joined the bacalhau debate, saying that Portuguese gastronomy is still little known abroad. “It’s still off many people’s radar and is still seen in a very reductive way. In Brazil, people think Portuguese gastronomy is bacalhau and pasteis de nata. It also is, but it’s not just that.”

Michelin Guide hosts debate in run-up to first “all-Portuguese” Gala
Food journalist Rafael Tonon

For him, far beyond these stereotypes, Portugal’s incredible culinary variety is its greatest asset. “It has such a rich gastronomy and preserves many traditions that have died in other parts of the world. That’s what people don’t know about Portugal”, adding that “Portugal could attract many more people if it showed this wealth of tradition and diversity”.

He also touched on how people perceive Portugal as a cheap country to eat, “This perception is detrimental to gastronomy because it devalues it. People think they can come here to eat and drink wine for five euros. It is possible, but that’s not all”. He believes gastronomy is an engine for promoting quality products. “It brings people who want to know about history, geography and culture”, he added.

On a positive note, Brand Strategy Advisor and author João Wengorovius praised the association with Michelin as a very good step towards a perception of quality. Countries and brands are generally evaluated in terms of esteem and respect. Respect implies quality, creativity, and consistency. Michelin is a brand that has always sold that, and the association with the brand will move us up the respect ladder.”

Michelin Guide hosts debate in run-up to first “all-Portuguese” Gala
João Wengorovius and Lídia Monteiro.

When asked about the future, Lídia Monteiro revealed the Portuguese Tourism Board’s ambition “is for gastronomy to be the reason for visiting Portugal“. José Avillez then pointed out, “Few people travel long distances to eat at a traditional restaurant, but many do for a chef’s contemporary restaurant”, most of which are Michelin restaurants. However, he added, “Some people will travel to get to know the traditional gastronomy of a region, and there you need more than one example.”

The debate ended on a pressing note: How to attract aspiring professionals and retain qualified staff, which the panel concluded required applicants to have the right mindset and restaurants to value their staff.

The Gala Debate on YouTube (in Portuguese)

Michelin Guide hosts debate in run-up to first “all-Portuguese” Gala