Chef Noélia Jerónimo, known for her work at the popular Cabanas de Tavira restaurant Noélia & Jerónimo, has received the coveted ‘Chef of the Year’ award in Expresso newspaper’s ‘Boa Cama, Boa Mesa’ restaurant and hotel guide – less than a year after being hospitalised for three weeks due to Covid-19.
With over 30 years of experience in the restaurant industry, Noélia has been running Noélia & Jerónimo since 2007.
The restaurant has become so popular in the region that it is completely booked for dinners until the end of August. It is also a frequent dining spot for some of the country’s top chefs, from Hans Neuner to José Avillez.
However, this latest prize has come as a complete surprise, one that Noélia says arrived at the right time after facing the “hardest year” of her life.
“I have no idea how this happened. For me, it was very gratifying on both an emotional and professional level. After such a hard year – the hardest! – it was a very important prize,” she told Barlavento newspaper, comparing it to having won the Euromillions lottery.
“My legs got weak, I cried a lot. I wasn’t expecting this because I never worked with the goal of winning it (the prize). I work to make people happy, to show them new flavours and to make sure the time they spend at Noélia’s is special,” said the chef.
“Besides, it was extremely important for the Algarve. I wasn’t the only one to win, the region won too. I am very happy,” she added.
What’s most impressive is that Noélia has no formal training as a chef. Everything she has learned has come from her own research or her family.
“All I want is to grow every day and get better at what I do,” said the chef. “I have a huge passion for what I do – I love cooking, the Ria Formosa, the sea and the mountains.”
Another key to her success has been the choice to use only fresh produce, almost exclusively from the Algarve.
“I pick the best tuna, clams and oysters. I try to work as much as possible with local products as it also helps those around me,” said Noélia, who is a regular client at the local markets where she buys much of her restaurant’s supplies.
The menu changes every day to ensure all dishes are made with fresh ingredients.
While Noélia is incredibly proud of her food, she also believes that what sets her restaurant apart is the relationship she builds with her clients.
“Our success is also due to the fact that people like me. I commit myself a lot and I like people,” she said.
But perhaps the highest praise comes from her fellow chefs.
“I’m lucky to be friends with several chefs such as Leonel Pereira (CHECKin), Rui Silvestre (Vistas), Hans Neuner (Ocean), Vítor Matos (Antiqvvm), José Avillez (Belcanto) and Justa Nobre (O Nobre). Almost every year, all of Portugal’s Michelin star chefs come here. They like it and that is why I was called for many years the ‘cook of the chefs’,” explained Noélia, adding that it is almost as if they come to her restaurant to enjoy their mother’s cooking.
But not everything has been a walk in the park. Last year, Noélia faced one of the toughest moments of her life when she became infected with Covid-19, due to an outbreak at the restaurant, and had to spend three weeks in hospital. A total of 12 people tested positive.
“We had to close from June 20 to August 20 in the middle of the high season. When I was able to reopen, my strength had still not fully recovered,” said Noélia, who always supported her employees who had also become infected.
The outbreak did end up costing the business around €3,000 in ingredients which went bad and could no longer be used.
Despite the hardships, Noélia has every reason to smile as her restaurant continues to enjoy success for its traditional Algarvian food.
While she has received proposals to open a restaurant in Lisbon, Noélia says the Algarve is where she wants to be.
“I’m in love with the Algarve, the Ria Formosa and I like to be here. I don’t want to own more restaurants. I just want to do more and better with what I have,” she said.
Six other awards for Algarve
The Algarve received six other awards in Expresso’s ‘Boa Cama, Boa Mesa’ guide, including three “Silver Forks” – Noélia & Jerónimo (Tavira), Vistas Rui Silvestre (Vila Nova de Cacela) and Pequeno Mundo (Loulé); Vista in Portimão received a “Gold Star”, while Vila Vita Parc Resort in Porches received a “Platinum Fork” for its Ocean restaurant as well as a “Golden Key” – the only hotel or resort in the Algarve to receive the accolade.
Original article written by Maria Simiris for Barlavento newspaper.