The Flavours of Portugal – Chef Alexandre Silva

Sophie Sadler interviewed one of Portugal’s most famous chefs to discuss the elevation of traditional Portuguese cooking to MICHELIN star level.

Alexandre Silva was born among the vineyards of Abrigada, 40 miles north of Lisbon, at the head of the Serra de Montejunto range. It was here that his culinary journey began. I asked him about his earliest memories of food. “I am Portuguese,” he smiles, “I learnt cooking in the school of Portugal. Food is in my DNA.” 

Alexandre’s childhood memories revolve around the family coming together to eat. He recollects wood fires, fresh products and delicious flavours. “Of course, now many 21st-century mothers don’t have the time to learn the skills of traditional Portuguese cooking, but in my grandparents’ day, every grandmother could cook and had their signature dish,” he reflects. And cooking was not just the women’s domain. He paid tribute to his grandfather in his speech after winning Top Chef in 2012, a popular TV show which shot him to national stardom.

His culinary inspiration came from ingrained flavours from his childhood like cabidela (a rice dish traditionally made with rooster), roasted lamb and grilled fish. Coming from the area near Peniche, he tells me that his point of reference is Atlantic cuisine. The area has one of the biggest fishing harbours in Portugal. In his kitchens, he uses only Portuguese products of controlled origin and respects environmental sustainability. “I think Portuguese cuisine is one of the best in the world,” he tells me, “but we don’t have good marketing. Portugal should be in the same discussion as Italian, French and Spanish cooking. We have great chefs, great products and some of the best seafood in the world.”

Alexandre advocates traditional Portuguese cuisine, from which he draws inspiration for his two restaurants, Loco and Fogo, both in Lisbon. He is determined to put his cooking and Portuguese cooking on the world map. Chef Silva tells me his cooking comes from his ancestors, whom he cites as his biggest teachers; however, he also acquired an impressive resumé to add to his DNA. He graduated in Kitchen/Pastry and F&B Management at the Hotel Management and Tourism School of Lisbon and in Molecular Gastronomy at the Higher Institute of Agronomy. As chef at the restaurant Bocca in Lisbon, he attracted much attention from local foodies. But it was his food that did the talking and food critics at Time Out Lisboa gave him six stars – the only chef ever to be awarded that honour. Sadly, in 2012, the economic crisis in Portugal forced Bocca to close and Alexandre accepted an offer to take over the kitchens at Alentejo Marmòris, a five-star hotel in Vila Viçosa. 

He didn’t stay in the Alentejo for long; the capital city drew him back and he returned to Lisbon to accept the challenge of executive chef at one of the country’s most famous restaurants: Bica do Sapato. During this period, he was asked to participate in the Time Out Market project. His pop-up restaurant at this popular venue drew praise from customers from around the world. The positive feedback encouraged Alexandre to achieve his ambition in haute cuisine, opening Loco in the Estrela area of Lisbon. Loco first won a MICHELIN star in 2016.

LOCO Restaurant

Alexandre’s second restaurant, Fogo, celebrates fire. The kitchen has a collection of open flames, on which he only burns wood. His concept is that this cooking method is a return to the ways of our ancestors. He explains, “For everyone that tastes the food, it should spark a remembered flavour that you recognise but don’t remember when you experienced it.” The warmth from the glowing fires fills the restaurant with a homely feel reminiscent of cooking over a traditional hearth. Alexandre tells me that he sees “smoke as an ingredient”, but it’s not easy to manipulate. He confirms that the kitchen pass is a hot place for his chefs to work. The ingredients must also be top quality and the technique must be precise. He emphasises that the smoky taste must be subtle and not overpowering.

Fogo Restaurant

I am keen to tap into Alexandre’s years of acquired knowledge to understand when the best ingredients can be found in Portugal. He uses Alentejo pork, which he believes to be among the best in the world, vegetables from the Azores and beef from the north. He explains how the Age of Discoveries meant Portuguese culture spread and absorbed centuries of culinary traditions. Thanks to the spice trade initiated by the Portuguese, by the 1500s, Asia was introduced to chillies, while citrus fruits were sent from Asia to Europe. Potatoes that are native to South America became a food staple in Europe. It was also thanks to the Portuguese and the maritime route to India that Asian spices became more widely available in Europe and the Western world, lowering costs and thus normalising their use in everyday kitchens.

In 2021, Alexandre was distinguished by the International Academy of Gastronomy with the Chef of the Future award. At the time, he commented to Publico, “I hope that this award will also bring more [customers] and that it will also help to promote Lisbon and Portugal abroad. It’s always good to have an internationally recognised chef; it’s great for the country.” Alexandre confided how a MICHELIN star elevated his business by 20–30% by attracting tourists. He believes the accolade of having its own MICHELIN guide will distinguish Portuguese cuisine as something unique and worth celebrating.

Alexandre’s passion for Portuguese cooking made him an ideal candidate for The Art Of Tasting Experience. The Art of Tasting Portugal is an eight-episode television series on CNN, made in collaboration with MICHELIN Guide and the Portugal Tourism Board. Each episode is dedicated to a different Portuguese region, with eight of Portugal’s most renowned chefs as ambassadors. Alexandre Silva focuses on Berlengas, a Portuguese archipelago of small Atlantic islands 10 to 17 kilometres off the coast of Peniche. It is here Alexandre sources his seafood, with only line-caught fish. The Art of Tasting invites tourists to join the chefs for a tasting experience, meaning you could join Alexandre when he takes guests on a personal tour of the Berlengas. Here, you will enjoy a fishing trip, then join Alexandre in his kitchen while he rustles you up a delicious meal from the fresh ingredients you have sourced. Unsurprisingly this experience does not come cheap at 3,200€ per person but it would certainly be a completely unique gastronomic experience you would never forget.

Alexandre’s episode on The Art of Tasting focuses on the challenging art of percebes fishing. Alexandre tells me that the Berlengas percebes are the best in Portugal and the islands are where he sources the goose barnacles for his restaurant. In Loco, he elevates this local speciality by simply boiling the crustaceans in sea water and serving the delicacy alongside cod and seafood with rice. 

I am keen to delve further and wonder how he elevates other traditional concepts to MICHELIN level. Alexandre describes his bacalhau à brás recipe, which he has deconstructed, creating a recipe for each element of the dish. He then brings them all together in a bite-size morsel which tastes like the dish but which is fundamentally new and exciting. Despite his modest conviction that his talents come from his heritage, the Time Out website credits him with being “one of the first Portuguese chefs to think for himself. That is, being guided more by his own creativity than by inspiration from books and tradition.”

I ask Alexandre what his future ambitions are. Another couple of restaurants? He explains that, with two young daughters of eight and three years old, this is not on his wish list. He already works long hours, splitting his time between his two restaurants. Instead, his aim is to be an advocate of the small fisherman whom he so loves to spend time with in his beloved corner of the Atlantic coastline.

Alexandre is a true advocate of fishermen and Portugal, and a disciple of the country’s traditional ways. From surf to turf Alexandre’s ingenuity and DNA ensure Portuguese cooking is given the credit it deserves by MICHELIN guide and the rest of the culinary world.


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