“Fire taps into our prehistoric DNA,” says Gonçalo Castel-Branco, the brains behind Portugal’s popular Chefs on Fire food and music festival. “It just feels natural.”
“It’s also risky,” says the entrepreneur, who came up with the idea four years ago after being asked to prepare a large birthday dinner in a tiny kitchen and instead doing all the cooking over fires outside. “No two fires are the same. It’s a dance with breeze and temperature. Everything is moving; you have to be in the moment. It’s alive.”
Sometimes, “you can do everything right and it still goes wrong,” continues Castel-Branco, who is planning the fourth edition of Chefs on Fire, at which ten top Portuguese chefs will take the fires each day over a weekend in September, as well as a series of pop-ups around the country over the summer. “But when it works, it’s amazing.”
One of those top chefs is Alexandra Silva, who cemented his reputation as a fire master with the opening of his restaurant Fogo (“fire” in Portuguese), two years ago. “Not having things under control is always more attractive,” he admits. “I like to be out of my comfort zone, and a kitchen with a live fire makes that happen constantly. It’s not something you learn in schools, and it’s not learned in 95% of the great cuisines around the world. Cooking with live fire is a way of life; it’s a daily duel.”
At the same time, cooking with fire was simply what most people in Portugal (and elsewhere) did until very recently. “This restaurant is a tribute to my ancestors,” says the chef, who also conceived the fire kitchen restaurant Craveiral Farm Table in the Alentejo. “For as long as I can remember that I am a person, people have been cooking with fire in my house: wood ovens, braziers, open fires, large chimneys.
“I was born in a village with 600 inhabitants. In the ’80s, there was no gas. There were no electric stoves, only in the richest houses,” he recalls. “People lived from the countryside and for the countryside. Opening this restaurant was a way to have that feeling in my life again.”
Meanwhile, diners who want a taste of that have plenty of options. Here are ten of the best.
Silva’s exploration of the art of fire is a 60-seat dining room with a dynamic fire kitchen at the far end. (Remarkably, there’s not a whiff of smoke, not even right in front of the flames, thanks to a seriously impressive ventilation system.) It’s divided into five sections: a wood-burning oven, a station for iron pots, a grill, a bakery and pastry area, and a smokehouse. Using 100% Portuguese products, the team, led by resident chef Manuel Liebaut, turns out a variety of simple (seeming), satisfying dishes like grilled razor clams, chickpeas with smoked eggplant, whole fish, rib-eye steak with bean stew, and Alentejo pork with burnt-apple puree. It’s all infused with a certain intangible something. Silva tells it like this: “On the day of the reopening, I remember turning to Liebaut and telling him I missed this aroma so much. Food tastes different. [It has] another smell. The rice coming out of the oven in the iron skillets makes the aromas so volatile that they are felt meters away. Feeling it has what we call the ratatouille effect—it transports you to a place that many of us don’t even [recognize] but we have already been there.”
At Silva’s country project, a partnership with the soulful, sustainable Craveiral hotel, the wood-burning ovens, stoves and grills are outside, on the terrace, adding a bit of warmth to the fresh summer nights, as well as a bit of that unmistakable fire flavor to the food. The menu ranges from typical Alentejo tomato soup to tapas to octopus rice to grilled proteins from local fishermen and farmers. They grow much of the produce in the onsite garden, buy as much of possible of everything else from directly from local producers, burn wood that comes from the activity of cleaning forests, produce their own bread, butter, beer, cider and kombucha, and reuse all of the organic waste as compost or animal feed.
Everything on the menu at chef-owner Ricardo Dias Ferreira’s “fire dining” restaurant is cooked over fire in a completely open (but indoor) kitchen with a wood-burning oven, specially designed grill and an area with embers for smoking food. Different types of wood are treated as separate ingredients, imparting unique flavors to the dishes made with regional and seasonal ingredients from small producers. The minimalist dining room is handsome enough, but the real show is at the “chef’s table” bar, with front-row seats to the kitchen. The eight-course tasting menu, as well as the à la carte list, varies every week or even every day.
Plano chef Vitor Adão grew up in Portugal’s northern Tràs-os-Montes region, an area known for its fire traditions—“when you invite Vitor, you also get his grandmother,” says Castel-Branco, who invites him to Chefs on Fire. He’s not being literal, of course, but there’s a good dose of tradition in Adão’s cooking, as well as a lightness and a contemporary approach that make it feel just right for today. In the summer, he and his team cook much of the five- or eight-course tasting menus over fires set up in the garden courtyard—one of Lisbon’s best secret spots for warm evenings—but they’re committed to the flames all year. It’s one of few restaurants that work only with fire in the indoor kitchen as well.
For this hotel’s most intimate, immersive dining experience, a maximum of 12 guests—international visitors and Portuguese regulars—gather for dinner during the warm months around a fire kitchen and counter in an open-air pavilion in the hotel’s 16,000-square-foot organic garden. The chefs create a new tasting menu each day, based on which of the garden’s 300 varieties of vegetables and herbs are at their peak, as well as sustainably caught fish and pasture-fed meats from trusted local suppliers. They use only ancestral cooking methods to turn out a winningly contemporary cuisine.
The excellent new(ish) Oficio is not a fire restaurant, per se, but chef Hugo Candeias and his team know their way around a flame. Some of the best dishes are prepared in that primal way, including fire-cooked skate with herb sauce, ribs with barbecue sauce and Black Angus on the grill. The crispy brioche (from cult favorite bakery Isco) that’s served with the tartare is grilled over the fire and then brushed with rosemary oil.
Along with the modern kitchen, this wine country resort has a working fireplace and hearth on its terrace. A few of the dishes on chef Miguel Castro e Silva’s regular menu—such as Sunday’s roasted lamb with oven rice—are cooked over fire, but the best way to get into the valley’s traditional spirit is to order the chef’s table menu (by request). It’s entirely organized around fire: grill, oven and cast iron pots. The idea is to re-create the hearty meals that farmers and vineyard workers ate back in the day, and the menu includes dishes like grilled chorizo, onion soup, rancho (a kind of heavy stew with cabbage, pasta, chickpeas, potato and pork), roasted codfish with cornbread that’s finished in the oven and even a fire-toasted pudding with the flavor of Port wine.
It says a lot that the first page of the menu at this popular city restaurant is dedicated to the farmers and producers who supply it with super-fresh, hyperlocal bread, fish, rice, vegetables and micro greens. Chef António Galapito does a brilliant job at letting their flavors shine, and his less-is-more style of cooking has earned him a loyal following. That includes some dancing with the simplicity of fire, coals and smoke, seen in dishes like the smoked quail egg with acorn-fed pork, fire-grilled chard with cockles, cilantro and fried bread, and smoked eel with almond, cucumber and melon.
Hortelão means “gardener” in Portuguese, and the gardeners at this estate do an excellent job. The summer-only outdoor restaurant under the stars is in the center of the garden. Chef Celestino Grande and company cook those super-fresh vegetables over flames (the fire-roasted tomato gazpacho is still seared on my memory—one of the best things I ate in all of 2020), along with the estate’s own certified organic veal, acorn-fed pork from area farmers and fish from nearby Lake Alqueva. It’s the pure definition of locally sourced ingredients and simplicity at its best: a juicy piece of meat (or a juicy tomato), a comfortable smoky aroma and a pinch of salt.
Both at the laid-back Comporta original in a former horse stable and at the citified version in the capital, where a white unicorn looks out over the dining room, the chefs, led by Bruno Caseiro, deploy open flames from time to time. For example: the French-style choux gnocchi (a light, fluffy style of pasta) with fire-roasted Jerusalem artichoke, grilled collard greens and a low-temperature egg, and the kebab of grilled Alentejo pork and Azores pineapple with a bittersweet glaze and cilantro oil.