Celebrity Chef Henrique Sá Pessoa is heading to Sands Resorts Macao
Plenty of gastronomes in Asia will have heard of Henrique Sá Pessoa. You may know that his culinary expertise has made him a hugely popular television personality and author. You might have heard that his near-legendary Michelin-starred restaurant, Alma, has been credited with helping to reinvent Lisbon’s culinary scene. Now, he’s coming to Macao: in 2018, Sá Pessoa will open his own Portuguese restaurant, Chiado, at Sands Cotai Central. The final plans for this new experience are still strictly under wraps, but we wanted to find out more about the man behind this tantalising new venture, and went to meet him at Conrad Macao.
The softly spoken 41-year-old projects an air of quiet confidence. Sá Pessoa doesn’t seem the sort of overly dramatic, fiery personality that fans of British cooking shows might be used to. When the chef speaks, he’s measured; you might say he’s calmly passionate.
Sá Pessoa says that as a child, he had never dreamed of becoming a chef. In fact, in his early teens, he’d considered being an accountant. Or perhaps an athlete? “My first dream was to be a basketball player. Obviously that was not going to happen,” the chef smiles, gesturing to his height. He’s not short, but he’s no Yao Ming.
In fact, Sá Pessoa’s culinary awakening didn’t take place until the age of 17, as an exchange student to the US. Of all his experiences in America, he remembers most vividly a visit from a chef from the Cordon Bleu Institute. Sá Pessoa says: “I was really surprised: I had no idea what a chef’s life was like. He was talking about the creativity and the travelling involved – it opened up a new
world to me.”
Unlike many other successful chefs, Sá Pessoa hadn’t grown up with cooking: he wasn’t introduced to it by a doting parent, and he didn’t come from a privileged background. He came to cooking completely on his own, relatively late. But his curiosity was piqued. “I decided to enrol in cooking school,” Sá Pessoa says, “and in one class it was love at first sight. I immediately got into it. To me it was like when you have your first girlfriend. That’s when I realised what I wanted to be.” He took to it naturally, becoming one of the school’s top students.
Upon leaving cookery school in the 1990s, Sá Pessoa jumped into work. He spent several years in fine dining restaurants at five-star hotels in London and Sydney, and also tried his hand in brasserie-style kitchens in banqueting, to gain a broader range of experience. But he always came back to fine dining.
Then, in 2002, Sá Pessoa went home to Portugal.
“Initially, it was to get to know a little bit more about Portuguese gastronomy, because I started my career internationally,” he explains. “I expected to stay one or two years, but it turned into 15.”
What began as a quest to return to his cultural roots became a new passion, and almost immediately the accolades began flying in. “There were so many opportunities in Lisbon,” Sá Pessoa says. In 2005 he won Portugal's Chef of the Year award. In 2006 he started his first cooking show, called Between Dishes (in
Portuguese Entre Pratos). It was just the first of Sá Pessoa’s several highly successful television shows, the most popular of which, Secret Ingredient
(Ingrediente Secreto), ran for four seasons and is also available as a book series.
So now, it seems, it’s time to look to new pastures in Macao, and Sá Pessoa says it is interesting to see Macao putting more resources into teaching Portuguese heritage. “Nowadays, there’s more interest in promoting that link,” he says. “But Portugal is also a much more marketable country, these days. It’s reinvented itself as a travel destination. The [2008-onward] economic crisis brought a lot of opportunities. It was devastating, but it also forced you to be creative; we had to restart. Portugal in general has changed a lot in the last few years in terms of modernising itself and becoming a more attractive country for visitors.”
Sá Pessoa sees signs of this modernisation in areas ranging from agriculture to tourism. In particular, he says, Portugal is connecting to Asia like never before –
particularly China. “There are direct flights now from Lisbon to Beijing and Shanghai – it’s amazing,” he says. “I think it helps to make Portugal a bit more international and open.”
Portugal has also raised the bar in gastronomy and fine dining, a renaissance that Sá Pessoa is proud to be a part of. “In 2015 Portugal broke the record for the
number of Michelin stars awarded – 17 in one year,” Sá Pessoa exclaims. “It’s really something!”
He’s clearly an advocate for the cuisine of his homeland, and has thought long and hard about the various other ways that he can bring Portuguese food
to the rest of the world.
“If an opportunity comes up, I always wanted to explore the possibility of doing a show in English or in another language,” Sá Pessoa says. “It could be a way to
get Portuguese food out there. I might get a much broader audience, and share an understanding of what Portuguese cuisine is all about.”
He sees himself as a potential ambassador for Portuguese food – perhaps Portugal’s answer to Jamie Oliver.
“When you say, ‘okay, what is Italian or French food?’ that’s easy, as there are so many big names on the TV – like in the US you have Mario Batali, in Britain you have all sorts like Gordon Ramsay. You know, a household name everybody
recognises. And Macao is a good place to start in terms of having some knowledge of Portuguese heritage.”
Talking to Sá Pessoa, all the pieces seem to fit into place. So how does his Macao venture, Chiado, fit into the more than 150 restaurants that Sands Resorts offers in the city?
“Sands’ variety is amazing,” he says. “It’s been very focused in the last few years on the Chinese market, but you have some great European restaurants here – like Portofino [The Venetian Macao] and Brasserie [The Parisian Macao]. Sands is expanding into more international experiences here, and obviously Portuguese food in Macao makes sense! Done properly, with a Portuguese chef, it shows
respect. It’s an opportunity for both me and for Sands. People can expect it to be great.”
He also hints at a few menu plans. “I can tell you some of my signature dishes that would probably make sense to feature. One of my signature dishes is the
roasted pork belly… that’s definitely a household name. I’ve got my own version. And you’ll have octopus on the menu. So you can expect a lot of the well-known,
classic Portuguese dishes that are reinterpreted in my own way.”
More menu surprises could follow in Macao, Sá Pessoa says.
“In the early stages you want to establish yourself and maybe test what you have in mind,” he explains. “You adjust it as you get to know your customers. Maybe
I’ll reinterpret some local Macanese dishes through my understanding of Portuguese cuisine.”
“But,” Sá Pessoa concludes, “it’s a Portuguese restaurant. So let’s start off with the real deal.”