Frances Baca: Can you tell us exactly what a taberna is and how it differs from other restaurants?
Tânia Martins: A taberna is a place where people play cards, talk about politics, and sing fado. It’s not a typical restaurant where you come in and someone is only serving food and wine. It has a different atmosphere. Everyone is talking and laughing; you can play chess; you can sit down at a table and talk to someone. It’s like a family restaurant.
FB: Susana, you’re the head chef, and Tânia, you’re the sommelier. Do your roles ever overlap?
Susana Felicidade: When I’m cooking, I talk with Tânia about the new things I’m creating, so she always participates in the process. We do the same with the wines.
TM: I don’t know anything about the kitchen. Susana, she’s the alchemist. She doesn’t measure anything. We call her the magician.
SF: Because if I measure, it will be not a mystery to me. I don’t want to control things. Sometimes people come to our restaurant and try the chocolate cake, and they say, “Oh, this is the most delicious chocolate cake!” And next time the chocolate cake will not taste the same. It never tastes the same.
FB: So tell me about yourselves. Where are you from and how did food influence you growing up?
SF: I’m from a place in Algarve called Praia da Arrifana. My grandmother had a taberna on the beach. Every summer I worked at the restaurant for twelve, fourteen hours a day. I loved it because I practiced French and English with the tourists who dined there. Later, I went to Lisbon to study law.
TM: She went through college cooking for everyone.
SF: I rented a house in Lisbon, and my friends always came to visit. They studied while I cooked. When I was thirty I went back to Algarve. My grandmother’s restaurant needed help, so I went there to cook. I stayed for four years, and Tânia joined me there during the final summer.
TM: I’m from Lisbon. I have a degree in publicity and marketing. I was the manager of twenty-three wine brands, but I got fed up with it, so I quit. Then a friend told me that Susana needed help in her restaurant. So I said okay, I’ll go and help organize her wine list. I never thought that it would grow into a partnership because it was only a summer job.
FB: The concept behind Taberna Ideal has been described as taking the best of a taberna—the informality, the familial atmosphere—and adapting it to more modern tastes. What inspired you to do this, and do you feel that the idea has been well received?
TM: We wanted a thoroughly Portuguese concept, but one step ahead. Without being afraid of saying “Yes, I’m Portuguese and I love it,” because the Portuguese like their stuff but are really afraid of saying it’s good. Sometimes people come to our restaurant and are very suspicious. They think, “These two girls think they’re so modern, but they are nothing special.” But then they eat the food and drink the wine, and you see in their faces that they actually believe it’s good after all.
FB: Would you say that regional identity is very influential in your menus? Do you cook a lot of food from Algarve or do you cook dishes from all over Portugal?
SF: My influences are mostly from the South—Algarve and Alentejo. In Arrifana we have the most wonderful sweet potatoes in the world. And we have such good fish and tomatoes. We have two mountains in Algarve, and there they eat a lot of pork, sausage, chicken, and lamb. In Aljezur we mix octopus with sweet potatoes. We also eat feijoada—bean stew—with sweet potatoes. And sometimes we add choco (cuttlefish) and buzios (periwinkles). So we mix things from the earth and things from the sea.
FB: Beyond the Iberian peninsula Portuguese cuisine is not well known, and it’s often lumped together with Spanish cuisine. How would you differentiate Portuguese food from Spanish food?
SF: A big difference between us and Spain is that the Spanish have a lot of tapas, but they are not cooked. They prepare dinners with only simple products like ham, bread, and salad, and it’s a meal for them. The Portuguese never do this. We never have a dinner only with bread and ham or cheese. We cook every time. Of course, I’m talking about our grandmothers and mothers. But our food is more complex, I think.
TM: Actually, it’s simple but more robust, and it has a lot of ingredients.
SF: I like to call Portuguese food “Atlantic food.” It’s not Mediterranean, because we are turned more toward the Atlantic Ocean than the Mediterranean Sea. Our olive oil is stronger; our wines are stronger; our food has stronger flavors. I think that this is the complexity. We’ve had the influences of the Phoenicians and the Visigoths and the Arabs and Romans, and we’ve condensed them within our small country. And via the Atlantic we went to India and Africa and Brazil. We’ve preserved all of these influences. You know polenta? We make polenta but in many different ways. Sometimes we fry it like the Italians, but in the south of Portugal we make it with clams. And in the north we make it with pork and sausage and cod.
FB: So are there any dishes that you would consider quintessentially Portuguese?
SF: If I talk about Algarve, in my village, I think it is Caldeirada—octopus with tomato sauce and sweet potatoes. And then I can, of course, say bacalhau (salt cod), Cozido à Portuguesa (a mixed meat and vegetable stew), or Açorda (bread soup).
FB: Can you describe exactly how you transform traditional recipes to appeal to more modern diners?
SF: What I try to do with Portuguese food, because it’s so heavy sometimes, is to make it a bit lighter. Instead of using so much olive oil, I take some of the olive oil out of the recipe and instead I put in a lot of herbs. Instead of putting in so much salt or cooking things for a long time, I try not to overcook anything, otherwise it will lose flavor. Sometimes I introduce new flavors.
FB: Besides your second restaurant, Petiscaria Ideal, you’ve just opened a new restaurant, Pharmacia. Do you plan on opening any more?
TM: I don’t know. I think in Lisbon we are satisfied with what we have. But Taberna will never be reproduced …
SF: But with Petiscaria, we’ve started to think that maybe it’s possible to open one in another city, perhaps London. And with Petiscaria we are starting to change a little bit and be more open to trusting other people with our food. We have people working with us now who share our values and identify with us.
Once we had a young woman working with us. She had cooked in a fancy modern restaurant, but she didn’t grow up with a grandmother who cooked for her. So she knew all of the new culinary techniques, but the old cuisine she didn’t know. So she came to us to learn but complained that it was very difficult because I don’t use measurements. So she was watching me cook and kept asking, what did you put in there? And I said, I don’t know, just a little something [laughs]. You know, in that moment I’m talking with food—it’s a conversation. And so I just put in a little of this and a little of that, and she said, I know what you put in there—love. I don’t know exactly what it was, but it tastes so different from mine, it must be love.
People have asked me, what did you put in this? I say it’s easy, just garlic, olive oil, and things like that. But they say that theirs does not taste the same. And I ask, but do you talk to your food? Você fala com a sua comida? You have to talk to food, and you have to love food. You have to give love to the food. When I’m unhappy or have a bad day, I have to cheer myself up before I go into the kitchen.
FB: Do you think that comes out in your food?
SF and TM: Yes.
TM: Sometimes people come in and they are angry. And if they take the first bite feeling like this, the food won’t taste right.
SF: Yeah. When we worked at the restaurant on the beach, we had one of those experiences. I went outside so that I could see the people coming in, and I could see if they were sad or mad at each other. There was a couple, an old couple, and they were very formal and upscale …
TM: … and grumpy. They were very grumpy.
SF: I could tell that they hated the restaurant, so I wanted to make the best of the meal that they ordered. They chose rabbit. It was a very special recipe, and I made it more special for them. I added a few more herbs, and as I was cooking the rabbit I was saying, you will eat this and you will feel …
TM: … the love.
SF: … the love. I was making a joke and I said to myself that your better side will come out. I was thinking that, and as they ate I waited, and I went outside and they …
TM: … came outside and they were laughing! And I was like, what’s happening?
SF: Because they were …
TM: Like this (gestures holding hands).
SF: … and smiling.
FB: It was the love.
SF: [Laughs] Yes, and they called me over to thank me and say that the rabbit was marvelous. That’s happened a lot and it’s nice. It’s very nice. Also, when people have memories of their grandmothers and they say, “This reminds me of my grandmother—thank you, thank you for this.”
TM: That’s the best part.
SF: That’s the best, yes.