How Running a Farm at My Restaurant Taught Me to Love Imperfection

Cooking from your farm makes you more vulnerable but I love that. It’s the complete opposite of fine dining, where you’re looking for consistency and a standardised product. You can have two radicchios but these two radicchios will be different in the...

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Mar 29 2016, 10:00am

When I was a kid—I must have been six or seven years old—I remember seeing this French movie about two teenagers going through chef school. Everyone is so tough on them and one day, they made a dish and I clearly remember this scene where the head chef takes the dish and throws it on the floor. At that moment I was like, "Oh man, I'm so glad I'm never going to be a chef."

I was a smart kid, I'm not so smart now.

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Portuguese chef Leonardo Pereira at Lyle's, London. All photos by Liz Seabrook.

Even though I never thought I'd end up as a chef, I did have a big connection to food. I grew up in this small medieval town in Portugal but my mum was a concierge at a hotel in Paris. So was my grandad and for a few years, they lived there. I lived most of my life in Portugal but I would skip school and spend three months of the year there.

READ MORE: This Graffiti-Artist-Turned-Chef Is Lighting Up the Paris Restaurant Scene

That was where my love for food really started. My mum is a terrible cook but she has shown me lots of good things in life. I didn't eat in fancy restaurants when I was in Paris, we ate mostly at home, but I remember going to Galeries Lafayette which at the time—the early 90s—was a very gastronomic place to go. I clearly remember the onion buns. Every time I went there, I wanted to eat these onion buns—they were delicious. Other than that, we ate a lot of snails and frogs legs. Those French bistro brasserie dishes stayed in my head.

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I love cooking snails—I love cooking little animals! I also really like doing things with offal and fresh seafood. Nowadays when I cook, I never start from a Portuguese perspective. A lot of people in Portugal ask, "Are you having difficulties? Your food is not Portuguese" but I know that. Growing up, I was never eating exclusively Portuguese food.

When you're a chef, you spend ten or 15 years working for someone else and all that time, you're executing a task. Some things you like some things you don't but you're always executing a task. Then you get to this point in your life where you make a decision: you either do largely what you've been doing before or you say, "Right, what is it about cooking that I like and can make into my own language?" So that's what I've been trying to do.

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Generally Portuguese food is very robust—think of the English Sunday roast. Historically it is food made for nutrition, for people to work in the fields or the sea, which are two very demanding jobs. But I like the bright and fresh flavours of Portuguese food and I love to cook with our wine because there's that natural acidity to it.

Through things like fresh herbs and tomatoes, I try to express Portuguese flavours. When I was growing up, there was a lot more diversity in the market. Now there are two types of tomatoes and they're both unripe. Last summer, every time I went to the market expecting fresh tomatoes, they were always unripe! But you realise that the demands of big shops and the mass-produced market have changed what people want. This is why I'm so obsessed with having my own farm and working with small farmers. Not only can you shape the produce but you can encourage local growth as well.

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I also grew up on a farm. I hated farming when I was a kid though, I never liked having soil under my hands. Two months ago when I started doing the farm again [Areias do Seixo, Pereira's previous Lisbon restaurant, had its own permaculture farm], my parents were like, "Remember when you were a kid, you always hated coming in here!" Things changed. Now I'm planting 46 varieties of tomatoes on my parents' farm. That's pretty cool.

Having a permaculture farm with a restaurant also allows me to do the type of cooking that I really like to do. It doesn't have to be a hundred dishes exactly the same every day—I like imperfection. I like not having to do the same thing for everyone.

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It also gives me an opportunity to read people. If you're Portuguese and you're a big guy with a moustache and smoke cigars, you probably don't want to eat so many vegetables. So I can give that person three or four courses—two or three of them of meat whereas if it's someone more like me, I'll be happy to eat two or three plates of essentially just vegetables.

Cooking from your farm makes you more vulnerable but I love that position. If you think about it, this is the complete opposite of fine dining, where you're looking for consistency and a standardised product. It actually forces you to look. You can have two radicchios but these two radicchios will be different in the way you cook or use them. And that's just a vegetable, I'm not even talking about meat.

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It also makes me and everyone in the kitchen a better cook—something I also experienced cooking at noma.

Noma was great, it was a lot of fun. I was working in Ireland at the time and was very young, about 21 or 22. It was that time of my life when the restaurant I was in was very good but you start noticing what else is going on in the world that you start reading books and magazines and I heard about this fella called René Redzepi. He had this very personal approach that really interested me.

READ MORE: Meet the Chef Cooking Portuguese Pork in an Outdoor London Kitchen

So essentially, I quit my job and spent all my money after that on eating out. I went to noma with 500 Euros in my pocket and I stayed there until they gave me a job. They didn't really have any choice.

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It showed me a different world. If anything, it made me think a lot. René is a person who stimulates you and your brain. He's not necessarily teaching you to do things, he's getting you to figure things out on your own, and that's the greatest gift that he's given me. My favourite dish at noma of all time is this chestnut dish with lumpfish roe. You make it at the very end of the chestnut season because they're pretty sweet and the lumpfish is very bright and very tasty. You serve it simply with this beurre blanc sauce and some peppery leaves but it's very difficult to plate because it's really intricate.

But for me, that's something I like to do: simplicity on the plate but flavours that really move you somehow.

As told to Phoebe Hurst. All photos by Liz Seabrook.

Leonardo Pereira grew up on a farm in Santa Maria da Feira, a small medieval town in Portugal. Between helping his dad with planting and visiting his mother in Paris while she worked as a hotel concierge, he picked up a love of both seasonal produce and classic French dining. After working at restaurants in Ireland and Spain, as well as spending nearly five years under René Redzepi at noma, he returned to Portugal to cook at the Areias Do Seixo hotel restaurant. Pereira is now preparing to open his first restaurant in Lisbon and recently cooked as part of London restaurant Lyle's' Guest Series.