Oysters by Richard van Oostenbrugge — Photo courtesy of Henrique Seruca-Rota das Estrelas
Portugal’s most prestigious gourmet food festival, the annual Rota das Estrelas, is back on the road.
Translating into English as the “Stars Route,” this eagerly-anticipated culinary occasion brings together respected Michelin-starred chefs from Portugal and across Europe and places them side-by-side in the same kitchen for a show cooking tour de force.
Chef Kiko Martins chatting with guests as he serves ceviche. — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
As with previous editions, the festival commenced on the stunningly beautiful island of Madeira at The Cliff Bay Hotel, a plush five-star property located in the capital city, Funchal.
During the kickoff weekend of February 19-23, those lucky enough to have secured a reservation were treated to fabulously diverse and mouth-watering gastronomy prepared to the highest order by chefs flown in from France, Netherlands and mainland Portugal.
A number of equally talented chefs yet to secure Michelin accolades were also invited - and with so much skill, innovation and experience thrown into the pot, the event took the art of eating into a different league.
Host chef Benoît Sinthon at ease in the kitchen at Il Gallo d'Oro. — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Since its inception in 2010, the stage for Rota das Estrelas has been the hotel’s Il Gallo d’Oro restaurant, which is headed up by Benoît Sinthon, effectively the festival’s host chef and holder of one precious star since 2009.
Over the last six years, Marseille-born Sinthon and his team have built the festival into the hottest foodie ticket in town. They've enticed over 60 national and international chefs to come to Madeira, most of them in starring roles.
Guests watching intently as chef Henrique Leis and his team prepare scallops. — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Joining Chef Sinthon for the “Kitchen Alive” kickoff event were Dutch two-star chefs Erik van Loo and Richard van Oostenbrugge, Brazilian-born Henrique Leis, whose restaurant in the Algarve shines under one star, and a team from Belcanto in Lisbon, a two-star establishment.
A glittering supporting cast included Olivier Barbarin from Chateaux d’Audrieu in France, and countrymen Joannic Taton from Les Terrasses de Lyon and David Faure from Aphrodite.
Lisbon-based Kiko Martins, who runs the noted A Cevicheria and O Talho restaurants, and respected Portuguese chefs Paulo Morais and Miguel Gameiro were also invited to wow visitors with their culinary knowhow.
It's all smiles as two diners absorb the intricacies of professional cooking at chef José Avillez's station. — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Kitchen Alive was fashioned as a walking dinner, where guests were able to wander freely between nearly 30 food and wine stations to sample an appetizing menu and taste an astonishing variety of wines. It also afforded interaction with fellow diners and, importantly, the chefs and sommeliers themselves.
Nearly 400 people thronged The Cliff Bay’s lower lobby, its Rose Garden restaurant and Il Gallo d’Oro to savour some truly remarkable dishes created exclusively for one very special evening.
Treading a path through the walking dinner was akin to navigating a menu degustation in 3D. This really was a kitchen alive!
The vibe was friendly and relaxed and the sheer variety of cuisine available quite bewildering.
Scallops by Henrique Leis — Photo courtesy of Henrique Seruca-Rota das Estrelas
Caviar, like champagne, was invented for moments like these, and the Sturia brand immediately prompted knowing nods from aficionados.
The gilt-edged nibbles extended to bite-sized truffles, succulent smoked salmon and a choice of cheeses and charcuterie. The aromas were intoxicating! Chef Barbarin’s plated foie gras with fig and bolo do mel (honey cake, a Madeiran speciality) was an inspired match.
Fantastically illustrated labels indicated the diverse range of wines on offer. Standing proudly among noble vintages were humble table wines locally produced with names like Terras do Avó (Grandfather’s Lands).
High spirits. Flying sommelier George Dos Santos making sure the party gets started. — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
This was a four-hour symphony for the stomach, so it made sense to pause every now and again over a glass of earthy red or crisp, fresh white.
That’s when many were introduced to Georges Dos Santos, self-styled “flying sommelier” and a fabulous connoisseur of fine wines. Replete in matching checkered suit and strawberry bowtie, he could suggest a glass of Hungarian Oremus from the Tokaj wine region just by looking into your eyes.
Despite his absence, Chef Avillez can be proud of the way his trusty lieutenants upheld his two-star reputation with their reinvention of xerém – a traditional Portuguese staple with maize as its base ingredient. In the hands of the guys from Belcanto, this otherwise simple dish was elevated to seriously giddy new heights.
Several guests lingered over this station, bewitched by the methods used to prepare it.
The Porto Bay team preparing Beef Wellington for guests. — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
And this is the whole point of a walking dinner concept. What would normally be hidden from restaurant customers – the techniques employed to style a dish and the way it evolves – is played out in real time. It was an education!
Similarly, Chef Leis, who has maintained his one-star status for a respectable 16 years, displayed considerable verve in conjuring up a colourful and intricately designed plate of scallops, the whole process carefully scrutinised and admired by a rotating audience.
Maverick: David Faure dishes out attitude at his DJ "mixing deck". — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
While Rota das Estrelas is essentially a platform that unites Michelin chefs with the wider public, the event in Madeira was also about showcasing the island’s unique cultural and culinary identity.
Earlier that day, several chefs visited Funchal’s famous Mercado dos Lavradores (Farmers’ Market) to shop for fresh tuna and other fish, and assorted fruit and vegetables.
One described it as an “equatorial market,” such is the prevalence of produce more normally found in tropical regions. Another was looking forward to adding an exotic Portuguese flavour to his Mediterranean-themed menu.
Chef Sinthon carefully explaining the ingredients used to make up his dish. — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Porto Bay Hotels & Resorts CEO António Trindade underlined this fusion philosophy when he described Rotas das Estrelas as a “sharing experience,” where each chef can bounce ideas off the other to create a truly exceptional recipe.
For its part, the hotel invited students from the island’s hotel school to spend a week working alongside their Michelin heroes, an apprenticeship that included assisting during Kitchen Alive.
“We call it entrepreneurial citizenship,” quipped the CEO, who oversees the group's portfolio which includes The Cliff Bay.
Two times two equals four: Dutch chefs Richard van Oostenbrugge and Erik van Loo. — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Without doubt, one of the most compelling reasons to attend an event like this is to watch a Michelin maestro at work, then afterwards sample the fruits of their labour. It was therefore no surprise that the pairing of the two-star Dutchmen brought with it a tangible sense of anticipation.
Erik van Loo is the owner-chef at Parkheuvel restaurant in Rotterdam, and has held two stars there since 2009. His countryman Richard van Oostenbrugge is executive chef at De L’Europe, one of the most iconic hotels in Amsterdam.
Between them they produced two deceptively simple but exquisitely flavored seafood dishes - lobster ravioli and oysters garnished in sea foam.
Chef Sinthon also turned to the ocean for his inspiration. Working out of the Il Gallo d’Oro kitchen, he served regional squid with his customary easy-going charm and affable manner, and spent much of his time explaining to guests the intricacies of producing such a meticulously executed and flavorsome delicacy.
Chef pâtissier Joannic Taton (right) working studiously with his team. — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
For the sweet-toothed, Rota das Estrelas is always an excuse to indulge in sophisticated dessert options, and Kitchen Alive was no exception. Delivering a veritable palate of artisan pastries was Chef Pâtissier Joannic Taton, assisted by The Cliff Bay’s Yves Michoux. Not for nothing was their station described as “Exotic Sweet World.”
Every party needs a flag-waver, and in David Faure, the Stars Route has its talisman.
Based out of Nice, his restaurant was once distinguished with a star. However, Michelin revoked his status awhile back, but he wears the loss almost as a badge of honor, such is his habit of never taking himself too seriously.
A musical finale brings the curtain down on Kitchen Alive. — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
But what he still takes very seriously is his cooking, although he admitted to having no idea what to present at Kitchen Alive until a few days beforehand. “But Benoît trusts me. I live for the moment.”
Faure’s station was ingenious, a huge block of ice imprisoning cut fruit and resembling a DJ’s mixing deck.
From the “turntable” he would scoop out a shot of tangy sorbet for bemused guests while gyrating to a thumping techno soundtrack, which lent the whole scene a funky underground edge.
“Nightclub cooking,” the maverick chef declared afterwards.
Kitchen Alive closed with a guitar-playing Miguel Gameiro – who is currently studying at the acclaimed École de Cuisine Alain Ducasse in Paris – leading colleagues and guests alike in a laughter-filled sing-song that reflected the mood of the entire evening – warm and light-hearted.
Cliff Bay's sommelier Sergio Marques (right) offers chef David Faure an unorthodox drop of red wine. — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
“The walking dinner concept works because you see so many different products and ingredients being used right in front of your eyes,” said Chef Sinthon later. “You can ask questions, request recipes, catch a few tips and of course, taste the food.”
The Stars Route rolled on in Madeira for five days, with gastronomy-themed excursions taking guests into the interior and along the coast. There were also a series of formal sit-down dinners, designed by a new company of Michelin chefs flown in for the occasion.
“These were for guests with a discerning gourmet palate,” explained Sinthon. “They want more theatre on the plate.”
In all, 16 chefs representing 14 Michelin stars reminded everyone why Rota das Estrelas is the country’s premier gourmet food festival.
Assembled guests join the fun as Michelin chefs take to the stage. — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
If your appetite’s suitably whetted and you fancy chasing a table, the Stars Route heads to the Portuguese mainland in March, to Oporto and The Yeatman, before heading into Spain in May.
The stars gather again mid-June: at Eleven restaurant in Lisbon and then, in October, Largo do Paço in Amarante, central Portugal, before turning south towards the Algarve and Bon Bon - where Portugal’s newest Michelin star recipient, Rui Silvestre, will demonstrate why he’s worthy of such an accolade.
(Note that venues and dates my be subject to alteration.)
Finally in November, the stars will twinkle for the last time over the two-star Vila Joya to bring the curtain down on the 2016 Rota das Estrelas gourmet food festival.