Henrique Sá Pessoa (alma): the recipe for success
He travelled to Pittsburgh to pursue a basketball career for a year before coming home to save money to attend the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts. 25 years later, his alma restaurant is at the forefront of a revolution in Portuguese gastronomy. Interview.
Could you tell us your story in brief ?
I started out by spending 3 years in London where I was inspired by Marco Pierre White and the young Gordon Ramsey, before moving to Australia for 3 years. I returned home in 2002; 3 years later, I won the “Chef of the Year” award, which led to my TV show. In 2009, I opened my own restaurant, called alma, in Santos. It was hard: firstly, the economy was struggling and secondly, I realised that I didn’t have a platform to grow. The whole business was dependent on me. In 2010, I met Rui Sanches, who had a powerful platform with Multifood, when he invited me to cook in one of his restaurants for a few weeks. Together, we developed 6 restaurants. I closed alma in 2014 and we reopened it in Chiado in October 2015. We obtained a Michelin star a few months later and a second star in 2019. At the same time, I have also focused on developing personal projects, with a 16-seat “atelier” and a restaurant in Macao.
"Experience, a platform and a thriving economy are the three main ingredients of my success.”
What are the key ingredients of your success ?
Firstly, you need to deliver. I have been working for 25 years in the kitchen and I have built up a very talented and loyal team. Daniel Costa, for example, who is my Head Chef at alma, has worked with me for 15 years. You also need a platform. My partnership with Rui enabled us to open several addresses (Cais Da Pedra and 2 ‘Tapisco’, among others): in addition to benefitting from his experience, consolidating such a group generates a significant turnover – between 7 and 8 million euros – which provides the necessary peace of mind to focus on challenging projects like alma. Today, I split my time between my kitchen, my atelier and my daughter, which is vital when it comes to staying calm and inspiring my team! Lastly, you need an economy which will draw clients to your restaurant. Over the last three years, Lisbon has become an extremely attractive destination and as you can see, the restaurant is full today, on a Thursday evening in January.
You have inspired a new generation of chefs. How ?
I think that we were the first restaurant in Portugal with 2 Michelin stars to break the rules in many ways. There are only seven 2-starred restaurants in our country (there aren’t any with 3 stars) and Portuguese gastronomy has a long tradition of being very formal. We’re changing that: we don’t use tablecloths, we serve very straightforward cuisine and we are a young and dynamic team. Our first Michelin star sent a signal to the new generation while the second Michelin star amplified the movement. I also use my atelier as an opportunity promote new talents, research and discussions.
What does the future hold for alma ?
There will only be one alma. I am not planning on opening another one anywhere else. I am also not planning on opening any more restaurants in Portugal; I don’t want to become mainstream. My main plan is to work very hard with my team to make alma a success in the long term. You can expect to find me splitting most of time between here and my atelier.
back here with me.