We kick-off our Chef on Tour series with Josh spending a memorable evening with Lisbon’s local food heroes, sharing inspiring stories of how they transformed their innovative ideas into companies improving the food system.
After cooking for the production crew of Ed Sheeran’s two sold-out shows at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, and after witnessing one of the loudest crowds I have ever heard, I met with 4 representatives from some of the most innovative food-tech start-ups in Portugal. Each individual is challenging the status quo of agriculture and food-tech, revealing their tenacious journeys to revolutionising the future of food.
We met for dinner at Local Avenida, a “healthy kitchen” devoted to using fresh ingredients with high nutrients and no refined sugars or saturated oils. Over dinner, I was blown away with each guests’ passion for working towards a better food environment, their personal struggles in working against the tide of powerful food businesses, and their unerring drive to change peoples’ perspectives on food.
Using new technology to keep artisan cooking traditions alive
The evening started with an introduction from Claudia Carocha, the Food and Sustainable Accelerators Manager from BGI Portugal. Claudia recounted the beautiful story of a small artisan bakery in Idanha-a-Nova. The baker, Gaspar Fernandes, after years of refining his recipes and techniques passed down from generation to generation, suffered severe back pain where he could no longer keep up with the physical demands of his much-loved craft. Rather than giving up, he teamed up with his brother, a mechanical engineer, and developed a robot which was custom-designed to follow the exact methods of Gaspar Fernandes. From the praise I heard around the table, the quality of the baked goods hasn’t dropped at all!
Throughout the evening, each guest had a connection to the village of Idanha-a-Nova and the story of their bakery. I was captivated by the stories shared over our delicious dinner from Pedro, Bettina, Joao and Paula.
Pedro Santos – Agrodrone
Pedro Santos is an agronomic engineer who has spent 20 years honing his skills in organic farming, specialising in soil nutrition, fertility and microbial balance. A highlight of Pedro’s career so far was receiving an EIT Food award for his development of a microbiology fermenter machine. This machine enables farmers to create, “high quality microbiological fertiliser for crops in 12-16 hours” compared to traditional methods which are not as time efficient. Pedro’s invention has helped shift farmers’ attitudes to more conventional forms of fertiliser. Congratulations Pedro!
However, Pedro had to work hard to reap the rewards of his career. He shared a story of how his passion for agriculture gave him the determination he needed to help transform the food system. Years ago, driving to a plot of land to sow 50 kilograms of hemp seeds, his car broke down, forcing him to walk the last few miles - sacks of seeds on his back. Hours after sowing seeds, Pedro realised that he had left his lunch in the car. With his energy sapped from labouring all morning and without sufficient time to get back to the car, he ate a handful of hemp seeds throughout the day, managing to finish his work before nightfall. His amazement at the energy provided to him by this tiny seed lead him to research it further and grow his own organic hemp for years to come. A story of how hard work and determination goes a long way.
"It is always great to be with people to talk about quality food, food production…and what is going on in the area!"
Pedro Santos, Agrodone
Bettina Gerina - Sementes Vivas (Living Seeds)
Bettina moved to the Idanha-a-Nova region with her partner to pursue a dream of revolutionising the organic food market. She spent years frustrated with how so much organic produce was still produced with conventionally farmed seeds which were neither as healthy nor environmentally friendly as organic seeds. As a result, Bettina started her company Sementes Vivas nine years ago, calling it the, “greatest adventure of my life”. The purpose of her business is to increase the profile of organic plant breeding and to help convince consumers of the importance of this practice. She expressed how “providing farmers and home gardeners with improved seed varieties for better taste, disease resistance, drought tolerance and productivity” can help communicate the benefits of organic seeds over conventional seeds. I was in awe of Bettina’s passion and so were the rest of the guests as we all enjoyed her speciality jackfruit tacos around the table!
Joao Cotter – CEO Aquaponics Iberia
Joao started his career as a retail consultant, working with ornamental fish for aquariums. After completing a marine biology Masters at the University of Lisbon he become intrigued by aquaponics, which is a food production system that combines aquaculture (production of fish or crustaceans) with hydroponics (cultivation of plants without soil). What started off as a hobby soon inspired Joao to develop his company Aquaponics Iberia. He could see how aquaponics would have a huge part in the future of vegetable production and he wanted to help revolutionise this.
What stood out about Joao was his commitment to educating people about his technology and using his experience to help spread the word of this underused form of agriculture. He has spent years introducing the concept of aquaponics into schools and universities. His passion for educating people is truly admirable.
Paula Gamito - Bio Bisto
The final local hero was Paula Gamito. She opened her own vegetarian catering company in the 1980s and is the creator of ‘The Ugliest Cake in Lisbon’ - a vegan, gluten free coconut and chocolate cake that is famous amongst her friends for obvious reasons!
Paula is passionate about local ingredients, traditional Portuguese food, and is currently working with the municipality of Idanha-a-Nova, the first bioregion in the country, to create the Idanha Food Lab and EIT Food Portugal Awareness Day. This event will bring together CleanTech, FoodTech and AgriTech industries to improve the circular economy in food production, reduce waste and help feed the growing population with biological and non-genetically modified seeds. Paula’s sincere involvement in this event is admirable, as she is dedicated to raising awareness of challenges in the food system.
“I wanted to thank you for being able to be with all of you and to know your visions. More and more we must be in contact and support each other - this is how we can change the direction of the planet.”Paula Gamito, Bio Bisto
The challenges facing local food heroes today
Pedro, Bettina, Joao and Paula discussed the challenges facing their companies, including the dominance of more powerful corporations in the seed industry. All spoke about the issues they face with a shortage of organic seeds and produce - for example, Aquaponics Iberia desperately wants to feed all their fish organic feed, but it is currently completely economically unviable.
I left the meal completely amazed by the strength and dynamism shown by everyone I met. I am grateful for the honesty with which they opened up to me about their lives and businesses, their pride and modesty as innovators in Portugal, and their drive to educate and change people. A huge thank you to you all and I wish you every success in creating the future of food together!
"The dinner was a great opportunity for entrepreneurs, chefs and local producers to share their experiences and innovations in the agri-food area. It is really interesting to understand the different points of view of this area from the different actors of the food value chain and their thoughts on how to create a more sustainable and organic ecosystem. I believe it was really valuable to everyone to attend this event."
Claudia Carocha, BGI
Stay tuned for my next Chef on Tour edition where I’ll be in Bucharest meeting a local bee-keeping hero at a high-end farm-to-table restaurant!
Want to know more about Josh? Check out our exclusive interview where Josh explains his passion for food and sustainability and how EIT Food is helping him promote his food mission.