Chapitô à Mesa

Though Pedro Bandeira Abril is only 29 years old, he is anything but a rookie – and good thing, too. The chef, who was cooking family meals from the age of 16, is now in charge of the two restaurants at Chapitô, Lisbon’s circus school, which have grown immensely popular with locals in this pandemic summer, thanks to their prime location and outdoor seating.

Chapitô has always had one of the best terraces in the city. The school, which opened in 1986, is nestled uphill on Costa do Castelo, close to the iconic castle of São Jorge, in a building that used to be a juvenile detention center. Led by circus legend Teresa Ricou, it has long played a very important role in the performing arts. Her passionate work for education through the arts has seen countless young people graduate from the school, and helped with the social integration of many others who committed crimes at a young age.

It’s a unique building with different layers, uses and functions. There’s the circus tent (chapitô), but also a children’s playground and an underground bar in the basement that used to function as a washing room (and still has the large tanks to prove it).

The sprawling complex offers three different spots for food: the more informal terrace area (Esplanada) has a kitchen that works exclusively with fire and grilling (no stove or oven), while the upscale restaurant (Panorâmico) has an even better view. (Both technically fall under the name Chapitô à Mesa, although they have different offerings.) There’s also the canteen, which is for the use of Chapitô students only. Pedro was brought on board to oversee all the school’s kitchens in late April of this year; he replaced Bertílio Gomes, who left after opening Taberna Albricoque.

In his short tenure, Pedro has had to deal with the unimaginable – a pandemic that has led to an upheaval in Lisbon’s dining world. Chapitô à Mesa used to be popular with foreigners, but now their clients are mostly Portuguese. So far, Pedro has taken it all in stride, and the feedback has been positive. Mostly people are congregating at Esplanada (for now, Panorâmico is only open on Friday and Saturdays), whose menu includes small plates to share and other options for those who prefer a non-sharable main dish, like grilled octopus, grilled salt cod or a prego (steak sandwich).

Some of the small plates are traditional dishes, such as meia desfeita (shredded salt cod with chickpeas). But there are also more original ones like the sardines cured in salt, sugar and white whine with fresh figs, and the grilled watermelon salad with sheep cheese and purslane. “These two dishes were actually inspired by a colleague of mine from Alentejo, who I used to work with in Taberna Sal Grosso,” Pedro explains.

Originally from Lisbon (a “rare kind” he jokes, as most Lisboetas were born somewhere else), Pedro completed his first cooking course at the age of 14. “My father enrolled me when he and my mother separated so that I learned to cook and could ‘survive’ on my own,” he tells us. “Since I was 16, I would cook dinner at home and would happily cook at all the Christmas and family celebrations.”

After graduating from law school, Pedro felt stuck and uncertain about what to do professionally. He eventually took an internship in a hotel restaurant and later enrolled in the Hospitality School of Lisboa, which was followed by another internship, this time at the Bairro Alto Hotel. Then he moved on to restaurants, working first as a pastry chef at Casa da Comida and then in the kitchens of Lekker in Campolide (with Tiago Cruz) and Expressões (with Victor Hugo Sintra), both of which are now closed.

Chapitô à Mesa used to be popular with foreigners, but now their clients are mostly Portuguese.

In the midst of planning a move to South Korea, Pedro ended up accepting an invitation to work at Taberna Sal Grosso, and then the successful restaurant’s spinoff, Taberna Salmoura. The first in particular was an “unforgettable experience, that mystic of Sal Grosso was unique,” he explains.

When the pandemic descended, Pedro was in between jobs and didn’t qualify for any benefits. He had always loved ramen and often cooked it for the staff meals at Sal Grosso and Salmoura, so he decided to start a ramen delivery business. “The noodles saved my life,” he says. “I would do everything from cooking to delivery.”

But then the call came from Chapitô, and Pedro found himself in charge of a restaurant for the first time at the end of April. One of his first initiatives was Friendly Fire, a series of food events held every Monday in July.

During the lockdown, Pedro had started an informal WhatsApp group with friends to exchange information about takeaway and deliveries, discussing useful info and tips. “We said once the lockdown was over we would be celebrating with a barbecue, and that’s how our Monday Friendly Fire started,” he tells us. Pedro invited friends such as Bernardo Agrela (Hub Beato), Carlos Frade (from O Frade) and Miguel Peres (Pigmeu) to cook at Chapitô.

“Mondays are a weak day for restaurants, so I thought if every friend brings a friend we could have something going on here, with a percentage of the profits going to the chefs invited,” he explains. “The idea is that we help each other, creating a cool dynamic.”

September will bring another month of Friendly Fire events on Mondays with Mateus Freire (Faz Frio), Marta Figueiredo (Estrela da Bica), Manuel Liebaut (Fogo) and many others, including bakers, barmen and sommeliers.

It’s clear that Pedro is happy to be at the helm of a restaurant for the first time. And we’re glad he’s there, making excellent food and creating opportunities for unique dining experiences in these uncertain times. Plus, his pastry experience is noticeable in the dessert section, which now features a refreshing pineapple grilled with caramel and topped with granita, and a moreish cheesecake (similar to the Basque tarte de queso). It’s a sweet final bow.

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Chapitô à Mesa