At the turn of the 19th century, Napoleon’s French Army needed help. Specifically, they needed a more effective way of feeding the troops, one that kept them energized over long periods of time without the supplies going bad. Nicolas Appert, chef to the nobility, stepped up to the plate and figured out a way to store food for mind-boggling amounts of time in glass jars sealed with wax. In 1810, he won a prize of 12,000 francs from the French government for his innovation and spent the rest of his life perfecting the process and writing cookbooks about how to preserve food. A few years later, Englishman Brian Donkin started using tin instead of glass to prevent breaking, and what we now know as canned food as born.
200 years later, canned food has a reputation of being utilitarian and bland, but one Portuguese company is trying to change that. José Gourmet is modernizing canned food to find a balance between work and play. Not only is their canned fish sustainably sourced and expertly prepared, but the presentation catapults them above the rest—each can is illustrated by a different Portuguese artist. The theory is that the eye-catching and whimsical art will bring the customer in, but the quality of the food will keep them coming back. We spoke to director Sofia Almeida Santos and chef Luís Baena about the future of food, art, and Portugal.
“If we want to be able to keep our way of living, we need to be smart consumers, and be ready to pay for quality and difference.”
Why are sustainable/ethical practices good for business?
More than being good for business, being fair is our way of life. Consumers look for ethical, but it’s more than that. It’s a must for the future. If we want to be able to keep our way of living, we need to be smart consumers, and be ready to pay for quality and difference. This is our philosophy.
What is your intention for José Gourmet at home in Portugal, and abroad?
We want to be ambassadors of Portugal. We want Portuguese people consuming our products, and we want to let foreigners know that it’s nice to come to Portugal and that we have wonderful hidden secrets. When we started seven years ago this was new. We are happy to be part of the change that has helped people discover Portugal in the recent years.
Why did you decide to go global with your product? Logistically, how difficult was this?
The world changes dramatically all the time. Before, people were happy to listen to the same music, drink the same wine, and eat the same food all their life. Nowadays we want to be surprised all the time. In this context, we want our products to have a fantastic and unique personality. Logistically it is difficult because it’s food, but in some ways easier because the products travel at ambient temperature and have a long shelf life.
Why did you feel canned goods were the way to go?
Basically because of shelf life and price. We wanted to sell internationally, but we couldn’t afford to go to the market and sell our products. We knew that tourists buy small things for themselves, friends, and relatives. What they found interesting they would continue buying. Basically we designed a strategy where the customers would come to find us. Later we found that canned technology—with more than 200 years of history—had fantastic potential. We want to be part of the world to come—canning 2.0.
Do you feel there is a negative perception of canned food in terms of health and sustainability?
Yes, unfortunately. Conserves are the best food conservation technology in terms of energy, waste, and quality. A large percentage of food can be kept this way. But consumers don’t share this perception. There’s a lot of work to do, but once started it will be great.
Where do you source your canned fish? What ideals or values do you follow when sourcing?
We source in Portugal. There are 3 ways of being in business: price, price/quality, and quality. We focus on the last two. When we look for a product for our portfolio, we aim for the best quality. Then we look for the customers that are willing to pay for that quality. We pay a high bonus to our producers to deliver us the best quality. We don’t squeeze prices. We want people to be happy to be our partners. That positive energy flows to customers.
“Art is a pleasure, food is a pleasure. Putting them together is exciting.”
How do you find the artists you use on your cans?
Artist, creator, and professor Luís Mendonça is a friend and a partner of the business, and he helps us find artists. The difficulty is that we can’t have as many products as the artists available to cooperate with us.
What is the connection you see between food and art? Why is this something you wanted to portray?
It is a good excuse to make our lives richer and happier. Art is a pleasure, food is a pleasure. Putting them together is exciting. We want our product to capture those moments of sensitivity.
What differentiates Portugal from other Mediterranean cuisines?
Portugal is influenced by the Atlantic coast with its rich waters and seafood. Fern Adriá once said that it has the finest fish in the world. Per se and Le Bernardin, restaurants in NY, are supplied on a daily basis with fish from our waters. Even tuna on its migratory route to the Mediterranean is at its best between the Azores islands and the Portuguese coast. Swimming between 300 to 400 km/day, its flesh is red and firm. Also, the “discovery” of the “New World” was very important for Mediterranean cultures, as it gave us an immense source of inspiration.
Where do you see Portuguese cuisine on the world scene?
Mostly around Portuguese immigrant communities, though I do consider it a sleeping giant among European cuisines. When tourists fly back to Portugal, they all cite food as a main reason for returning. It’s complicated to be simple, but that’s a well-kept secret.