When Carla Sousa leaves the kitchens of the Valverde Hotel in her adopted city of Lisbon, it is to take the road less traveled, far from the city’s typical picture postcard image. This unconventional chef, from Cape Verde, leads us on a colorful gastronomic stroll.
Carla Sousa looks upon Lisbon from afar. From her home in Almada on the Tagus River’s southern bank, she contemplates Portugal’s capital across the water. Lisbon is undoubtedly at its most beautiful from this vantage point. The city is like a ship in full sail heading out to sea, haloed in dazzling whiteness, bristling with domes and palaces, hilly and unhurried under the sun. It is irresistibly appealing, mirrored in the shimmering river.
The Tagus itself remains one of Carla’s most enduring connections with Lisbon. Every day, Carla traverses the water aboard a train suspended in the sky, crossing the 25 de Abril Bridge towards the city center. She then enters the oasis that is the Valverde Hotel on Avenida da Liberdade, the city’s main thoroughfare: it is to Lisbon what Broadway or Fifth Avenue is to New York City.
When Carla is not working, she follows the twists and turns of the river’s edge to the peaceful river town of Seixal. She loves nothing more than strolling along the water, savoring the tranquility of this nearby paradise. At age 44, the chef – a mother to three children and already a grandmother – sits down with her family at seafood eateries, her favorite one set on a dockside barge where she enjoys going for a drink or celebrating birthdays. Once warmer weather arrives, all the patios on the promenade are brimming with human life. In the background, between fishing boats and sandbanks, you can see the silhouettes of the bridge and the Cristo Rei monument.
Carla’s relationship with Lisbon has long been experienced from a distance. As a child, she grew up amidst the fields in the suburbs of Carnaxide, just six miles from the capital. Her parents came from Cape Verde and nourished their five children primarily with what grew in their vegetable garden – to this day, Carla dreams of taking over the Valverde’s tropical patio to plant her own crops.
Her father, now 79, continues to farm the land as much – or perhaps even more – than he did in the past, tending a very fertile community garden plot. It is a vast meadow, like a small dormant valley, holding back the highway on one side and apartment buildings on the other. This slice of countryside is what remains of the rural setting in which Carla grew up. When her father sends daughter a photo of a giant squash, she goes over to fetch it and, once back at the hotel, whips up a purée to serve with leitão, the suckling pig that is a national gastronomic classic. The chef’s phone is packed with photos of these miraculous harvests.
When the hotel’s owner, who also cultivates such treasures on his own farmed property, returns with a pattypan squash – widely used in Portuguese pastry – she makes jam.
Leaving her father’s vegetable garden, Carla eyes a poster bearing the slogan “Eu sou do bairro” (“I’m from the neighborhood”) and showing dancer Marcelino Sambé of London’s Royal Ballet. Addressing the image, she declares, “Eu sou do bairro também! (I’m from the neighborhood, too!). And I’m living proof that you can spend your childhood here and still find your way in life.” She tells us that she’s aiming for a Michelin star: “That’s the road I want to travel.”
To this end, she constantly seeks training opportunities, such as internships with her Relais & Châteaux peers. This year, she already impressed colleagues at the Relais & Châteaux Congress, hosted by the Valverde Hotel, as she was in charge of the annual dinner. “She was the queen of the evening!” says Maître de Maison Adélia Carvalho. Her version of the traditional arroz de cabidela (rice with chicken) left a lasting impression, to the extent that David Kinch, the three-starred chef and owner of Manresa in Los Gatos, California, approached her the next day with a “Hey, Chef! What was in that dish?”
Carla has a steadfast love for Portuguese cuisine: “There’s no need to try to invent anything – everything’s already there!” she says humbly, a motto expressing her culinary loyalty.
Nothing makes her happier than hitting the road with her companion on their vacations and crisscrossing a region in search of its most quintessential dish, the secret recipe. “We take out the map of Portugal and randomly choose an area to go to. We show up in these little villages in the middle of nowhere and I collect trade secrets. No matter how often we ask for smaller portions, they’re always huge. You can never finish it all!”
It goes without saying she stays true to her roots: the Valverde’s patio regularly swings to the sounds of music from Cape Verde. Against this melodic backdrop, Carla serves the islands’ famed cachupa and a refreshing tomato-chili-coconut dessert – a recipe of her mother’s reinvented into a sorbet. Because Carla believes that her cooking has a twofold purpose: to engender emotion and to honor memory.