Updated: Jul 26, 2019
Man grills fish. I eat fish. Sounds so simple, but this experience in Lisbon taught me that simplicity is one of the greatest forms of excellence.
No breaks. I could tell that the man did not stop. Either I was getting tired or his energy was that strong. As I took a seat at the bar, the seamless execution of this older gentlemen caught my undivided attention. His overall process was first class. He glanced over as we sat, not a drip of sweat on his aging body - even as the coal fired grill roared next to him.
Before any pleasantries or any type of hello, sliced bread and olives were already in front of us, a slight of hand of sorts. “Bom Dia” wasn’t necessary, as I think he had transcended basic conversation in order to keep his mechanical process well oiled. With perfect timing, he offered us a beverage and asked us what we wanted to eat.
“Eu no posso comer mariscos, senhor. Solo peixe.” I said in my broken Portuguese.
He immediately moved to the display case where a variety of whole fish and squid lay. He opened the case and pulled out a whole sea bass, raised it in the air and looked at me. The scales reflected sunlight off of his glasses as he said “Nao marisco.”
“Nao marisco?” I double checked, partly in awe of his simplification of my food allergy problem. The second i accepted the sea bass, he was no longer interested in interacting with me. The fish was salt crusted and slapped on to the flame.
As he worked the open fire, my admiration grew to a point that I caved in and pulled out my phone for a picture. He glanced over briefly as I asked “Posso?” - I wanted to be respectful as I photographed his work. He gave me a slight nod as his focus shifted back to the food - either annoyed that I have caused his only lapse in concentration or generally indifferent. The regulars by the fish case having a few 25cl beers were confused as to why I was taking pictures in the first place. Either way, I captured a few moments of his brilliance.
As he worked the grill, full of whole chickens, fish, squids, and countless other creatures, he maneuvered back and forth behind the bar completing a number of other tasks that required the utmost attention to detail. From organizing glasses by size, to cleaning the prep area of other workers, he never stopped working. All the while, he monitored the grill with impeccable timing. As each protein was complete, he plated it, walked over to the kitchen and barked out the sides that needed to be ready to add immediately.
The moment I blinked and looked down, the bread and olives were gone and the plate of fish was in front of me. I got emotional. The regulars gave me a smile and a nod. The butter from the potatoes started to coat the fish, and the smokey, grilled flavor started to blend with the butter. As I savored every bite of the silky smooth fish, I started to wonder - am I an artisan?