The culinary journey of Chef Helena Loureiro

Helena Loureiro

In Helena Loureiro’s family home in Portugal, the importance of good ingredients for cooking mattered.

Her grandmother Maria Benvinda insisted upon them. Maria Benvinda was an excellent cook. Helena would work with her when she prepared food for weddings and baptisms in the village.

It also helped that her grandfather was making his own cold-pressed olive oil. He would take the family brand with him to restaurants. It was just a matter of daily life in the family.

All of this very much influenced Helena who set her sights on becoming a chef at a very early age.

Today, she lives in Montreal and she has realized her dream with two restaurants — Helena and Portus 360, which is at the top of the former Delta Hotel on the edge of old Montreal.

On March 17, she was to be sharing a menu at the National Arts Centre with Executive Chef Kenton Leier as part of a series of culinary ‘concerts’ running this season at the NAC. That has been cancelled because of the COVID-19 virus. The event may be rescheduled once the crisis passes, says the centre’s general manager, Nelson Borges.

The series is to promote up and coming chefs but also to try to answer the question what is Canadian cuisine?

“Canadian cuisine is a mixture of cultures. If you go where Kenton (Leier) is from in Saskatchewan, there are a lot of Ukrainian influences. In Montreal there is a well established Portuguese community and several fine Portuguese restaurants,” Borges said.

“Helena Loureiro’s cuisine is emblematic of Portuguese food in Quebec. When we invited her it was to do that kind of cuisine here.”

Helena, through translation by Borges and her partner Dinis Seara, said her influences are from her grandmother Maria. But she also said she always knew she would be a chef.

That was her destiny. Her passion was to be a cook. She said she was never a big eater but she is a big maker of dishes.

Her love is to cook for people, said Seara. She enjoys creating different things and pleasing people.

Helena said that if she had not pursued a career as a chef, she might have ended up as a police investigator. She likes to dig into things and research and study and prepare, she said. Fortunately for fans of her food, the chef thing worked out.

She believes there is no ceiling in what you can achieve. Her own story is proof of that.

She started in kitchens in Portugal in the 1980s. This was a man’s world then — as it still is for the most part today. She dreamed of getting out of Portugal and travelling to places she had had heard of. Travel has become a way for her to expand her cuisine, she said, helping her learn new ways to prepare dishes based on what she sees and tastes.

She left Portugal for good in 1988 at age 21. She was married and was on her way ultimately to New York City. But first she stopped in Montreal. And the rest is kitchen history. She got a job preparing food for a day care in Montreal. Soon after she had two children. Soon after that she was a single mother working in the day care and going to culinary school.

She stayed in Montreal because she felt at home in what she said was a European-style city.

Helena came from a small village. Her mother didn’t want her to travel on her own. Portuguese culture then was such that boys could do what they wanted while the girls can’t do anything. Borges, who is Portuguese Canadian, said.

She wanted to see more of the world and she didn’t want to work in Lisbon because she felt it would be too restrictive.

Even today it’s difficult for women chefs to find their own way in kitchens including in Montreal.

Cooking for the day care, she said she was dreaming of owning her own restaurant. When her eldest child was 12, she opened Portus Calle on Saint Laurent Boulevard. It was in a Portuguese neighbourhood.

She cooked traditional Portuguese food with a modern spin. Her cuisine, she said, is based on the simplicity of ingredients, the quality of the products and the health benefits of the cuisine which is similar to a Mediterranean diet. After about a decade on The Main, Helena opened a second restaurant called Helena and in 2016 she l

The second restaurant, called Helena was opened in 2012. In 2016 she opened Portus 360 at top of the old Delta Hotel in Montreal. Portus Calle closed at the same time basically because the lease was expiring and everything needed an overhaul.

Ironically, she had very few Portuguese customers. Her clientele included Italians, Greeks and Quebecois. The Portuguese community wants, she believes, more traditionally prepared dishes.

Helena says she loves to work with Canadian suppliers and she believes in Quebec and Canadian products while ordering products from Portugal for specific items for her cuisine.

Her favourite Canadian ingredients? Maple Syrup and Canadian seafood, including lobsters, from Iles de la Madeleines.

The one dish that she serves that epitomizes her cuisine is called cataplana which is similar to a Spanish paella but is more liquid.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.