How ex-Portuguese soldier learned to cook and opened Antonio’s restaurant in Macau
- Antonio Coelho learned about Portuguese food from eating it – so often, he taught himself to cook and became a chef; he opened his Macau restaurant in 2007
- At the age of 70 he’s still in the kitchen at Antonio’s, which serves Portuguese classics and has earned a mention in the Michelin Guide
Antonio Coelho is the chef and owner of Antonio’s, a three-storey restaurant in Macau’s Taipa Village. Dressed in his short-sleeved chef jacket, covered with medals, Coelho is chatting with regular customers and greeting new ones.
Inside, the atmosphere is cosy and casual, with a guitarist who sings most nights. But the diners come here for the food, and the menu lists numerous Portuguese dishes, many of them signature dishes.
There are sauté clams with garlic, coriander, olive oil and white wine sauce, or sauté fresh prawns in plenty of chopped garlic, bacalao or deep-fried fish cakes, grilled sardines, and a gut-busting Portuguese duck rice that’s rich and delicious. The same can be said of the steak “Portuguese” style, pan-fried in butter and topped with a fried egg, pickles and potato slices.
The 70-year-old Coelho has lived in Macau for almost 22 years, though in his colourful past he wasn’t always in the kitchen.
Originally from Portugal, Coelho did a mandatory four-year stint in the army in 1970 that included two years in Macau. He remembers the ship docking at where Ponte 16 is now.
After returning to Portugal he worked for the government in the health department, followed by a job in the country’s biggest clinical lab in 1981. “The boss was very good to me; I learned a lot from him. We went out to eat for lunch every day, sometimes dinner, and that’s when I began tasting many things,” he recalls.
From developing his palate on the job for about five years, Coelho says he knew where all the good restaurants were and, inspired by the flavours, began trying his hand at cooking at home on the weekends for friends.
Four years later he started working in a restaurant, where he really began to learn how to cook.
“At the time I only knew how to eat, cooking I didn’t know – only on weekends,” he says with a chuckle. He learned diligently during three years with the restaurant and then opened his own Portuguese restaurant.
Fast forward to 1997 and, following his divorce, and with the Portuguese economy shaky, Coelho decided it was time for a change and looked to Macau for his next chapter.
He worked in several restaurants in Macau, and had a brief stint in Hong Kong, before opening Antonio’s in 2007.
Coelho compares cooking to art, and says food is more appreciated for its simplicity. He names dishes such as grilled sardines and bacalhao as simple food people enjoy eating.
He likes to unwind at home by sitting out on his terrace and having a glass of whisky with a cigar.
“It’s a place people don’t normally see me. In the restaurant it’s hard to smoke a cigar. It’s one of my pleasures. I relax because you know we can have everything run well [in the restaurant], but sometimes it doesn’t run well – but we don’t show our stress to the customers,” he says.
“We have stress because you need to make sure the food you give to the customers is good. If you make something wrong, you cannot correct it. The customer can taste if it’s not good, so it’s important to have concentration in the kitchen. Sometimes you need a five-minute break and it’s better you stop for five minutes than not stop working.”
Despite the challenges of running a restaurant smoothly, Coelho is happy with the business – and it also helps having a mention in the Michelin Guide. Customers keep coming back, which for him is his greatest satisfaction.
Antonio’s, Rua dos Clerigos No 9, Taipa, tel: +853 2857 6626