Kiwi chef George McLeod and Lara Espirito Santo opened Sem in June 2021. The restaurant and wine bar in Lisbon was voted the best new restaurant in Portugal.
New Zealand chef George McLeod, accompanied by his partner, left in search of a change of scenery at the start of the pandemic, moving from London to Lisbon, the hometown of his girlfriend.
The couple found quick success opening their award-winning restaurant and wine bar, Sem.
“It was crazy. At the start of the pandemic we moved here to get out of our London flat and ended up staying,” said McLeod, who was born in Dunedin and grew up in Christchurch.
“We opened Sem at the end of June. We thought we could sneak under the radar, but we’ve started to get some traction and recently received the Best New Restaurant in Portugal award.
“We weren’t expecting this at all, but we’re quite pleased.”
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The Mesa Marcada awards – similar to New Zealand food awards – are voted on by local Portuguese industry identities.
Offering high-end cuisine in a relaxed environment, Sem was judged the 27th best restaurant in the country, the highest ranking of new entries, making it the best new restaurant in Portugal.
“We’re very experimental with flavors,” McLeod said. “The presentation is quite bare. It’s not a hugely technical food, but we pride ourselves on pushing the boundaries with big flavors and boosting ingredients that don’t normally get the limelight.
After pliing his trade in various kitchens in Wellington, including Whitebait, McLeod moved to London several years ago to join Silo, the world’s first zero-waste restaurant – a concept he has long embraced and is doing its best to use at Sem.
However, he balks at the term “sustainable” and believes restaurants need to aim higher to better reduce their impact on resources and the environment.
“For us, sustainable means you don’t get better or worse, you stay the same. As we want to have a positive impact on this world,” he said.
“With the amount of fermentation we do, it’s a perfect way to be zero waste. We ferment a lot of leftovers and a lot of bits and pieces and then we put them back into future dishes. big, bold flavors with crazy notes.
The Portuguese love their seafood, but McLeod is looking to promote lesser-known river fish, while sourcing protein – such as 12-year-old retired cows normally used for dog food – from a local regenerative agriculture farm.
“It’s an incredible piece of meat. A lot of Portuguese are confused, like “you shouldn’t eat this”, then they eat it, and it’s actually so much better with so much more flavor.
“We stick to making little statements throughout the menu, like ‘you should eat this instead of that’, or ‘did you know you can eat this instead of something super industrial’.”
At 32, McLeod has found the move to Portugal invigorating, reveling in the “awesome” lifestyle he shares with his girlfriend, who handles reception and administrative duties at the restaurant.
The couple share a one-bedroom apartment overlooking the historic Alfama district and the river. The proximity of both the beach and the forest allows him to indulge his passions of surfing and gathering.
“The surf in Portugal is amazing. I’ll go get some fodder or sneak away for the day before it opens and go out into the forest with the dog and take a walk.
“Everyone is pretty cool. There is a very nice community here. Everyone is really friendly.
McLeod and his girlfriend Lara Espirito Santo have a five-year lease on their dining space, but the ambitious couple are already formulating their next ideas.
“I have big plans, a lot to do with the environment and I try to push the restaurant as far as possible. I would like to move to the countryside, grow my own produce and have a destination restaurant.