Born and bred on São Tomé’s plantations, João Carlos Silva travelled the world before returning to his place of birth. As presenter of the cookery programme Na Roça com os Tachos, he’s one of the main names in São Toméan art and culture.
A love of cooking runs through his veins, growing up with a love of culture, art, literature, history and heritage. João Carlos Silva is a man of many passions and projects. He’s founder and mentor of the Teia de Artes and CACAU cultural centres, president of São Tomé and Príncipe Biennial of Art and Culture, and presenter of cookery programmes such as Na Roça com os Tachos and Sal na Língua. He’s also the heart and soul of the São João plantation, a country hotel dedicated to gastronomic, cultural and environmental tourism. João Carlos is all of this and much more. Born in 1956 on the Augusta plantation in São Tomé, he moved to the Gratidão plantation when he was five. He explains that “the Gratidão years affected my life greatly, not just because they were a very happy period of my childhood, but also because it was there I met Amílcar Silva, a supervisor ahead of his time who instilled in me a love of books and poetry.” João Carlos left Gratidão for the capital and his father’s Teia de Aranha restaurant, where he developed a love of blending flavours. He also acquired the knack of hopping from one place to the next.
João Carlos left the archipelago in 1976 to discover the mainland. Travelling through Angola, “supposedly for a fortnight but it ended up being 8 years”, these were his school days. He studied Arts and also made preliminary forays into Law. He made friends here, but “above all, was able to discover other African realities”. Angola became his first second home, Portugal coming later and stealing the honour.
The young São Toméan arrived in Coimbra to study Law at the beginning of the 1980s, though never finished the course. Like so many other students moving to Coimbra, the school of life won him over. “I was an active, committed and deliberate bohemian, getting involved in university life, organising parties, dinners and festivals. I spent a lot of time at the Grémio Operário and Ateneu 25 de Abril venues listening to Zeca Afonso, José Mário Branco and other big names of popular Portuguese music. I joined in academic celebrations and was a member of Clepsidra (students’ cooperative linked to student clubs and associations).” In this academic city, he openly admits that “I learnt to be irreverent and compassionate, seeing the city’s cultural patchwork in a new light. At the time, it was a principal meeting place for students from Portuguese-speaking Africa.”
For a change of scenery, João Carlos went to Lisbon where he started working as a journalist for Triângulo, a newspaper dedicated to cooperation between Africa and Europe. Thanks to his “spiritual guru”, Portuguese-São Toméan Fernando Macedo Ferreira, he joined the group of Natália Correia and Alda Ferreira at the Botequim Bar, and also discovered the African nightlife, first at Bana, then at B. Leza. “In Lisbon, I married Portuguese culture with African culture.”
The turn of the millennium saw João Carlos returning to his homeland, arriving there full of dreams and ideas. He transformed his father’s old restaurant into the Teia de Artes, an arts school where many new São Toméan artists have studied. He launched the São Tomé and Príncipe Biennial of Art and Culture and founded CACAU, a cultural association and multidisciplinary space where various arts are brought together simultaneously.
João Carlos first appeared on television in 2005 on the first (and most famous) of various cookery programmes he’s presented. For Na Roça com os Tachos, he carried his pans back to the archipelago to present recipes, tell stories and talk about books and music. He says the programme changed his life, declaring “Over the last ten years, I’ve invested a lot in gastronomy, this ephemeral art form.” The São João Plantation (see box), his plantation turned gastronomic country hotel, is a testing ground. Among other projects such as themed vegetable gardens, he explains “we’re now opening a gastronomy school where, by blending cookery with citizenship, we’ll train local young people.”
Despite being firmly fixed in São Tomé for some years now, João Carlos returns to Portugal whenever he can. He likes seeing how Lisbon has changed over the last ten years, saying “it’s become even more chic.” He likes getting lost in Chiado, where his Portuguese office is, and also in the Alfama and Mouraria districts, meeting places for colours and aromas from everywhere: “Lisbon is a melting pot, always has been, always will be.” Portugal’s Alentejo is now starting to allure him. “I discovered it in two stages, first the coast then inland. While making the Produtos da Terra programme for RTP África, I really got to know the Algarve and Alentejo, falling in love especially with the Alentejo, home of aromatic herbs. And Coimbra, well, that’ll always be special.
by Maria Ana Ventura photo Paulo Barata
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