Hotels have allowed Miguel Guedes de Sousa to see much of the world. And it’s that world he puts into his Lisbon restaurants. Proud of his Portuguese roots, the CEO of Amorim Luxury is a curious and tireless traveller.
“My father loved taking short trips with his kids, staying in good hotels and eating in good restaurants, which is how I acquired a real passion for a certain lifestyle”, says Miguel Guedes de Sousa, seated at an outside table of his magnificent restaurant, JNcQUOI Asia, on Avenida da Liberdade. Back then, people didn’t travel like they do now, but the world soon opened up when he went to study in Kansas, aged 17, in “a rather remote spot”, but at a school with a great rugby team, a sport he’s played all his life, and which took him all over the Midwest, “the real United States”. He followed the American dream: “I wanted to experience American high school, all cheerleaders and American football players. Just like in the films!”, he laughs. It broadened his horizons: “It taught me to take risks, have an open mind and deal with differences. I learned what it’s like to live abroad and make friends.” He’s lived in so many countries that he came up with a formula: he chose a popular bar and restaurant and went there every day. “People would get to know me; I gave good tips and I talked to people around me”. But, like any good traveller, he also likes being alone. “Travelling while observing. Everything I know, all my ideas come from trips”.
Miguel Guedes de Sousa has lived in 13 countries, “I’m a professional traveller, I’ve never stopped!”, he laughs. He went to England to improve his English, studied hotel management in Switzerland and did a cookery course in the USA. His roommate was Imelda Marcos’s nephew, so he did a six-month internship at the grandiose Manila hotel and spent the same amount of time at The Landmark, in Bangkok. His first proper job was in Brighton, England, before spending two years in Barcelona, where he became food & beverage director at the InterContinental. He’s still a big fan of Sitjes and the Costa Brava, “there’s a great culinary and artistic culture, they’re very interesting people”. Next stop was the Maldivas, where he remembers “amazing sunsets and massive storms”, not forgetting the memory of being at the beach and seeing an enormous whale shark, “incredible!”. When his father visited him, Miguel diverted him to Phuket, in Thailand, where he wanted to see the super-luxurious Amanpuri, which had just opened (“this was 27 years ago”, he recalls). Overexcited by the whole thing, he booked a room without knowing the price. “There was a pool in both our rooms: ‘there must be something wrong!’”, he laughs. “It was the first time that I experienced super-luxury. I was amazed”. He spent ten years sending letters to the director of the Aman Resorts, before writing to the founder, who phoned him and offered to meet him the next time he was in Singapore. “I went immediately!” He spent a year’s salary on a Brook Brothers suit, “to look the part”, but didn’t actually wear it because someone had warned him: “he never hires anyone who turns up in a suit.” He met his idol, he was chosen, and he toured a number of Aman resorts, visiting ten in a month. It was “the smartest thing, trying everything. Mad, huh?”
His adventure started with a brief stop in India. He still recalls beautiful Rajasthan, where he saw the birth of a tiger, before travelling to Amanpuri, where he fell in love with Thailand. “I must have been Thai in another life. I had remarkable experiences. That hotel changed my life. Today, I’m confident, daring and know stuff… Twenty-five years later, it’s still a work of art!” He travelled throughout the country and became “obsessed” with its culture and food: “They’re incredibly charming and exotic. A real melting-pot”. Next was four years at the Amanjena in Marrakesh, where he later became general manager and was very happy, “I had the best years there”. He loved the temperature and “the feeling of a small door opening onto an oasis, always being surprised. Its culture is so old and strong that, as soon as you think you know it, you realise you don’t know anything. And I met some extraordinary people”. He took part in the Marathon des Sables, the famous ultramarathon to Mauritania, “six marathons in six days”. “The desert is overwhelming, the silence. On a starry night, black camels appeared on a dune under falling stars… And an eagle, suddenly, coming out of nowhere. I’ve had uniquely beautiful experiences”. He returned to the Philippines for almost six years, to Amanpulo, a small island with its own police, school and hospital, where “we had to plant our own vegetables and deal with our own rubbish”. He woke up every day at six and cleaned up the island with his team and labrador Sulo, so clients would wake up to a pristine paradise. “One day, I saw a giant turtle swimming and a tiger shark bite its head off. It was like something out of National Geographic. My dog would dive into the water and catch baby sharks (a real pain, I always put them back in the water). I’ve never been so strong in my life!”.
His time in Asia encouraged him to study the Portuguese connection to this vast continent, which we can see on a map at the entrance of JNCquoi Asia. “I’m very proud of being Portuguese and the influence Portugal had in these countries after discovering the sea route to India is obvious, particularly in the spice market, which had a big effect on Thai cuisine. We brought chilli peppers to the country, defended their crown for almost 100 years, and left behind fios de ovos (angel hair), rice with coconut milk and coriander.” He travelled all over Asia and visited Singapore every month, “selling” his hotel in Tokyo, Shanghai and Beijing. “Twenty-two years ago, nobody spoke English. I went with an interpreter and a map, the clients were government people, and every month I saw a new motorway.” He visited Korea many times and remembers the views of Amanjiwo, in Java, opposite the 9th-century Buddhist temple of Borobudur: “In the middle of the jungle, you can see an active volcano.” Is there any country he’d like to see? “Bangladesh. And I’d like to explore Africa, Kenya, Madagascar… Who knows? Maybe create something African and Brazilian. A JNcQUOI Ecuador”, he smiles.
In 2008, he returned to Portugal to work in asset management at Explore Investments, which turned around top hotels like the Six Senses, Campo Real and Vila Monte Farmhouse. Married to Paula Amorim, founder of the flagship Fashion Clinic and Gucci representative as part of the Amorim Luxury brand, in 2017 he began managing the business group belonging to her father, Américo Amorim, the richest man in Portugal at the time: “We created the food meets fashion meets hospitality concept, an integrated lifestyle company”. And that’s how the two fabulous JNcQUOI restaurants were born (“Our biggest competitor is space”, he jokes), the first establishment hosts Ladurée, while here there are four types of Asian cuisines: “We don’t make restaurants, we make institutions”.
On the move
Miguel is always looking for success stories and travel fuels his boundless energy. “It’s my drug, so to speak.” He flies several times a month and is capable of catching a plane to Norway or Denmark just to visit a restaurant, “because I love gastronomy or a different vibe. We learn from others”. He would also quite as easily travel to New York, jump in an Uber and go to 20 different restaurants in one day, “to assimilate ideas”. He takes notes, makes lists and does his own research. He has tried to follow his father’s example on a family trip to Asia and ended up having dinner alone on occasions, “they couldn’t eat any more!”, he laughs. And he has his quirks: he makes a reservation but visits the restaurant beforehand to choose the table. “It’s an important part of my trip. My wife says I’m mad, but the worst thing for me is a bad meal, stingily served. I’m not fussed about other stuff. I’m easy. Although I enjoy luxury and the good things in life, I’m equally happy having a good kebab as I am eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant, it just depends on who I’m with and the temperature. It’s funny. I used to go to all of them. Nowadays, I look for something genuine. I prefer to grill fish with a fisherman than go to a fancy place in Monaco. But I still go. I’m interested in innovative two and three- -star hotels. Enjoying a variety of things is all about balance. I’m interested in everything.” The first thing he does when he arrives in a country is find that restaurant, then that hotel. “I can stay in a bad hotel to go to a good restaurant, but never the other way around.”
A lot of his research is done in-flight. He rarely sleeps because he’s too focussed, and long-haul is no problem for him: “I love flying. It inspires me. I like everything: the meals, the in-flight magazine, watching a film. I enjoy the time on a plane. I can read. I always take magazines with me and cut out lots of things. My wife gets upset with me because I sometimes tear bits out of what she’s reading. Then I give the stuff to people, for them to learn about things.” He’s always exploring at the airport: “I like observing people. How they’re dressed, what they eat, the shops, the new trends, it amuses me.” He doesn’t care too much about material things, which is why he travels light: “Carry-on luggage is enough for me!”, he laughs. “I’d like to get to the stage of having clothes that are all the same colour, or three colours, all organised.” The best thing about travelling is?… “Everything! I’m a real dreamer. Knowing that I’m going to travel, all that excitement, I experience it before, during and after. I enjoy everything, I enjoy life. Life is to be lived to the limit, intensely. The only way of being happy is always to be doing things.”
by Patrícia Barnabé /// photo Luís Silva Campos
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