What do a financial adviser, a CEO of a technology company, a product manager, a theatre director, a hotel manager, a lawyer, a wine producer and a director of a media agency do around the dinner table? The question has no catch and neither is it a riddle. It happened last February and there’s yet more to come, with the same intriguing cast of characters and more, all with a job to do, but always with a common passion: good food. What they also have in common is the red shirt that defines and unites them: the Casacas Rojas or Red Coats. Although everyone is welcome, entry is restricted, to ensure that what goes down, most times never-to-be-repeated, is exceptional - like the time chef João Rodrigues dropped in to prepare a one-off menu at Palácio do Grilo, in Beato.
It’s not by chance the name is Spanish, as it’s from there that the idea hails, and where the Casacas Rojas have existed for more than a decade. “It all began with a group of friends in Barcelona almost 17 years ago who decided to pay homage to Ferran Adrià and El Bulli [for years considered the best restaurant in the world and which closed at the peak of its popularity, with three Michelin stars],” says Eurico Nobre, the man responsible for bringing the project to Portugal. “Basically, they made a documentary about how the cuisine of El Bulli, a small restaurant on a small street in Girona, had spread its influence throughout Catalonia. And so it occurred to us that such a great idea could literally go places.” Eurico, a business manager by profession, in the next breath mentions Gregori Salas and Josep Vilaseca, without whom this story could not be told. “In other words, it kicked off quite naturally with a group of friends who then called other friends and today there are 170 of us in Catalonia including people in restaurants, business and wine production,” he adds, revealing that, in the meantime, the group has also laid down roots in Madrid and Majorca.
A few years ago, after being present at a Casacas Rojas dinner in Barcelona, José Carlos Capel, food critic of El País and president of Madrid Fusión, the most important gastronomic congress in Spain, wrote that the group's visits to El Bulli - “the bullinadas” - were quite the talking point and remembered the day when they surpassed themselves by renting out the bullring of Barcelona. “When they get together, once a month, they have just one motto: gastronomy is a good time. Hence their battle cry, a two-part call and response: ‘Festi’, someone shouts unannounced; “val!” responds the group as one. And so on again and again all night long,” Capel told us. Here in Lisbon, it’s no different.
“This isn't a networking group, here to talk about business, it's people who come together to have a great time and pay tribute to fine wining and dining, and good friends,” insists Eurico, saying that the idea of bringing the Casacas Rojas to Lisbon came from a friend living in Barcelona, with whom he always shared tables and hot tips. “I like bringing people together, I always did. I like to find new restaurants and wines and it got me thinking. I took up the challenge without knowing exactly what I was getting into,” he jokes.
“It all began with a trip to Barcelona in February last year, and we’ve now a bunch of festivals planned for our friends. At the end of the day, this group of friends has grown and grown.”
The first festival - there being no events here and hence the battle cry - happened in September at Quinta do Monte d'Oiro, in Alenquer. The second was something different: a dinner where João Rodrigues' fine dining residency, which all year long has been cooking up a storm across the country, found an eccentric soul mate in Palácio do Grilo, a makeover masterminded by Frenchman Julien Labrousse. A banquet for just over 20 people in a private room of the palace that over the last year has made quite the name for itself, thanks to its menu accompanied by artistic performances that are as conceptual as they are daring.
“It's not just about eating out, but about making the experience something special. Palácio do Grilo was a case in point. When I went there a few months ago I totally loved the space, but the experience didn’t fit the bill and so we challenged chef João Rodrigues to do something. It was the perfect pairing,” Eurico explains, committed to creating “one-off experiences.”
In March, the next get-together will take place at Quinta do Casal Branco, in Almeirim. “We like to tweak concepts. With chef João Rodrigues, we were lucky to have an exquisite environment and some madcap artistic performances; now our next festival is going to mix Almeirim caralhotas [homemade bread balls, baked in a wood oven] with sopa da pedra, fandango, horses, and one-pot recipes,” he lets slip.
This is going to be, however, the last open get-together. That means: “Whoever’s in, pay your meal on the way out and we're done.” From here onwards, the group is closing ranks. “20 founding members are leaving who can then invite two people each in their place.” Hereafter, whoever wants to join the Casacas Rojas - with an annual membership fee, value as yet undecided, but which should be around €450 - might find it gets trickier and is always subject to review. “In Spain, there’s a waiting list. Someone can only join when another one leaves. The last I heard, the waiting list is two or three years,” Eurico remarks. And there’s good reason for this, he insists. “We want to offer experiences that are relatively intimate, otherwise people don’t enjoy it or things have to be done on a scale where the intimacy gets lost in the mix.”
What’s the selection process, then? “It’s more what we are looking for and less what stops someone [from getting into the Casacas Rojas],” he explains. “An example of what is not in the spirit of the group is someone who sucks the air out the room. ‘I did this, I do that, I make this happen, I know it all’. That's not for us. We have people who have absolutely amazing careers, at the top of their profession, and then we have people who have perfectly normal lives. But there we are all equal, and that’s just how we like it.”
In Portugal, as in Spain, the rule that cannot be broken is to keep the mood lively. No bad attitude, no prejudice, no fear of expressing oneself or having fun - the battle cry “Festi-Val!” says it all. Over the border, some have complained about the noise the group can make. Eurico, however, is quick to remind us there is a code of conduct. “The group defines itself as `ladies and gentlemen with brains','' he makes very clear. “We’re no bunch of elitists. No snobs, or sexists. On the contrary, it’s as open as possible, provided they keep to the guiding principles: set a table to remember and get in the spirit of sharing.”
Women are still in a minority, he admits. “I’d say it’s a bit of a reflection, sadly, of our society; we’d very much like the group to be more evenly distributed.” The good news is nothing is yet set in stone. “Do you want to give it a try?” Eurico dares me. “Go to Instagram or our website and send us a message; we’d love to be more inclusive, as far as we can ensure the experience is enjoyable for everyone involved.”
And there's already a lot happening: “In April it’s the founders festival, but this is going to be a very private event intended only for founder members and after that we are going to put on various events throughout the year, many already figured out, others not so much.” Not wanting to give much away, Eurico hints: “We’re going to hold one at a castle in June behind closed doors for both Portuguese and Spanish members; September is the wine harvest; a hand-caught seafood and fish festival with the fishermen.” There is also a table already reserved for 12 people at chef Joan Roca’s El Celler de Can Roca in Girona (three Michelin stars). “As soon as you start explaining [the Casacas Rojas], it just sounds like another group of diners out for a meal, without understanding what makes it special. Because in fact, these are experiences to be enjoyed, not to be talked about after.”