American chef Sean Marsh created ATO, a new bistro in Faro where the local community and traditional ingredients are part of the action
Sean Marsh is no rookie when it comes to gastronomy. With stints at Michelin-starred restaurants in London and San Sebastian under his belt, he has culinary experience many chefs can only dream of. But it is in Faro that he found his place, in a community where he is blending in. A place where his passion for anthropology can blossom as he discovers stories behind traditional dishes and local ingredients. This is where he decided to take action and create ATO (‘act’ in Portuguese).
Originally from the US, the 37-year-old chef grew up in Florida, where he studied Anthropology and Sustainable Agriculture. He discovered Europe and its food scene in 2011 when he came for a holiday. “A holiday that never ended! I never went back,” admits the chef, chuckling.
It was the beginning of a gastronomic adventure, which saw him work in kitchens of acclaimed restaurants such as Mugaritz in San Sebastian and St. John in London. And later, Vila Joya and Bon Bon in the Algarve, a region he first discovered when he came to help a friend open a pop-up restaurant in Faro.
Following the pandemic, most of which he spent in the US, he returned to Faro to open his first restaurant: ATO, a lowkey bistro, worlds apart from the white-tableclothed fine-dining restaurants he worked at for so many years. “I wanted to open a restaurant that I would want to eat in,” explains the chef. “I have done every level of the restaurant world. I have done very fine dining and very casual type of places. And what I like the most is this sort of bistro vibe.”
And why ATO? “Because it’s action! It’s part of what I want to do. Faro is like a second home to me, and when I came back here, I wanted to open something to serve Faro’s community. Part of our long-term plans is to be involved in the local community, support local organisations, and non-profits, raising awareness about local food and sustainability. We want to be an instrument for action,” says Sean, admitting that ”ATO is also easy to say and remember”.
When he came across an old tasca on a cobbled street in the old part of town, he knew it would be the ideal place to transform into the bistro he envisioned. Despite the rustic tables, azulejos, wood-framed windows and tiled floor, there is an air of modernity brought about by contemporary lighting, art on the walls and Sean’s playlist. “I feel very grateful. Many chefs would love having a 24-seat restaurant, serving a small menu, and being able to cook whatever they want.”
His location choice was not left to chance. “I think the Algarve and Portugal have fantastic products. It’s part of the reason why I wanted to move here instead of going back to London. Because here you’re so close to everything, the agricultural production and the fish. That sort of seasonality is super important to me. Because my cooking and academic backgrounds have always overlapped, I have always been interested in projects focused on local food systems and sustainability. For me, it’s about supporting local producers and the economy, and selfishly getting the best quality products possible!”
The way Sean sees it, in the Algarve, “there was a large gap between the traditional restaurants, which do very well, and the high-level restaurants”, which are mostly concentrated in areas such as Quinta do Lago. ATO comes as an option to start filling that gap. “I like democratising fine dining,” exclaims Sean, who believes exclusivity in fine dining is archaic. “I think food is going in a different direction these days.”
“It’s important for my partners, me, and everyone involved in this project that ATO remains an accessible restaurant. For some people, it’s a special occasion, but it’s also a bistro, a local restaurant part of Faro’s local community, that you can eat at weekly.” The kind of place where you can come for a five-course meal or just to share a couple of starters and have a glass of wine before going to a show.
The menu is seasonal and changes according to the products Sean finds at the market and gets from local producers. His influence is mostly Portuguese and Mediterranean. “In the Algarve, we are historically and currently at an apex of multiple cultures. So, it’s really interesting to explore all these. The anthropologist in me likes the food culture and the stories that different ingredients tell.”
To warm-up the taste buds, Sean serves warm, soft sourdough bread to be dipped in tomato-infused olive oil or spread with seaweed butter as one browses the menu. There is a choice of six starters, which in February (at the time of our visit) included: Bonito tuna and beetroot tartare with yoghurt; roast cauliflower with brown butter and cured fish eggs; roast pumpkin with fresh cheese and walnut vinaigrette; cuttlefish in ink with fennel and aioli sauce; and local prawns with dulse seaweed and cured egg yolk.
The chef predominantly cooks fish, seafood and vegetables. “I only have a meat dish and am considering not keeping that as a rule,” he admits. That month, his main courses included sweet potato gnocchi with oyster mushrooms and leeks; spotted seabass with white beans and roasted tomatoes; grey mullet with rapini and anchovy vinaigrette; and Iberian pork with turnips and watercress.
The final note of the meal can either be sweet or savoury. February featured a semifreddo of Moscatel with Algarvian strawberries with lemon verbena, and a roasted Rocha pear with fresh cheese, pollen and honey.
This may all sound like comfort food, but there is no doubt the techniques, textures and seasonings are those of a fine-dining restaurant. Sean works on finding the right local product and producer to create each dish. “And going from there, I think about my guests, how they know sarrajão (bonito tuna), and how I can elevate it in a way that isn’t overly fancy, just genuine. I try to find a balance between creativity and familiarity. Other than that, it’s just making it delicious and making sure people have a good time!”
The wines are no exception. The short list available on the menu represents Portugal’s varied terroirs, focusing on small productions, young winemakers and wines made with minimal intervention.
Although the chef is more than qualified to create a fine-dining tasting menu, it is not the path he sees ATO taking. “Food and wine are a vehicle for experience and conversation.” For him, “food should be a point of conversation, not the focus of your attention”.
ATO is quickly becoming a melting pot where locals and visitors alike come to taste the Algarve’s seasonal flavours in a genuinely local atmosphere. “We have a very nice mix of locals, expats and tourists. Evenly spread,” says Sean. “And a lot of love and support from the community. What more can you ask for?”
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