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Granny Dona Cena and Hugo Guerra O Lobo Mau (the Big Bad Wolf): a story of friendship that sprouted in a garden in the heart of Lisbon. Photo: Rita Ansone.

Once upon a time, there was a Big Bad Wolf (Lobo Mau in portuguese) who met a granny in the woods, and then… they became friends. So friendly that the granny offered the fruit and vegetables from the woods for the wolf to use in her restaurant’s recipes and, in exchange, the wolf – who, despite his reputation of having such big eyes, mouth, and teeth, really had a big heart – now spends pleasant mornings and afternoons in the granny’s company.

The re-telling of the well-known fable is set in a building in Arroios, Lisbon, and tells the story of the friendship that developed between neighbors Hugo Guerra and Sucena da Costa.

He, a young chef, 35 years old, owner of the Lobo Mau (Big Bad Wolf) restaurant, and she, the unbelievable neighbor, the vigorous woman who, at the age of 90, took over the upkeep of the building’s patio, ignored by the other residents, transforming the area into a colorful mix of garden, vegetable garden, and orchard.

“Every day, the godmother comes down the back stairs, clinging to the banister, slowly, like a snail, to cut something here and plant something there”, says Hugo Guerra, who has the curious habit of assigning a degree of kinship to his circle of friends: the neighbor Sucena is his godmother, the fishmonger at Arroios market is his brother, the fennel seller from Cova da Moura is his cousin, and so on.

One constant in these definitions: is proximity. This is how Hugo has guaranteed the quality of what he serves at the table of his restaurant Lobo Mau in the basement of a 1910 building at 71A Rua Pascoal de Melo, near Jardim Constantino.

A space that extends from the entrance door to the garden cultivated by “Dona Cena” in about 150 square meters of elegant and jovial decoration, able to receive 54 customers per night.

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The chef and his pack

Lobo Mau is the first restaurant captained by chef Hugo Guerra, who made his debut in 2010. Until opening his own space in November 2019, Hugo fulfilled his journey of self-awareness through various roles in even more diverse kitchens, including that of Bica do Sapato, El Clandestino, Arola, Il Mercato, and at the highly regarded Martin Berasategui in the Basque Country.

“I’m hyperactive and I don’t like being tied down to anyone. So one day I stopped and thought I should start taking care of what is mine,” says the chef, about the decision to finally open his restaurant.

On one of his previous gastronomic stops, one of the patrons observed that Hugo had the spirit of wolves, protecting his co-workers like in a pack. Hence the inspiration for the restaurant’s name is registered not only on the beautiful plaque that adorns the entrance to the establishment, but on the chef’s skin, on the tattoo, he carries hidden in his jacket, which reads “Mad Wolves” written over a ferocious lupine effigy.

Bad Wolf Hugo Guerra and his pack; unity is the secret of the business and in the mutual help between the employees. Photo: Rita Ansone.

The same pack spirit also led him to take in his neighbor two floors up, whom he met soon after the restaurant’s doors opened, in one of the breaks from the frenetic routine of the kitchen for a cigarette in the garden.

Since then, he and the other wolves have protected the granny, bringing her rubbish to dump in the street or the other way around, helping her carry whatever she needs to the flat.

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Dona Cena, a flower of a neighbor

The neighbor is grateful for the help of the pack, although getting down or up with things is nothing this nonagenarian from Rio Maior couldn’t do on her own. Dona Cena’s strength contrasts with the delicacy of the origin of her name, Sucena, chosen by her mother and inspired by a flower, the lily.

The notary’s lack of precision made Sucena açucena, but the reference to the flower has always accompanied her, in the beauty of her youth that made her Miss Cheetah in her hometown, in the smile she keeps on her face and in the delicacy of her attitudes.

In return, Dona Cena planted in her garden a plant of the flower that translates her essence.

The same garden where one day a Big Bad Wolf decided to stock up. “Oh, godmother, I can take some things”, said the wolf, and the granny, who was never afraid of anything, immediately consented, but with a caveat that mirrors her sense of humor.

Dona Cena hugs the white rabbit, one of the animals that live in her yard, besides cats, dogs, and turtles. Photo: Rita Ansone.

“You take everything you want, just don’t take me, I’m old,” she recalls, opening her captivating smile again.

Dona Cena has lived in the same building for 70 years, a universe she naturally knows like no one else. When she arrived there, she was “Miss Cena”, good-natured and skilled at manual work, constantly requested by neighbors for small repairs, like fixing a dripping tap or a light bulb that had suddenly gone out.

“They called me Hurricane, wherever I went nothing was the same as before”, she says, her memories bringing back a smile that hides the weight of her difficult routine, divided between domestic chores and the constant care of her son, who has motor problems.

The break from daily chores happens precisely when Dona Cena slowly goes down to the garden for her morning therapy.

“This is my paradise”, she confesses, as she strokes a white rabbit on her lap. The rodent is one of the animals that circulate the site, in the company of cats, dogs, birds, which have already discovered this oasis, and also a trio of turtles, the new residents of the building.

“They were at my granddaughter’s school and when the pandemic hit they had nowhere to go. Now, here they are,” says the garden’s owner.

Who also just arrived was a vibrant column of sunflowers, planted by default by the plot’s owner, one of the few neighbors to turn up her nose at Dona Cena’s activities. “But I couldn’t bear to see that space, with nothing. Besides, I love sunflowers so much”, she justifies.

The urban garden against the war in Ukraine

The fruit and vegetables from Ms. Cena’s garden come and go from the menu of the Big Bad Wolf, marked with the warning “from the garden”. Before it became a fashion among his peers, Hugo says he always gave preference to seasonal produce, and the alternation of the seasons has served as a signal for the dishes to change, just like the leaves on the trees and the hue of the sky.

The respect for the natural essence punctuated the lunch served on the day of Mensagem‘s visit, prepared in the blink of an eye when much of the conversation at the table gravitated toward the way of serving broad beans.

With the seed between his fingers, like an archaeologist dissecting a golden fold, Hugo spoke of the importance of the right cooking point, to maintain its nutrients and original flavor.

But it is not only nature that governs the dishes on the menu. The actions of man are also responsible for the adjustments, such as the recent war in Ukraine, which forced a change of philosophy in the kitchen, due to the increased price of products, such as cooking oil.

The result is the reduction of fried foods and the increase of salads and vegetables, as well as the bet on meats considered less noble.

“It is possible, for example, to make excellent preparations from a cow’s cheek,” he guarantees. The cost of oil has even changed the “decoration” of the dishes, and the filigree made with fried food has given way to flowers from Dona Cena’s garden.

The fruit picked from Dona Cena’s orchard will soon be part of the restaurant’s recipes. Photo: Rita Ansone.

The mention of the neighbor leads to the question of whether the granny will one day have a dish named after her. The Big Bad Wolf finds the idea interesting. “I had never thought about it,” he confesses.  

He might not, but Dona Cena does, and she even knows what she would like it to be. A “panado de cabbage”, she reveals, without hesitation, and prepared with cabbage picked in her “paradise”, she says.

Impetuous as usual, the neighboring Hurricane does not shy away from dictating the recipe to the young chef, in such a do this and not that, cut the cabbage like this and not roasted, use this sauce and not that, in the amusing role reversal of this Lisbon fable which, unlike the most famous one, we still do not know how it ends.

Although, from the way the Big Bad Wolf and the granny get on, one suspects that it will be of the “and they lived happily ever after” type.

You can read this article in Portuguese.

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