Canning with style: A Q&A with Gémeo Luís of José Gourmet

Luís Mendonça, aka Geméo Luís, is the illustrator and curator behind the well-known and -loved sea creatures on the tins of seafood by the company José Gourmet. I caught up with Mendoça to learn more about the fish, the characters, and, of course, the man.

The José brand is best known for its canned seafood, but was that always the case? Since I met Adriano Ribeiro (the majority shareholder of José, who is also a pilot for TAP Portugal), our conversations and enthusiasm have centered on the idea of quality and dormant opportunity in the areas of production, marketing, and consumption of traditional Portuguese products. We studied the best of what is made in Portugal— the qualities, consumption habits, and the potential, noting who we could engage and who could benefit from such products.

The first products were cheeses, but it could have been anything else because diversity and quality were not lacking around us. On our respective travels, Adriano and I have tried numerous different cheeses: French, Italian, Swiss, etc. Yet we always felt that the Portuguese cheeses were just as fantastic. And they are. So, we started with a collection of four excellent kinds: Serra da Estrela, Azores, Rabaçal, and Azeitão. But the distribution was complicated. The maintenance of transport time and storage led us to begin opting for products with a longer shelf life.

And this led us to canned goods. At the time, they were very underrated and without much commercial value, but we could see that we could take it back to a higher level. Now, 10 years later, there are a lot of people who value these products. Our project has definite practical and aesthetic goals, and we don’t concern ourselves with the competition. We are doing something different — but not for strictly commercial reasons.

Adriano Ribeiro and Gemeo Luís

Can you tell me about the inspiration behind the design of the labels and the recipes? We needed to renew the narrative of the “labels” that these products have acquired— these labels set each brand apart from the context of family dinners and lent themselves more to social habits like snacks with friends, complemented by good wine.

Ignorance about the qualities of canned goods was massive. Many people thought they were all about the use of preservative chemicals. They were unaware of their nutritional value— the “miracle” that is omega 3, for example.

And we had enough inspiration at home. Both me and Adriano have small children and have always cared about the interest they showed in hamburgers, and in fast food. Meanwhile, we were enjoying the taste, quality, and variety of pickles, sardines, mackerel, octopus, tuna, small sardines, squid, caviar, etc. It occurred to us that it was not enough to entice adults, we needed to entice children too, encouraging a family experience.

We took advantage of the fact that the young like to imitate, to accompany their elders in the challenge of cooking, and to impress their friends with their prowess. So, we proposed a set of recipes created by chef Luis Baena. To enhance the gastronomic narrative, we contracted the writer Eugénio Roda to develop short stories based on the ingredients, and their combination in our recipes, to complement the visual and gastronomic content of each can. Yes, we offer inviting packaging, but not with the intention of inflating the product or giving the consumer the idea that the product is better than it is. On the contrary, we wanted the packaging to reflect the quality of the product and to stoke the appetite.

How did you decide to take this new approach to packaging while older brands were being revived? At the time we began, the trend was to wrap products in a revivalist style. While this might have been of interest to the general public and could have benefited the product commercially at the time, I did not care to relive history but rather, to create a completely new story.

I wanted to create new points of interest, new images, new meanings. From the beginning, both for me and for Adriano, it was our chance to launch new habits and overcome new challenges, to make a qualitative leap forward, to make something we could boast about later.

How does an illustrator become a shareholder of a brand of canned goods? I’ve never been just an illustrator, just like there was never a teacher who only taught lessons in a classroom. Life manifests itself in diversity!

This project started from a friendship, the same friendship that continues to feed it. I never wanted to get anything for my work — I always treated it is a challenge between two friends.

I understand that you work with illustrators from all over the world, in addition to Portugal, to create the artwork for the packages. How do you choose them? Most of the guest illustrators are Portuguese. They are also friends or students whose quality is, for me, unquestionable. I only work with people I love, in whom I believe, people whose work I cherish. They could be very young or very experienced — all that matters to me is the drive.

Since the beginning of the project, the strategy was focused on the choice of illustrators. At that time, I chose 12 of the best-known children’s illustrators of the time. Illustrators who could capture the dreams of children. Once the packaging designs had been selected and the intricacies of production had been studied, a scale model was made available to the illustrators for comment and approval. Each image, although belonging to a series, is unique and signed by someone. You can see our collective exhibitions in stores carrying José Gourmet products.

What other design projects you are working on? Where can we see more of your work? I recently finished a project that was also started with friends: Nuno Ferrand, Jorge Wagensberg, Hernán Crespo, and I had the pleasure of developing the Biodiversity Gallery at the Natural History Museum of the University of Porto. It was a project that took nearly four years of research, design, production, and assembly of measuring devices for the public. These were four very rewarding years spent working with a large and very diverse team, community, challenge, etc. It has been open for more than a year but it’s still fresh in my mind because I’ve been getting feedback from people who have come to visit it and also because recently it was awarded the prize for the best exhibit design work, which of course, increased my satisfaction.

Recently, I committed to working on the next book in the Gémeo Luís – Eugénio Roda series. Books broaden our perception of things, renew views, enhance new effects, increase life’s aesthetic quality, and positively impact ethical and social decision-making. I am interested in working artistically, but I’d like it to be in dialogue with science and technology.

Gémeo Luís sculpture commissioned by FC Porto located in front of the pavilion next to the stadium

Where do you get inspired? Do you have a favorite coffee shop to go to sketch, for example? I like being at cafés but they don’t inspire me more than any other thing. Two daughters, a son, and a girlfriend who happens to be my wife contribute inexhaustibly to my inspiration. Parents, brothers, and nephews join a clan that to me is inspiring— along with a small group of friends with different sensibilities and backgrounds.

All these people are, in different ways and for different reasons, the center of my inspiration. People with whom I work, the technicians who get involved in the production of things, the knowledge that I absorb from them becomes deeply inspiring. I like speed, variety, questions, interference, influence, discussion of views. Among friends, with family, with customers, with colleagues.

Gémeo Luís and one of his works

They say you should not mix business with pleasure, but you have mixed food with art and collaboration. Has it been a good mix? This process would have been boring if I believed otherwise. I try not to do anything that doesn’t give me pleasure. If we can live with what gives us pleasure, we are closer to being happy and we can make those who are close to us happy by proximity. I think that mixing work with pleasure and being pleased with the work has to come naturally. However, you have to be disciplined. There is pleasure in responsibility, experience, discovery, and risk.

CAN-t get enough? Follow José Gourmet on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram.

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