By Sue Moretti Bodson
Piri-Piri means “pepper-pepper” in Swahili and is the name of a Portuguese sauce that releases a fiery spice to help create a wealth of flavors in almost any dish. The spice’s kick has been part of Chef Rui Correria’s life since he was a boy in Porto, Portugal.
Now decades later, Rui’s passion for piri-piri led him to develop Piri-Q, a casual, pop-up market store in Brookfield, CT. The menu is based on everything piri-piri, including chicken, ribs, and chicken sandwiches.
In Greenwich, Chef Rui Correia is well-known as the man behind the popular Portuguese restaurant Douro, named after a river in Northern Portugal, which opened in Greenwich in 2009. Rui and his partner/cousin Maria Correia first came to Greenwich at a location on West Putnam Avenue, where they were for about a year and a half. The restaurant then moved to the corner of Fawcett Place and Greenwich Ave, where they stayed for almost nine years. Rui also owned and operated the restaurant Gaia for three years before selling it. After two years of construction at 253 Greenwich Avenue, Douro opened in a fabulous new space reminiscent of New York’s Grand Central Station at the beginning of 2019 but closed on December 31, 2022.
While running Douro was a passion for Rui, it was also very demanding on his time and health. “Based upon the caliber of the food, I had to be there to maintain it.” Beyond the stresses of running a highly popular and successful restaurant, Rui faced an additional challenge. It has been eight years since his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, which has impacted Rui’s ability to cook.
“If I cook for a small group at my house, I can pace myself, and it’s fine. But as you know, loss of coordination is one of the things that goes with Parkinson’s, so to be on a line in a restaurant, on a Saturday night, there is so much going on, I couldn’t keep up,” he said.
Complimenting his staff, he said, “my guys in the kitchen were great in helping me, but it got to the point where I was in their way. I’d always stay involved, supervising, with the food design and training, but it became too hard for me when it came to the cooking itself.”
Rui explains that he was always open about dealing with the disease, finding support from his clients and friends.
“Since the day I found out about Parkinson’s, I felt that a way to feel better about things was to talk to my guests about it since I think of them as an extended part of my family,” he said. “Anyone who knows me through Douro, and some that don’t know me through Douro, know about me and Parkinson’s.”
With a new, young family at home, Rui decided to dial back the pressure and focus on his health and family.
“We did well. We made it work, but with my health coming in the way it was, it became very stressful on my lifestyle. Our run at the new location was shorter than we expected, but we wanted to go out on a high note.”
And a high it was.
Having worked in many different towns and places, Rui says there is no community compared to Greenwich. His appreciation and admiration for the community and his customers are sincere. “I got close to so many people in town, and that’s what I love about Greenwich.” Rui says that bonds with customers who became friends, calling it an incredibly supportive community, “they make sure you are supported, and that’s what I will miss the most.”
Rui explains that at the onset of Covid, he saw the Greenwich Community grow even stronger, with many residents ordering food to be delivered to first responders and the hospitals.
“I can tell you that not only did we help other people who were making generous donations like that, but we also had people buying gift cards for thousands of dollars which said they wouldn’t use them until we were back on our feet, and some of them never spent the cards. We offered to reimburse them when we were planning on closing, and they said no, we did it to support you; there is no need,” he explains with an appreciative smile.
Rui genuinely loves being a chef, and his connection with the people he cooks for runs deep.
“After you cook for someone, they become expressive, caring, and satisfied. It is gratifying to touch somebody personally to the point they become longtime friends and followers.”
Acknowledging the strains of his profession, Rui affirms, “The restaurant business can be rough at times, but I can say I’ve had more gratitude than anything else. The best part is making someone’s night special by what you put on their plate.”
Rui was born in Porto, Portugal, and spent the early years of his childhood there until he moved to the United States when he was eight.
“In Portugal, my grandparents had a restaurant for 40 years. My grandmother was the cook, and my grandfather was the server and bartender. They had just one employee.”
Rui credits his grandparents with demonstrating the joy of food to him.
“My grandparent’s restaurant did not prepare me for my career, but it prepared me to enjoy it as much as I did. They were like local celebrities, not that I am a celebrity, but I am known in town for my cuisine. They were well-known and fed half of the town.”
Rui’s early childhood was watching his grandparents form that same bond with the diners that he loves.
“Their restaurant was very similar to what you see in different parts of Europe where you find that little hole in the wall where everyone goes. My grandmother made a soup or salad of the day and a fish and meat of the day, and that was it. There were no other choices, but the locals loved it. It was the place where everybody congregated.”
As for where the Chef dream began, when he was 19, Rui worked as a waiter in a restaurant called Palmers in Bronxville, NY, which hired a very different, avant-garde Chef.
“He did things differently,” explains Rui. “I’d find myself not waiting at my tables but watching him in the kitchen. I was so intrigued by what he was doing. He suggested that I go to culinary school, so I approached my parents; I told them I wanted to leave college and go to culinary school.”
Rui’s father, who passed away when Rui was 25, was not thrilled about Rui leaving Concordia, where he had a full soccer scholarship.
“At the time, 30 years ago, the field isn’t what it is now. Now chefs are celebrities, and they can build empires, but back then, you just cooked food. I left school, went to New York Restaurant School on Canal and Varick down in the City, and the rest is history.”
That was 1990. After finishing his studies, Correia moved on to top New York City restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern, Mesa Grill, Gotham Bar & Grill, and Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café. In 2009, he opened Douro.
Connecting with his diners was always a highlight for Rui.
“I felt that every night I was throwing a dinner party for people, and every night I would want them to see the face behind the dishes. It’s nice for me to be known, but the diners also like to be recognized. It adds to the experience.”
Rui prides himself and the “magic” team he brought together at his previous location.
“Frank Schiavone is probably one of the best bartenders in the area. I had a crew of staff that took care of the guests and got to know them by name. That Douro team was like a championship sports team. We cleaned house!”
Rui’s signature piri-piri grew to become the most popular item on Douro’s menu because it was used in so many ways on many of the menu items.
“I had a customer move to Arizona, and I ship him the piri-piri once in a while because he misses it so much. Now piri-piri ties into my new activity, so it is a legacy to go out on. Calling himself “blessed,” Rui fondly recalls other menu favorites, “there was the Paella that everybody loved, the roast chicken frango, and the tacos.”
Rui has always been a big paella fan.
“Since I was a kid, my grandmother used to make a delicious Paella, so I grew up with that rice dish around the holidays.”
And what is the end of a meal without dessert? “I can’t finish a meal without a dessert!” When asked about his favorite, Rui describes his most memorable; “Pedro Lemos is a Michelin Chef in Porto. I told him I love chocolate, and he made me a dark chocolate ganache with blue-cheese gorgonzola, ice cream, poached pears, peaches, and fruits. People make faces when I say blue cheese, but it was the most seductive thing; the combination was so beautiful. In my career, I’ve been fortunate to eat at some amazing places with amazing chefs, but that will always stick in my mind. It was so seductive and beautiful. It was perfect. Each element made the other elements better.”
As for Chefs who have influenced Rui, he says he has always been a true fan of Chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin. “Because I am a big fish person and he is the greatest fish restaurant in the country, I always found it interesting that he never opened another restaurant. He never commercialized himself, he was true to his restaurant, and it is nice to know that he was true to himself.” Another Chef that Rue admires is Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who has 60 restaurants worldwide. “He keeps the level so high; he cares; I know people who work for him on his personal team, and they say that he is such an amazing guy; he knows how to treat people, so you feel that what you do matters.”
But Rui’s most significant influence is not a Chef.
“Danny Meyer’s philosophy about what a restaurant should be for guests struck me as a Chef, a human being, and an owner. It’s all about the elevated experience; he does that by elevating his staff. He makes them feel like their opinions matter.”
Rui recalls one of Meyer’s mantras was to say the approach should be “51% hospitality and 49% food.”
Inevitably when talking to his customers, visiting Portugal would naturally come up.
“Let me know when you are ready, and I will take you there,” Rui would say. “Then, one day, a group of 4 couples said they were ready to go to Portugal. I spoke to my travel agent, who said we should have 20 people, so we recruited more people.”
In 2014, Rui took his first group to Portugal, showing them where he was from.
“They met chefs from a Michelin star chef to a local mom-and-pop chef. They visited the Douro. We stayed at two premier hotels in the North region of Portugal, and I showed them that Portugal was no longer this quaint little rest stop, but it was now becoming a major place to visit.”
And for the next five years, Rui would return with another group of 20 until Covid brought travel to a stop.
Rui and his wife, who is Brazilian, come from two very soccer-driven nations. Their oldest son is three and has just started kicking around a soccer ball. Their youngest is just four months old.
“It would make me very happy to see my son become a great soccer player, but it would make me just as happy if he picks up something he likes to do,” Rui said. “Look at my story; my leaving college broke my parent’s hearts, but cooking is what I love to do. I’ve spent 30 years plus doing something that I love to do.”