TO a passionate, ambitious chef, there is simply no higher accolade. The award of a Michelin star is the crowning of a lifetime of hard work, creation and dedication.

Then the struggle begins to protect that star and push for more. In the Algarve last week, I found myself at the heart of the Michelin action at the first-ever Portugal-only awards ceremony.

The Michelin system for some diners can seem daunting. In essence, there are one-star, two-star and three-star restaurants.

Then there is Michelin Bib Gourmand for great value dining, Michelin Recommended for restaurants that are more traditional and/or simpler, and a newer category of green stars for sustainability. In short, if it’s in Michelin it’s going to be good. I’ve never had a duffer dining in the more than 50 starred restaurants I’ve visited. 

I flew in early to meet the chefs hoping to hold or even build on their stars. There was a real buzz in Portugal’s most southerly region. In truth, it’s been building over the 20-odd years I’ve been coming here. The food scene never used to trouble the Michelin inspectors and the wines were almost a joke, with Cliff Richard among the local winemakers. That has changed. Big time.

Today the Algarve is a foodie paradise – the home of delicious shellfish plucked from the Ria Formosa estuary, Santa Luzia octopus, world-class Atlantic fish, delicious meat and cheese from the hinterland and bountiful fresh fruit and vegetables. The Algarve is also the home of piri-piri chicken.

And that wine has come on massively. I tasted more than a dozen different wines, all excellent. I visited Arvad too, one of an impressive new wave of wineries. It occupies the spectacular heights above the Rio Arade. I arrived in style on a wee boat from Portimão.

The National: Travel writer Robin McKelvie with Hans Neuner

They have only been cultivating vines since 2016, but the signs are very positive; the set-up gorgeous. There are plans for a 40-room hotel as the Algarve tries to match what the Douro has achieved in wine tourism.

At Arvad, I met the head chef of one-Michelin-star restaurant Vista. He conjured up a cataplana in front of me. This delicious Algarvian stew is a stunner – layers of flavour built up around fish and shellfish. It’s utterly delicious. He was excited about the awards, with some of the Portuguese diners suggesting he was in line for a coveted second star.

I dug even deeper into local produce on the Ria de Alvor estuary with its oysters experience. Literally. I waded off in the mud flats to forage for razor clams and taste fresh oysters plucked straight from their beds.

READ MORE: Larnaca in Cyprus has a very high number of repeat guests

My first Michelin Recommended restaurant, O Camilo, was owned by the cousin of the owner of the oyster farm so the shellfish was spot on. O Camilo is deeply dramatic: the live shellfish display as you enter vies for attention with floor-to-ceiling windows that peer over the cliffs around Lagos. Their razor clam risotto was rich and delicious.

The next Michelin Recommended restaurant I’ve known for two decades. Don Sebastiao won’t ever win any innovation awards, but it seriously delivers. I savoured a perfectly cooked Cherne – a local fish delightful with garlic.

The last of my Michelin Recommended trio was 2 Passos. Strikingly set on stilts in the Ria Formosa National Park, it’s within strolling distance of a massive Atlantic beach. With sea salt in the air, I tucked into rice with plump local clams and more delicious Cherne – this time cooked encrusted in salt.

I pushed on to one-Michelin-star Al Sud. Algarve-born head chef Louis Anjos impressed with his passion for the produce and the Algarve in general. I chatted to a French food writer who reckoned they well deserved a second star, so I left wishing Louis good luck for the big night after a sublime tasting menu.

The most remarkable meal came at Ocean, with the genius of Hans Neuner. His restaurant deserves its two stars, with its seamless, creative and thought-provoking cuisine. 

I can see how serving dishes accompanied by a box of fishing tackle or wine in baseless glasses that lie on the table sounds pretentious, but when you’re there smiling, laughing and being wowed by the surprises in front of you it is unmitigated joy. I dined with a three-star New York chef, who reckoned they could snare three stars.

The excitement built towards the big night when the great and good of foodie Portugal arrived for the award ceremony on February 27. I took my seat and crossed my fingers for the Algarve.  The ceremony swished through with cheer and chat, as well as fado (the mournful folk tradition that resonates with me as a Scot).

READ MORE: Paphos in Cyprus offers tourists much more than perfect beaches

Then it was time for the awards … I’m delighted to report the Algarve kept its brace of two-star restaurants and today boasts a quintet of one-stars. Sadly, the Algarve (and Portugal) must wait at least another year for three-star recognition.

Hosting is no guarantee of more accolades, which is reassuring.  At the aftershow party, I congratulated  the Algarvian chefs. The adrenaline had  eased and they were just relieved to have retained their stars.  I’m finishing this article on the plane back from what is now one of the world’s great foodie destinations. Just ask Michelin.