Chef George Mendes
Aldea | New York
A first-generation American born to Portuguese parents, George Mendes graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York in 1992. Following graduation, Mendes worked at the original Bouley in Tribeca, where he met his mentor, Chef David Bouley. To further hone his talent, Mendes staged at Alain Passard’s Arpege in Paris, France. There, he learned two fundamental principles of his cooking today: sourcing the best ingredients and simple preparation.
When Bouley closed in 1996, Mendes became the executive chef of Le Zoo, a small French bistro in Greenwich Village. He returned to fine dining two years later as executive sous chef at the three-star Lespinasse in Washington, DC, working under Sandro Gamba. During his year and a half at Lespinasse, Mendes traveled to France and staged at Le Moulin de Mougins under the legendary Roger Vergé, and at La Bastide de Moustiers under Alain Ducasse. He then returned to New York to help his friend and fellow Bouley alumnus, Kurt Gutenbrunner, open his Austrian restaurant, Wallsé.
In 2003, Mendes staged with highly acclaimed Basque chef Martin Berasategui at his eponymous three-star Michelin restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. He explored the heritage and contemporary culinary trends of the Iberian Peninsula. Upon returning to New York, he joined Tocqueville as chef de cuisine and after more than three years running the kitchen, Mendes left to pursue his own restaurant venture. In December 2008, Mendes opened Aldea in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood. Named after the Portuguese word for village, the restaurant’s menu is inspired by the Iberian Peninsula and Mendes’ heritage.
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Elyse Viner: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
George Mendes: I always had a knack for it as a kid. I cooked breakfast for my family—eggs and pancakes. In high school I visited the CIA but I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do career-wise. I went to the school and it was very inspirational and very cool. I also worked in a restaurant as a dishwasher and a prep cook for a chef in Connecticut. I was surrounded by food all my life, with my aunt and uncles cooking elaborate Portuguese meals for the holidays. I was always surrounded by scents and flavors. My family and culture revolved around food.
EV: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
GM: I started at Bouley in 1994 then I went to Lespinasse in DC. I staged with Alain Ducasse and Robert Verge in London. And the best time of my career was Arpege in Paris. Then I came back to New York and opened up Wallsé with Kurt [Gutenbrunner]. Then I went back to Spain and did more stages, and then I became chef de cuisine at Tocqueville, which lasted for four years.
EV: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
GM: I do recommend it, but it’s a choice. It depends on financial preferences, but it gives you a nice disciplined, fundamental base and a terminology to approach the industry. You can also get more out of it when you have some experience in the industry. But young cooks can take the culinary school path or go to the school of hard knocks and enroll in a top kitchen in New York or anywhere in the world. When I came out of school I had a classical understanding of French cuisine and more of an application in real world. School is not the real world. But I hire both [people with and without culinary school training]. School’s not a requirement for me.
EV: You mentioned that David Bouley, Alain Passard, and Alain Ducasse were some of your mentors. What did you learn from them?
GM: From David Bouley I learned a lot about light, floral, herbal cuisine and a light approach to French cooking. It’s different than just butter and flour; it’s a lighter, fresher, more healthful cuisine. Alain Passard is one of the more creative chefs I’ve worked with. He uses lots of vegetables and maintains a liberal, free spirited approach to cooking with global ingredients. [Bouley] was amazing because it was a French restaurant with flavors from all over the world.
Alain Ducasse brought me back to my heritage and background, with flavors of shellfish, fish fresh from the sea, and the game and rabbit flavors I grew up with. It was evocative of a memory but also a chance to see it refined in a dining environment. There are times when I don’t hold one true person as my mentor. Kurt [Gutenbrunner] at Wallsé was a restaurateur who opened my eyes outside of a kitchen, taught me to make sure customers are happy, and opened up my eyes to the skills I use today to define the overall guest experience.
EV: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
GM: Why do you want to work here? "Because I love the food of the Mediterranean."
EV: What advice would you offer young chefs who are just getting started?
GM: Work your butt off, keep your head down, come to work on time, and have passion and respect for the industry and your craft. Study it and embrace it with open arms. You have to give 100 percent to get it all back. There’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice, but it’s a very glorious and rewarding career depending on what you put into it. Work hard, focus, and keep your head down. Read—there are so many books on every subject.
EV: Do you recommend any New York-focused books in particular?
GM: The encyclopedias of the CIA and Alain Ducasse’s first cookbooks. Getting books on individual ingredients are great too—books on just tomatoes, just herbs, just root vegetables. Elizabeth Schiner’s book on cooking veggies a to z. And it’s important to have a lot of books by chefs themselves, restaurant books like The French Laundry Cookbook and Cooking Under Pressure. I love the El Bulli collection. I have 200 to 300 books.
EV: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
GM: Olive oil, garlic, ginger, and mussel juice.
EV: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
GM: Masamoto knife.
EV: At StarChefs we publish technique features for chefs to learn. Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or borrowed and use in an unusual way?
GM: Right now I’m using the spherification technique for different methods. I’m applying it to different liquids like mushroom consommé and liquid mushroom ravioli. I am also using gelatin and freezing it. I take a liquid and add gelatin—just enough to set it and freeze it. Then I let it defrost and drip down and get a clear liquid that still has the flavor of the given ingredient, like cheese, vegetables, coffee, or chocolate. It’s clarification through jellification by Heston Blumenthal. And Wylie [Dufresne] is doing that too. I’m pushing to do intense reductions of natural cooking juices; you end up with the intensity of layers of flavor.
EV: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
GM: I really think it’s still about getting new ingredients and new techniques, but always returning to top quality ingredients. I also think we are riding back to simplicity again and letting the product shine for itself. Not in a boring way, but by keeping dish components very minimal. We’re also starting to see cuisines that are still underrated, like Brazilian. There’s a killer thing going on there with plants from the Amazon River and I am playing around with yucca right now. There’s a lot to be discovered in South American countries, including products from the Amazon.
EV: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
GM: I am heading towards refined rusticity. The backbone of my dishes is Iberian, with rustic, intense flavors like those in my grandma’s cooking. But I’m refining it in such a way that the flavors are more clear and intense. At the same time I have a free spirited approach and my philosophy is concentrated on the product. I have that inspiration and influence from Portuguese products like Macao and I work with flavors that go well together and have a reference point. I always arrive at Portugal, but I take it somewhere else. I learned from the people I trained with, like Ferran [Adria] at El Bulli. As a craftsman you have a responsibility to be inspired and I don’t like to pigeonhole myself into having just a Portuguese restaurant. We should be creative and artistic, and top artists are inspired by different things.
EV: Have you taken any steps to become a sustainable restaurant?
GM: Yes. Right now I am getting sustainable fish. I stay away from endangered fish, besides Chilean sea bass. People don’t know that cod itself is becoming an endangered fish but monkfish is not over-fished. I balance my menu when it comes to items like that. And I am careful with farm raised fish because it loses the natural environment that it’s accustomed to. As far as being a green restaurant, we’re not really, though I built it from scratch.
EV: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
GM: We get students from ICE and FCI. I support the students as much as I can and do training. It’s a continuation of what they are learning in school, but we’re also showing them how we do it at Aldea.
EV: What are some of your favorite food-related charities?
GM: City Harvest. I’m doing an event for them soon. Starting at Tocqueville, we would go to their events and also to Taste of the Nation.
EV: Where do you like to go for culinary travel?
EV: What does “American Cuisine” mean to you?
GM: It’s a combination of homegrown ingredients, tradition, and history—and the influence of immigrants.
EV: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
GM: My last two years of high school I was studying to be an architect. I think I would be a designer or an architect but I couldn’t stand sitting for nine hours at a desk. I am very creative and I like a craft where you’re working with your hands. And if I wasn’t that, I’d probably live in St. Thomas and be a surfer.
EV: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
GM: Success to me is feeling fulfilled as an accomplished chef, being able to motivate and manage a kitchen team and run a restaurant successfully so that my cooks are learning and happy and making my customers happy. When I look into the dining room from my open kitchen and see people laughing and having fun, and if my guests are coming back a second time, that is success for me. I worked my butt off to get where I am now with [David] Bouley and Alain Passard. It’s an accomplishment. We are making it work and we have a great front of the house team. Success is paying attention to the industry and absorbing the new movements, looking at sustainability and supporting your local farms; not being so selfish and narrow-minded that you can only grow if you are aware of your surroundings.
It’s been a long and exciting road for me, owning my own business and making a name for myself. I am going through a period of defining my style. At Tocqueville I was limited, but tried a bit. So Aldea is the opposite. For me to say this is it, it’s exciting. I have great people to support me and I’m looking forward to the future.
EV: Is that your next step, to have a restaurant outside of NY?
GM: Some day I do want to down the road. What Dan Barber is doing at Stone Barns is outstanding; he’s doing great things for the industry.
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