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Chef George Mendes, Aldea Restaurant, New York City
by Gerry Dawes©2013
Chef Georges Mendes, Chef-partner at Aldea restaurant, a highly regarded temple of modernized Portuguese and Portuguese colonial influenced food, fondly remembers being raised by his Portuguese parents who immigrated to the United States and settled in Danbury, Connecticut. Good food was always a key element in the culture of his family.
“Before I went on what would become a momentous high school field trip to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York (50 miles west of Danbury), I already had an afición for cooking. At home, I had a lot of exposure to good food from my mom and my dad. Our holidays always revolved around big feasts of Portuguese dishes for up to 30 of our family members. During my youth, I was always surrounded by a lot of good cooking.
During that trip to The Culinary Institute, I thought “Wow!, this is a profession, something I might like doing. The atmosphere of with all the kitchens, the kitchen heat, the bustling movement and being under pressure attracted me.”
Shortly after high school, he enrolled at The Culinary Institute. After graduating in 1992, Mendes’s first job was at the classical French cuisine Stonehenge restaurant (Ridgefield, CT), then he trained with a top New York chef, Ed Brown at Tropica.
“At Stonehenge, we were being taught the very heavy, butter-and-cream laden dishes of classic French cuisine, which are important, but with Ed Brown, I learned about pristine, really fresh seafood.”
One Sunday, Mendes attended a cooking class conducted by star New York chef David Bouley and Roger Jaloux, chef at Paul Bocuse restaurant in Lyon.
“At that class, I saw the really hard-core professionalism of a kitchen brigade. I was impressed with how beautiful and masterfully prepared the food was. So, after a year at Tropica, I did a Saturday night stage at Bouley restaurant and was offered the a job at the amuse bouche station, where I worked from 1994 to 1996.
During that time, I was sent to Paris to do a two-month stage with Chef Alain Bassard at Arpege. Having classic experience in my pocket already, then going to Paris and staging at a three-star Michelin restaurant was incredible. Just being in Paris, I discovered the culture of refined French cooking. Alain Bassard was just taking off with the vegetable movement and really intense game dishes. L’Arpege had a huge impact on me. I learned the importance of vegetables and the quality of ingredients, which was something I had not really seen in the U.S. ”
Mendes later staged at Le Moulin de Mougins under Roger Vergé, but it was a stage with Spanish Basque chef Martín Berasategui that would have a profound impact on him.
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2012. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Martín ran a very hard and rigorous kitchen, but I was impressed with the quality of his cocina de vanguardia, his interpretations of dishes and his understanding of flavor. He came from his family’s Bodegón Alejandro in San Sebastián’s old quarter, where his mother had a big influence on his cooking sensibilities. I started thinking about the similarities we had in growing up in families immersed in food culture.
Later, in 2006, I did a stage with Ferran Adrià at elBulli and that was a continuation of cocina de vanguardia, but at a whole different level. With Ferran, it was a ‘no rules’ philosophy: Have an open mind, be inspired by global flavors and don’t be afraid to take risks. Ferran took cooking to another level.
I came back to New York in 2006 and knew I wanted my own place where I could cultivate my style, but I did not yet have the backing, so I took a sous chef’s job at Toqueville, which turned into almost three years of executing someone else’s ideas. But, it gave me time to reflect on where I came from and what I wanted to do. My time at Toqueville also cultivated the seed of understanding the restaurant business, customers’ needs and how to run a restaurant.”
Then, George Mendes says he met Adam Haber, who wanted to back his dream, which became Aldea restaurant in New York City. At Aldea, Mendes decided to do his own signature cuisine.
“I decided to use some Spanish cocina de vanguardia techniques, but with the most emphasis on Portuguese culinary roots and ideas, including those of Portuguese colonies around the world. That is where Ferran Adrià comes into the picture. ElBulli was in Catalunya, but you might be served several Japanese-influenced dishes, several with Mediterranean-influences and a broad range of globally derived dishes. When I opened Aldea, it was labeled a so-called “Iberian” restaurant, but although there is a major focus on Portugal, ideas were drawn from a very broad map. I also go back to fact that the Portuguese were seafarers who discovered many sea routes. We brought the exotic spices from India to Europe.
Like the Portuguese Age of Discovery, I think my career from my teenage years, going to culinary school, working in a wide range of restaurants, traveling and being able to discover different styles of cooking, is a reflection of my Portuguese ancestry and inspires a culinary style that resonates with me.”