A life on a plate: A conversation with Chef George Mendes of Aldea Restaurant in NYC

One of the main reasons I started The Foodie Journal was to have the opportunity to better understand the mind of chefs. A common thread that I have found during my conversations has been how each chef works to ensure that their food speaks for them. What they put on the plates in their restaurants is a testament. A sampling, not just of delicious food, but of who they are as individuals. They put their life, who they are, on each plate.

For George Mendes, chef and owner of Aldea Restaurant in New York City, it’s no different. Chef Mendes was kind enough to give me some of his time a few weeks back. During our conversation we discussed where his love of good food began, how his restaurant has been a platform for him and for the cuisine of his childhood, and a couple of his favorite food memories.

George Mendes – Photo courtesy of Aldea Restaurant

Foodie Journal: When was it that you discovered that you had a love for food that would lead you to a career as a chef?
George Mendes: I think the seed was planted early on in my childhood, and in to my teenage years with my family cooking Portuguese food at home. Sundays, and the holidays, would always revolve around good cooking. Whether it was stews, roasted suckling pig, baby goat, or rice dishes, Sundays were a big food memory. Even during the week my mom would always cook something simple and fresh for my sister and I, and for my dad. So, I grew up eating really good home cooked food. While in high school I remember going on a field trip to the Culinary Institute of America in 1990. Now, I had no intention of enrolling in any college or university. My parents weren’t really pushing me to go to college, or anything like that. It was more about, “Do what you love. Make a good living, be happy with what you’re doing, and work hard.”  But, that day at the CIA, I was just walking around the campus and doing the tour, and I realized, “Hey, this is something I really like.” I knew I didn’t want to have a desk job. So that day really solidified for me that this was something I could do professionally.  The rest is history.

FJ: As you made your way through the CIA as a student, what ended up being your first real kitchen experience outside of the school?
GM: Well, part of your time at the CIA includes an externship to a restaurant of your choosing, so I got the opportunity to work at a classical French restaurant in Connecticut. It was the first real taste of working in a real restaurant kitchen. It was pretty high pressure, and my first real life situation with customers. It was an Inn, whichwas open during holidays, so I found myself working holidays like crazy.  It was my first chance to be part of a brigade. It was tough! I was very green, very inexperienced. But, it was the first opportunity to really polish up on basic cooking skills, and knife skills. And actually, after I graduated from the CIA, I was able to go back to that same restaurant and worked my way through the various stations in the kitchen.

FJ: You mention the fact that at the time you were green, and that it was rough. What is it that you think drives chefs to do what they do? Especially considering that the work in a kitchen isn’t easy.
GM: You really need to thrive on pressure. Enjoy the adrenaline that’s needed to get through a tough four-hour dinner service, with the machine spitting out ticket after ticket. You’re trying to please customers, in pretty hot conditions. It really is a grind, and you really have to be… I think you have to be a little chemically unbalanced in your head. [LAUGHS] But, it’s a craft. That’s what I relate to the most, loving and enjoying and respecting the craft itself. With that comes both rewards and sacrifices. So, if you’re willing to make it through that training period, you can really learn to love it, and want to do it.

FJ: Now aside from having worked in the United States, you were able to do some stages abroad. Can you talk a little bit the experiences you had working in kitchens in Europe?
GM: Yeah, my first time over was in 1995. I was working at David Bouley’s restaurant in Tribeca, and he set me up for my first stage at Arpege in Paris. I was in awe of the quality of the ingredients, the cleanliness of the kitchen, and how everything was so methodical and disciplined. But, what really struck me more than anything really were the ingredients. Everyone talks about the butter and baguettes of Paris, and rightfully so. But, it’s goes beyond that. The vegetables, the fish, the meat of impeccable quality that was coming in from the farms was amazing. That was really new to me. At that time pretty much everything we were getting in the states was coming in boxes, and you didn’t really know much about the farmers or the people behind the product. So, in Paris, I remember the first time I saw someone walk in with a box of vegetables they had grown, and it really clicked with me. It was fortunately around that time that the locally sourced movement was starting to take hold, like with the Union Square Greenmarket. It wasn’t what it is now, but at least it was a start.
FJ: Right, and now it seems like you can find farmer’s markets pretty much anywhere you go in the U.S.
GM: Exactly. It’s a magnificent thing! Who knows what it will be like in 10 years? Maybe there will be no more grocery stores!  Hopefully there will just be farmer’s markets.

FJ: So when you decided to open Aldea, what was your aim in opening the restaurant?
GM: Well, it was launched as a Portuguese-inspired restaurant that brought together different eras of my career. It obviously started with my upbringing and my Portuguese background, but a lot of the cooking here is classical French technique and modern technique. I’ve kind of created my own style of food which I call refined rusticity, so its really honest flavors on a plate, but with a modern approach and a bit of avant gardism. When I opened Aldea, it was a platform for me to make a name for myself in New York City. It was a risk, because nobody knew who I was and people didn’t really know what Portuguese food was. So, it really was a big opportunity for myself, and for Portuguese cuisine in general.

FJ: My final question for you. What’s one of your favorite food memories that has really stuck with you through your career?
GM: Well, it has to be a tie for me. The first one was back in 1998. I ate at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in Monaco, which was the essence of the Mediteranean, and mediteranean flavors. There was this level of opulence and luxury dining at this restaurant. Sitting outside, feeling the breeze off the ocean while eating such flavorful food.  It really was just an amazing food memory.

The second one was the first time I ate at elBulli, and obviously having the chance to work there.

Aldea Restaurant is located at 31 West 17th Street in New York City’s Flatiron District. You can learn even more about Chef Mendes over at his website, georgemendesnyc.com.

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