George Mendes leads a charmed culinary life. A first generation American (born to Portuguese parents) with vast culinary experience in France and the Iberian coast, Mendes is one of those chefs whose cuisine knows no boundaries. The chef fell in love with food at a young age, and consistently draws influence from the festive meals his Mother and Aunt would spend days preparing. After working under culinary greats like Alain Ducasse and David Bouley, Mendes went on to work at 3 star Michelin restaurants in San Sebastian Spain and helped friend Kurt Gutenbrunner open Austrian restaurant Wallse, a New York favorite. At the helm of iconic restaurants such as Washington DC’s Lespinasse and New York City’s Tocqueville, it was only a matter of time before Mendes opened his own. Aldea, widely known for its elevated mediterranean cuisine with Spanish and French influences, received a Michelin star in 2011 as well as rave reviews from the New York Times, New York Magazine and GQ’s Alan Richman (who named Aldea one of the country’s best ten new restaurants). Aldea represents everything head chef and owner George Mendes is about – a sign of a truly great restaurant and an even greater restaurateur.
Could you describe your ideal food day?
It would start with a great breakfast at a bagel place. You know, bagel with smoked lox, capers and strong coffee. It would then proceed to a luncheon somewhere outside, something from The South of France: seafood, such as shellfish, mussels, a raw platter, followed by a great piece of grilled fish with potato.
For dinner…I’m really simple. I really like just going to a steakhouse, like Keen’s (a quintessential New York steakhouse) and having a nice porterhouse with steamed asparagus and a glass of red wine.
Travel has defined so much of your career. Where do you go for inspiration?
First would be Paris and the south of France – Cannes, Nice, Monaco – where I had a lot of my early training. In second place would be Barcelona and San Sebastian. And then of course, back to my roots to Portugal. I go there twice a year to reflect. I’m looking forward to my trip to Japan in September. I think that’s going to be a game changer for me.
What will you do [in Japan] and how long do you plan to go for?
I’ll be going for ten days, and the trip’s going to revolve around umami; what you can do with it. I’m going to go to meals with kimchi masters, and go to fish markets and restaurants in Tokyo and Kyoto. I’ll spend a day at a restaurant in Kyoto studying umami, taking in the styles there and the ingredients. It’s basically going to be a three city trip: Kyoto, Tokyo and Nagoya. Again, all revolving around umami.
Where would you like to go that you haven’t been to?
I want to go to Italy someday. I’m stubborn about my background and sticking to certain areas, but I do really want to go to Italy. I’m looking forward to my trip in June to Denmark and the Nordic countries.
Did you always think Aldea would be a Spanish restaurant, because if you look at your background one would think you would open a French restaurant…
[Laughs] Yes, I know. When Aldea opened I’d always meant it to be Portugese-inspired with elements from my early French training. I hate to use the word fusion but it’s definitely a global vision. There’s a Portugese base, but Portugal early on also had colonies throughout the world, so you can see flavors from Brazil, Japan, and India in my menu. But it’s really taking that French training and applying it to Portugese cuisine. My experience on the Iberian coast was one I’d say had a lot of freedom; it was very explorative, but I wouldn’t have felt that way if I hadn’t learned the basics in France. That’s where I really got my foundation.
Spain was also a period of reflection – trying to define my style, which is something that’s very difficult. What made it easier was looking towards my background and ancestry.