Flash in the pan—we see a lot of that in the New York dining scene. New chefs make a splash, then sink to oblivion. Today's must-eat trend becomes next season's also-ran faster than you can say "tiki!" So when a chef opens a restaurant—during the most difficult economic conditions in memory, no less—and not only perseveres but thrives…well, you've got our attention.
And no one grabbed our attention, or hijacked our cravings, more this year than George Mendes. The impeccably trained (David Bouley, Roger Vergé, Martin Berasategui), Connecticut-raised progeny of Portuguese immigrants, Mendes has been unleashing some of the most refined and iconoclastic cooking we've seen, at his sleek temple to Iberian cuisine, Aldea.
Unctuous roasted shrimp dripping with garlicky shrimp jus. Toothsome duck three-ways over paella-esque rice. Delicate sea urchin on toast spiked with mustard seeds. In a city bloated with copycat chefs, Mendes' cooking is admirably, brazenly singular—he is New York City's one-man Iberian show.
That in itself scores big in our Chef of the Year playbook. But in 2010, Mendes upped the ante even further: Instead of selling cookbooks or duking it out on "Top Chef Masters," Mendes remained firmly focused on his restaurant, choosing instead to generously open his kitchen to an array of A-list guest chefs. Johnny Iuzzini, Sam Mason, Alex Stupak—they've all flashed their knives at Aldea, with Mendes presiding as ringmaster. "A true technician," is how Iuzzini describes him to us. "His pedigree circles the globe. You can definitely see his lifetime’s kitchen achievements, but brought about with finesse and restraint. Many of us in the industry admire his perseverance and his humility."
That humility was on full display on the chilly Thursday afternoon we swung by to ask Mendes to mull over his, and Aldea's, remarkable run, a year and a half in.
When you opened in May 2009, restaurants were closing left and right. On the contrary, Aldea soared, and this year it really found its footing.
I was scared shitless, I'll be honest with you. To look back on those days, people [were] saying, "Are you out of your mind?" I would go home at night saying, Is anyone gonna fill my seats? We did friends and family, and then by week two I already had top critics sitting in the seats, and I was like, There's no mercy here. There's no mercy here! And I just basically tightened up my stomach, put my chin up and cooked with my heart and passion and sweat and tears.
People are taking notice. After less than a year, you were named a semi-finalist this past February for Best NYC Chef by the James Beard Foundation.
I was just flabbergasted to see my name on that list. To be recognized for what you put on the plate at the end of the day is the most important thing for me. Because that's what grooms everything else.
You're here a lot at the restaurant. You don't to TV. You don't do "Top Chef." Is that a conscious decision?
I think there's a time and a place for that. I think that TV is a fantastic vehicle for any restaurant. I just feel that, when the time comes and it's a right fit for me, then it's a right fit. I'm very cautious to what I say yes to and what I say no to. I'm inspired by chefs like Daniel [Boulud] and Thomas Keller and Tom Colicchio—people that have toiled and earned respect as a chef first before saying, "I wanna take off into the TV world."
So you feel the need to earn your stripes first…
Absolutely. I look at a person like Thomas Keller who was at The French Laundry for many, many years, establishing himself. The brand that he has now came from a deep-rooted work ethic in his metier, as they say in French, or his craft. I'd rather be labeled a good cook than a good chef. But yeah, I feel I need to earn my stripes first because I'm still fairly new. And it's my responsibility to concentrate on Aldea first than to stretch myself thin with anything else.
At the end of the day, good cooking is about nourishment, but it's also about entertainment. And I think that a chef's true identity is shown on a plate by having all those elements come together. A plate of food has to have a story, a plate of food has to have history, a plate of food has to say something to the customer, other than just fill their stomach.
No one is really doing Iberian cuisine in New York City. Do you feel it’s overlooked?
Iberian cuisine, specifically Portuguese cooking, is still very obscure. It does not get the attention of an Italy or Spain or France. The thing that defines Portuguese food is that it’s very, very conservative. It’s very rustic and very, very, very resistant to change. The Portuguese people just want to go to a restaurant for a big-ass platter of pork and clams with a side of white rice.
This must break your heart a little bit. Your job as a chef is to innovate and break barriers.
It does. At the end of the day it bothers me, but at the end of the day I know what the culture is. So I try to hit a balance of both. I define my food as refined rusticity. Respecting that tradition and remaining true. One of our small plates, the Knollcrest farm egg, is based on an enormous bowl of scrambled eggs with potatoes and bacalao. It’s one of the oldest Portuguese recipes. I just refine it and make it a snack.
You’ve done cool special events at the restaurant—pastry chefs going savory and various chef swaps. Why?
Fun. Camaraderie. We do it on Sundays, when we are closed. I look to see who is inspiring me at the moment. Who is a chef who is not working in New York who I want to cook with on my day off? At the end of the day, it was about welcoming. Learning. Exchange of knowledge. Keeping my staff sharp. Cooking with different products. Sean Brock [of McCrady's, in South Carolina] brings some country hams that he made in the south. And the customers love it. The pastry dinner sold out seven hours after we announced it.
Are there plans to expand Aldea. Can you expand?
I think Aldea is unique to the space. Do I want to take Aldea elsewhere? [Long pause] No. I don’t want it to be too diluted. I welcome the accolades and all the positive reviews I have had. But it puts the fire under my ass and under my team to operate at a higher level. I am not going to be here and be like, “I am doing so good” and open two more operations. I am very conscious of that. Nothing is next until I am ready.
Craziest/nuttiest thing you've seen in your kitchen or in the dining room?
I’ve had a customer drink too much and vomit at the table.
Pretty much. That was very offensive. As serious as we are in the kitchen, I tend to blast out the crazy music during service. People know that I am a die-hard Interpol and Strokes fan. There are times when everybody is being so serious, and I will take one of my cooks and wrestle him to the ground and jump on him. I don’t want anybody to get too riled-up and serious. Because at the end of the day, it’s fucking cooking. You have to have fun and enjoy it.
Photo by Kelly Neal