Classically trained chef George Mendes has worked with the best mentors (Bouley, Ducasse) and impressed the top critics (2 stars from the Times for his cooking at Tocqueville). But his most important mentors—and toughest critics—have always been his Portuguese family, whom he now mines for wisdom and inspiration at his first solo outing, Aldea, which specializes in refined Iberian fare. (The restaurant's name is Portuguese for "village.")
"I grew up with cured hams, bacalao, sardines, with those Iberian flavors," he says about being raised by immigrant parents in a Portuguese community in Connecticut. At Aldea, those vivid flavors come to life in the form of petiscos, or snacks, like crisped pig's ear and razor clams a la planxa, along with house-cured charcuterie and traditional appetizers like garlicky shrimp alhinho.
An even bigger hurdle than impressing his discerning family? Getting Aldea to finally—finally!—open.
It's taken quite a while but Aldea is here—seems like everyone's been anxiously tracking every delay since you left Tocqueville in 2006.
The initial goal was to have the restaurant open when I left Tocqueville, and four or five months later I had a deal in my hands. But for whatever reason, you sit down with a landlord and the landlord has some needs that don't fulfill ours. So yeah, to set the record straight, it was a matter of finding the right space.
What were you least prepared for when getting this project off the ground?
The surprise of how long everything takes. Things that I thought would take a week took a month. It was a big test of patience, and I went shopping for patience on a daily basis and I ran out of stores.
Walk us through your thought process for pulling this menu together.
All over Spain, Portugal and France as well, you go to a restaurant and you're automatically offered food on the table right away, whether it's a bowl of olives or freshly sliced cured ham. So the menu's starting point was small plates—the petiscos, or snacks. I have the charcturerie which is very close to me because I grew up with the cured hams—my mom and dad always had a ham hanging in the garage somewhere.
Where'd you grow up?
I grew up in a very large Portuguese community in Connecticut. My parents immigrated here in 1970 from four hours north of the capital of Portugal, in a very small aldea. The holidays themselves were a huge part of my introduction to gastronomy.
Because there were very, very, very elaborate banquets. As a kid, I have memories of my aunts and dad and uncles on early Christmas eve—we'd have four or five pots making rice dishes, and there was bacalao, chorizo, a big platter of rice pudding. My upbringing was surrounded by food.
So which specific dishes at Aldea trace their roots back to those holiday dinners?
My bacalao entrees. Bacalao is something that I detested as a kid —it was always in the garage, and it was always kinda stinky-smelly. But when I worked at Arpege in Paris with Alain Passard, he was taking a lot of the old cuisine—the grandmother's cuisine—and refining it. And I said, you know what? There are so many dishes that I grew up with that I [could apply] the same philosophy to. And that's where the bacalao comes in. That's where the shrimp alhinho comes in.
And how'd you update those?
The classic shrimp alhinho, I took it a bit further here. The true flavor of shrimp is in the head—the juices are the most flavorful. So we buy shrimp with the heads. I make the classic alhinho with garlic, olive oil, smoked paprika and coriander, and then we roast the heads, deglaze them and then put them through a press— really, really smoosh the heads so all the natural juices come out. And then I add that to the dish itself.
So that's the philosophy I take with the menu: It's a reference point of Iberian flavors, and then I just bring in my training. And every dish at Aldea has a little bit from everyone that I've worked for. My training at Bouley was herbal cuisine, the lightness, the very supple flavors. With Alain Passard, he was a little bit more adventurous. And then with Alain Ducasse, it was really bringing me closer to my heritage.
You've spoken a lot about your family. And although you've impressed the city's top critics, family somehow always turns out to be the harshest critics of all, right?
I can remember when I cooked squab in my mom's house back when I was 22, 23 years old. And squab, properly done, is no more than medium rare. I remember putting my heart and soul into this dish, and then my aunt comes over and I put it on a plate and she's like, "Oh my god it's raw! What are doing! You have to cook that!" And then she tried it and said, "Oh my god, it's delicious. It melts in your mouth." So yes…[laughs]…my family is pretty much the harshest critics. But after my Bouley years and my period of working in Paris, the tables were turning, and now I was showing my mom who to cook, how to use fresh herbs and do roasting properly. That kind of a philosophy took its course.
Photo by Melissa Hom