The Chef of Aldea and Lupulo on Finding Himself on the Plate, Maintaining Standards, and “Fast Forward” Cooking
It’s been an insanely busy 2015 for George Mendes. Back in April, approximately six years into the life of his lauded Chelsea favorite Aldea, he opened his casual restaurant and beer bar Lupulo. Mendes, who came up cooking for such greats as David Bouley and once served as chef of Tocqueville, has also recently instituted changes at Aldea, including a shift to a prix-fixe-only menu. If you’ve eaten George’s food at Aldea and/or Lupulo, you know that his is a very personal and singular cuisine based on his Portuguese heritage.
With all of the goings-on in his world, this seemed like a good time to sit down and kick around George’s career and evolution. This interview was conducted in two parts, one before Lupulo opened and the other toward summer’s end; they have been spliced together here, with some minor editing to help them gel.
Let’s talk about your evolution: You grew up in Connecticut, eating Portuguese food. You start cooking professionally and fall into a very serious fine-dining realm. How did you come to this notion of taking the flavors you grew up on and formalizing it, or interpreting it, or whatever you call what you do?
I think it’s giving it structure. I think it’s giving it order. I think it’s organizing it. I like to think about it as a circle or a clock: you start at one point, you go in a direction, and then you find yourself back at the beginning.
I’ll start with the ’80s growing up in Connecticut. The late ’70s and the ’80s I started eating the food that my mother would make. You know: The bottle of olive oil and vinegar on the table, salt cod preparations, the smell of a charcoal grill with sardines, with green peppers blistering, the garden alongside the driveway, even if it was only ten feet by three feet, growing collard greens and parsley. I was eating food like tomato rice and simple battered fillets of sole that were dipped in flour and water and whipped into a batter and fried like a tempura. I was eating dishes like boiled salt cod with potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and turnip greens…
[In my late teens,] there was a trip to the Culinary Institute of America. I fell in love with the whole scene of the toques and the professionalism and the artistry. Because simultaneously I was already drafting and was interested in architectural design and interior design and just working a lot with my hands. But I was also very athletic. I was playing soccer, I was playing basketball and that kind of thing so I knew that I couldn’t sit still.
So back to this circle that I was referring to: I went to culinary school, seventeen-years old, youngest in my class. I was getting my ass kicked every day. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, to be honest with you. There was something about it that I really enjoyed. Did my externship in French kitchens. And it all started in 1994, working with David Bouley. I arrived at David Bouley’s kitchen in TriBeCa, the original location, and I was kind of shaken up and mesmerized.
You’re describing so far a very French‑focused education.
Sure. The beginning was….