Chef George Mendes Recalls Thanksgivings Past

chef George MendesCourtesy Thomas Krakowiak
"Portuguese food, it's very simple, it's very conservative, it's very rustic," says George Mendes, chef at Aldea in Manhattan's Flatiron district. "It's very authentic, it's very passionate. It has a lot to do with the culture."

As a first-generation American growing up in Danbury, Conn., George Mendes experienced childhood Thanksgivings that went far beyond the holiday staples of turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce. His Portuguese relatives added seaside favorites from back home, accessorizing the standard fare with everything from spicy rice dishes to shellfish and octopus.

The basic recipe for a successful turkey day, however, remained the same: take a house, add a big family, fill with warmth and eat all day.

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"At my aunt's house, it started the night before with my mother and my aunt preparing for the feast the day ahead and the day after," Mendes said. "It was various marinades, and there would be whole rabbits in olive oil, paprika, white wine. There was various shellfish being prepared. There was octopus starting to simmer away. Of course, there was the big turkey that was marinated or marinating. And then there was various bases for the dishes to come -- like there was already the sweating of garlic and onions and tomato and bay leaf that was going to be used in the shrimp dish the next morning, or the rice dish the next morning or the next afternoon. ... I'd be watching TV but you could always smell that aroma coming out of the kitchen."

Those tastes and smells formed for Mendes a kind of culinary baseline emphasizing unadulterated ingredients and straightforward preparations. His new Manhattan restaurant, Aldea, represents the culmination of his commitment to the lessons his mother and aunts taught.

Named after the Portuguese word for village, the restaurant boasts a menu inspired by the Iberian Peninsula and Mendes' heritage. The menu includes a variety of shellfish, various preparations of salt-cod, or bacalhau, rice dishes and Iberian-cured hams.

"Portuguese food, it's very simple, it's very conservative, it's very rustic," Mendes said. "It's very authentic, it's very passionate. It has a lot to do with the culture. You know, it is a grandmother's cuisine. It is peasant, poor man's food in a way, but it's so flavorful and so simple and very 'warming,' is the word I really like to use."

Mendes built his career through a willingness to experiment with various cuisines. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. in 1992, he took a job at Bouley in downtown Manhattan, worked at Alain Passard's Arpege in Paris and served as executive chef of Le Zoo, a small French bistro in Greenwich Village.

He was executive sous chef at the three-star Lespinasse in Washington, D.C., and worked under both Roger Verge and Alain Ducasse. In 2003, Mendes joined highly acclaimed Basque chef Martin Berasategui at his eponymous three-star Michelin restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain.

'Sacrifices, but a Lot of Fun'

He attributes his skill in the kitchen to lessons learned at home. But the first lesson of his childhood, he said, was how to work.

"My parents immigrated in the early '70s," Mendes said. "I just recall my mom and dad getting up for work very early in the morning, and I actually remember my mom bringing me to the babysitter before she went to work. ... So I had a babysitter who would get me ready for school, and I would go to school Monday through Friday of course, and then the weekends I recall helping my father with various laborious tasks. My father was into construction, did a lot of masonry work, a lot of carpentry work and he owned a house that we remodeled.

"I recall my childhood being surrounded by that, getting up early in the morning, helping my dad on Saturday and Sunday, where, I mean, I was at school and I wanted to go play with my friends or go play soccer," he added. "So that started very early on, when I was 12, 13, 14 years old."

Mendes said cooking emerged as a natural outlet for his creative impulse that also would serve and be served by his desire to work hard.

"There was something that would ignite in me; there was some kind of inner flame when I was looking at the kitchen, when I was looking at the stove, when I was looking at the hustle and bustle of the service and the energy and the people and the smiles and the faces and the creation -- the craftsmanship," Mendes said.

By craftsmanship, he said he meant "looking how to cook a piece of fish properly or a piece of meat and then plating it and making it look beautiful, and setting it out in the dining room and having the waiter come back and say, 'Chef, the customer loved that.'

"I'm a very energetic person," he added. "I have a very high metabolism, and I think I always loved that level of pressure, that level of stress. It just made me want to get to work every morning or every afternoon. And there was just something inside me that said, 'You know what? This is a lot of fun.' Hard work, a lot of sacrifices, but a lot of fun."

Being a chef is about more than cooking, however, said Mendes. He talked about learning how to lead a kitchen.

"[It's about] knowing the basics, being disciplined with yourself, having that work ethic," he said. "Being a motivator, being a leader is very important, you know. You can't run a restaurant by yourself. You can't run a kitchen by yourself. You have to instill that organization in the kitchen brigade. ... You really have to motivate people and make them want to follow you and work that 10- to 12- to 14-hour day and still bring them back the next day. That's a very important quality or skill to have as a chef. You're a leader. You're in day-in and day-out."

When he starts to feel worn out, Mendes follows the same rule that guided the creation of Aldea: Draw on what's close at hand.

"I'm constantly re-inspired. You know, it could be something really simple," he said. "It could be the weather. It could be a walk to the farmer's market. It could be an employee. It could be something that I read. It could be a visit to my friend's restaurant the night before. What keeps me going ... is that true love and passion for this industry -- for cooking, I think, is what it comes down to.

"I still have simple thrills and a smile gets put on my face when I see a perfect piece of fish, or I'm cooking a la plancha or using very modern cooking techniques -- that's, to me, there's always something new to reflect on a daily basis."

'I Hate the Word "Trends"'

If Mendes has any complaints about the food industry, it's the way culinary fashions can eclipse beloved basics.

"I hate the word 'trends,'" he said. "I mean, I think good cooking, you know, is like classical music. You know, Carnegie Hall exists today because of the classics and people will always buy their ticket and go to Carnegie Hall. And I think going to a restaurant and having a perfect Duck a l'Orange, or going to a restaurant and have Tournedos Rossini or a simple Beef Foie Gras -- I mean, these people that created these dishes are geniuses. At the same time, I embrace a lot of the technology and modern cooking techniques that are out today.

"I think, you know, if we don't evolve we'll just regress, but I think the new things that pop up, I don't like to label them with the word 'trend.' I think I like to label it as a new road. To me, [that] is what it's about."

Mendes' devotion to the old ways bespeaks conservatism surprising in someone who, in many ways, cuts the figure of a hot young chef.

"I always had that Portuguese love and Portuguese passion in my heart, in my bones, in my blood, because I can still remember the scents coming from my mother's stove and my aunt's stove in holidays, you know, smelling that shrimp and garlic, smelling the various roasts in the oven, smelling the various rice dishes, working with olive oil, garlic, and paprika," Mendes said. "Those aromas have always been with me, so I think that's what never dies and always just stays inside me.

"When I am exploring old Portuguese recipes, I feel attached to it," he added. "I feel deeply attached to it because I grew up with it when I was born. It was already, this was what I was surrounded with. At times, I say that a lot. But sometimes, I think my mother used to have various ingredients in my baby bottle to say this is what good food is."