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.
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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.
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.