"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."