One of the best shows in town is the dinner theater that happens nightly in the immaculately open kitchen at Aldea. The six seats at the Atelier-style chef's counter offer a full view into the quietly controlled, synchronized choreography of George Mendes's kitchen, where half a dozen tattooed cooks execute his menu with the intense focus of flavor samurai. Is that sublime Sea Urchin Toast with cauliflower cream, sea lettuce, and lime headed your way? Is Mendes stepping in to expertly attend to your New Bedford Diver Scallops? Is that your duck rice your smelling? (Time Out ranked that dish number three of the "10 Best Things to Eat in NYC.")
Since opening in May 2009, Aldea—Mendes's first restaurant—has quickly become one of the most buzzed-about restaurants in New York, and is frequented by some of the city's top chefs, such as Paul Liebrandt (Corton) and David Bouley, for whom Mendes used to work. (On the night Mendes invited us to watch the high-wire act in the kitchen, Wylie Dufresne [wd~50] was seated next to us.) The restaurant's popularity did not come out of the blue; before Mendes rose to prominence with Aldea, he was known as something of a chef's chef, and his debut was hotly anticipated among the culinary cognoscenti. Now that Aldea's firmly established as one of the most serious restaurants NYC, we caught up with Mendes to hear about the past year.
What's your secret? Why is Aldea such a hit? You know, I don't have any secrets. I mean, it's my own personal interpretation of Iberian flavor, and my years and years of practical French training and a culmination of everything, really. I use Portugal and Spain as my reference points and I kind of branch off of that, introducing a lot of global flavors, inspirations, and passions. It's the style that I've cultivated after the first few years when I was opening Aldea.
The chef's counter is really entertaining. Some kitchens that I've worked in are really loud, there's a lot of passion and yelling, but there's none of that at Aldea; it's entertaining because it's so intense. Why did you want to make the kitchen so completely open? I liked the customer relationship, the personal relationship, with us and the team in the kitchen. I really enjoy seeing what's going on, I like to see people's reactions to the food, I like to see crowds. I like the vibe—the overall vibe and feel of an open kitchen is really attractive to me—it really fires me up, it inspires me. And having six people dining at the counter like that, like a sushi counter kind of set up, is really cool, because you can interact with them. I envision one day where those six seats become solely a tasting menu for the evening. That's maybe a long-term goal for Aldea, that those six seats become a little more coveted and a little more unique in its own way. That's something I would eventually like to do, but we're a little over a year old, so maybe that's something down the line.
The energy in the kitchen can get really intense. Has it ever been a challenge to have people working with you to keep it cool? Have you ever had to cut somebody loose who couldn't keep it together? I've been blessed. Opening Aldea has been really, really hard, grueling—and a lot of hard work from the entire team. I think that the service itself—yeah, it's very high pressured, shit hits the fan numerous times—and I think for the most part, my opening team up until what I have today, a lot of them have stayed on, some of them have decided to move on because the pressure of it is just too much, but I've never had to calm someone down in the middle of service. We go into battle, me being the leader, being the motivator, keeping everybody in check, keeping the service at a good flow is my responsibility. I'm basically the orchestrator, keeping everybody playing the instruments. I'm also playing the instruments as well. I'm not only orchestrating, I'm also hands on. And I also think it's my responsibility to keep everybody on their feet, keep their heads clear, and guide them to focus at the task at hand. It's definitely a challenge; everyday is a challenge, everyday brings on a new type of service. Sometimes the service is very spread out, customers are arriving on time, and everything is very streamlined. Other times, shit hits the fan and everyone comes in late, or everyone comes in at once and things get really hectic, but it's about being flexible, it's about riding the storm.
Have any of the customers in the front row seats at the chef's counter abused their privilege and pestered the people working to the point where you had to intervene? No, no. There's a lot of questions that are being asked. Those six seats become a classroom kind of thing. They're always interacting. I talk to them a lot. No, I've never had anybody that misbehaved. Who knows, maybe that'll happen tonight?
How has the past year been, and how has the restaurant changed since you started? You know, a restaurant is like a new car in a way. It's brand new, you take it for a test drive, you begin to fall in love with it, then you move on. Or a better analogy would be a new girlfriend, or a wife. You meet the person, you get to know them little by little, and a year later, things are—You get to know each other more and more. Back to the car analogy, things are broken in, the seats get broken in, the floor gets broken in, you get comfortable with it and it gets comfortable with you. The food, the team, everybody starts to work together in sync. Everybody starts to know what's happening around them, everything becomes second nature. When I opened up in May of last year, it was a growing thing. I was going through a period of the critics walking in immediately, and going through a period of training my staff, and trying to interpret what the vision of the menu, of the restaurant, and what I wanted Aldea to be all about. So a year, even two years, even three years, I still feel Aldea is still not where I want it to be. It's something that a year for a restaurant is great, but there's so much more that needs to be done. A restaurant only gets better with time.
Could you talk about the Portuguese connection and where that influence comes from? The name itself is also a Portuguese word, right?
The name itself is a take on a Portuguese word, although it's spelled differently. It's spelled "A-L-D-E-I-A." I dropped the "I" for various reasons, one of them for pronunciation, and two, I didn't want people to solely think that it was a Portuguese restaurant, because people will come in with their own expectations. You know, I wanted them to be free. I cook with a very free spirit, a very free palate. I love exciting new flavors, exciting new ingredients, and I don't want to feel remitted. There are a lot of restaurants out there that say that they're Spanish, yet they work with global ingredients, and I think that's the way that I want to be approached, and understood, and read, is that yes, Aldea is a Portuguese restaurant, but it's much more than that. That's my goal.
But where does that influence come from, the Portuguese? The Portuguese is my upbringing. I'm born to Portuguese immigrants. My mother, my aunts, my dad were all really, really strong cooks. I grew up with the aromas of the flavors that I'm working with today. There was always rabbit, there was goat, there was octopus, there was mussels, clams, a lot of pork, a lot of bacalao—salted cod. There was a lot of chouriço being made at home, linguiça, all kinds of sausages smoking in the garage. Aldea is an interpretation, an inspiration of my upbringing, of my childhood flavors. That is still experienced today, and I always had at the back of my mind that I wanted to do a restaurant that I'm able to do what I learned, to cook the way I learned with all the masters of the world. But it's important that a chef finds his place, that he finds his own style, and there's where I think my Portuguese comes into play.
Can you tell us about the origin of some of the dishes, like the bacalao in the egg? The bacalao in the egg is based on a classical Portuguese recipe called "bacalao à braz," which means braz style. I just took that dish, which is traditionally like a bowl of bacalao with scrambled eggs with crispy potatoes, shoestring potatoes, olives, onions, parsley, and cilantro, except I just took it and refined it. The egg being the showcase, and the bacalao being the showcase, I decided to take that approach and reinterpret it into a small stack, to put it all into an egg where it's more of a two or three bite snack. Every dish, 95% of the dishes, have a reference point, and I just kind of take it from there.
That oyster with the trout caviar is a knockout! Yeah, it's about getting great ingredients, you know? I have this company out of Michigan, BLiS, that is very famous for their maple syrup. They also smoke their own trout roe for us, and it's the trout caviar that—it's a fantastic product, and there's not much else to say about it. Just look at these beautiful cushy oysters from British Columbia, and what's simpler? I don't want to manipulate it too much cause of the great ingredients. I just serve it, and that's one side of me that, a lot of times I remove myself from the food and just let it be and give it to the customer, and not mess it too much.
It strikes me as very zen. Yes. It's the zen approach, and it's also the love for Japanese culture in me, as well. You see that influence in the the oyster, the sea urchin toast, a lot of simpler things. I love pure hams. There's nothing more satisfying to me than sitting down at a table with friends and enjoying a plate of pure ham, whether it be serrano, or presunto, or a fine country ham from the South like Virginia or Tennessee. I mean, to me that's utter—it says something so simple but there's such a story behind it, you got these passionate people that are making a living off curing hams, so that's what it's all about, you have a lot of simple dishes. Then we get more involved, like the duck rice.
It's very popular. Yeah, the duck rice, I never thought it was going to take off like that. When I developed the menu for Aldea, I said okay, we're going to have four or five seafood offerings, four or five meat offerings, and I wanted one of the meat offerings to be composed of a rice dish, so I can—you know, I was going back to my upbringing. I'd see some kind of rice preparation all the time, as a child, as a teenager, my mom and my aunts, and of course the holidays were always elaborate buffets of all kinds of preparations where my mother and aunts would slave at the stove two days before it. So I put together the menu for Aldea, I said okay, I want to do something with rice, and duck came into the picture, and arroz de pato is a very classical, traditional Portuguese preparation, it's a duck rice. I just refined it, and just put in all my training into amplifying all of the flavors that I can get out of the ingredients, and at the end of the day, it's just about duck and rice and chouriço and olives. It is laborious, it is a laborious project to make a duck stock. We peel the skin off, get it crisped up in the oven separately, then we cook the rice, and there's sofrito, there's onions, there's tomatoes, there's there's paprika, there's saffrons. There's a lot of steps leading up to the final dish.
What does your mom think of it? Loves it. [Pauses] She says I make them more complicated than they need to be, but that's just me, because I need a challenge.
I thought the lightly cured mackerel with the almond milk and the coconut was such an interesting combination of flavors. How did you come up with that one?
Almonds are very, very popular in Portugal. There are almond trees, fig trees, olive trees, and I love mackerel itself, especially in its raw form, and especially searing skin lightly like that. On my day off I go to a lot of Japanese restaurants, so I took the approach of using almonds, and I wanted something creamier, so it was actually inspired by "ajo blanco," which is a white gazpacho made of olives, water, garlic, and bread. That is what inspired the base for the raw mackerel preparation, so I decided to make an almond milk. And the crunchiness of the coconut—the shaved coconut is dehydrated overnight, the chips for crunch and exotic flavor as well, and I like the uniqueness of all the other flavors coming together.
You just answered what was going to be my last question, which is what do you do on your day off. Wow. [Laughs] Depends on the season, I think in the winter I tend to stay in a lot, or watch football, or sleep, or I always tend to venture out to other friends' restaurants, if they're open. I definitely love Japanese food, but I also like to see what my friends are doing out there. I love Spanish food in the general, there's great Spanish restaurants in the city, like El Quinto Pino. I love Boqueria and Seamus (Mullen), I love guys like Wylie and Paul and my friend Johnny at Jean Georges. I try to go eat out at other French restaurants, sometimes I end up working because when I'm sitting in a dining room I like to be inspired by new dishes. And then I try to sleep.
Why Portuguese food? I mean, it's really a country that is still up and coming. It's still obscure, but we're neighbors with Spain, and I think we're due for a food revolution and due to be given an opportunity to shine like the rest of Europe.