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.
Did you at that point have a picture in your mind of what you ended up doing or was that something you came to later?
I came to it later. I didn’t know exactly what direction I was going in. I didn’t have a goal in mind. I didn’t know what it was going to be at all.
Were you one of these guys who had this very traditional, pure attitude of, “I’m just learning”?
To be honest with you, I was a mess. I was a horrible cook. I was cutting myself left and right. My nickname was George Burns in culinary school.
When did you get that first pinch of what became your style? Of who you were on the plate?
I think it started as a little seed or a little whisper was when I was in Paris in 1996, 1998, when I walked into Alain Passard’s kitchen at Arpege and there was salt cod soaking in water there. And it was something that I disdained as a kid, growing up in Connecticut, where my mother had a Rubbermaid container of cod soaking in the garage. I ate it. I had to. I was forced to eat it once a week.
I remember seeing it in Alain Passard’s kitchen sitting in the walk‑in box, saying, “Wait a second.” Immediate flashbacks to Connecticut and immediate flashbacks to my mother cooking this. I remember saying to myself, “He’s got to be doing something really good with this if he has three Michelin stars.”
Two worlds collided.
Exactly. And then further on down into the early 2000s and later on, spending time with Alain Ducasse in Provence was a big push. Olive oil, olives, fresh greens, tomatoes, garlic, salt cod again, shrimp, octopus, mussels, clams, stuff that was embedded in the Portuguese culture that I grew up with.
Were there people who, when you started to think this way, were North Stars for you? People you saw and thought, “Oh, that’s kind of a path”?
Yes. That came in 2002, 2003 with Martín Berasategui in the Basque region where he was cooking ‑‑ first of all, he had Martin Berasategui restaurant and then his family, his mother and his grandmother, had a very small bodegón which was called Bodegón Alejandro which was basically Basque tapas, traditional cooking. And I remember walking up and looking at the menu on the wall and it was salt cod cakes, rice dishes. And it was just, like, “Wait.” I was staging in this three‑star Michelin restaurant but this is his other restaurant. And to see what was going on, that interpretation, was exciting.
So Martin Berasategui was a nudge. A little lightbulb started going off in me: Remember those things [from my childhood]? The message that I was getting was similar to when I was in Paris at Passard.
How important do you think that personal connection is?
I think at the end of the day it’s a choice about saying, “Okay, this is what I want to do and this is what I want to learn about and what I want to execute. ” I think what resonates with me more is when you’re cooking food that you’re deeply rooted with since birth. I mean, for me it is. But we could sit here and name chefs that are executing food and running sensible restaurants or have made a name for themselves and developed a style with something completely opposite than where they came from or where they were born.
Where do you stand on this whole question of the state of fine dining. Do you perceive it as a greater challenge than it used to be to have a restaurant like Aldea?
I strongly believe that restaurants like Per Se and Daniel and Jean Georges, La Bernardin, etcetera, will always exist. The formality of fine dining will never go away. And restaurants like 11 Madison Park are a perfect, more modern-day interpretation. I embrace the new wave because I think everything is done with a certain standard of excellence but you don’t have to dress up in a suit and a tie to experience it and you don’t have to have that white glove service. It doesn’t have to have a white tablecloth.
I love walking into a restaurant, being comfortable in a T‑shirt and jeans and/or flip flops and having food executed at the level of a three‑star Michelin restaurant. Because at the end of the day, it’s what’s on the plate. And I think New York City has seen the past decade and will continue to see more and more restaurants that will open up that will operate where the front of the house team or the dining room will be almost obsolete.
You’re going to see more of the counters. You’re going to see more of just that informal state where it’s just two cooks and the customers and maybe one person welcoming and handing out the menus but everything is served by the chefs. That’s been around a little bit and it’ll continue to grow. I embrace it.
But then again, I will always love to go and have dinner at Daniel and Per Se. I always will. There’s always going to be room for that. I think it’s important. I think it’s important that that still carries on. A perfect example is a restaurant like Paul Bocuse that has had three Michelin stars for how long now?
For me it’s about a really eager, fired-up chef that just wants to put really damn good food on a plate and goes to the farmers’ market and has relationships and is working for sustainability and that kind of a thing, and trying to send a message and make a name for himself. Because New York has been and is becoming harder to open a restaurant in and to sustain a restaurant in, given the rents. So, you know what? If you can find three or four hundred square feet and do a little restaurant, do really high quality food, then that’s what’s going to happen.
What you do–Portuguese food–is extra risky in the environment you’re describing.
I mean, everyone knows Italian food, or thinks they do.
We’re like like the black sheep or the under‑appreciated or the obscure kind of cuisine that I truly believe has a lot of fire. From the Portuguese wines and the current state of the Portuguese economy and how that’s growing, and the excitement of people that are going to Lisbon and seeing the food culture there, the young chefs that are getting their second Michelin stars in Portugal right now.
I definitely consider myself and my team here one of the first to stick to our guns and say, “Hey, you know what? We’re doing something that we truly believe in and that we love and we’re very passionate about and are really authentic and real and truthful about.” And I think that Lupulo will really push that forward. And that’s what I’m really excited about.
Your professional life has changed a lot with the opening of Lupulo. Were the any surprises to having two restaurant versus just one?
It was a heck of an adjustment for one. Construction and planning took a lot of mornings and afternoons. The period I’m going through right now, the past [few] months, is an adjustment in terms of how to manage my time. Simply stated, I’m a heck of a lot busier. I start my day earlier—I’m planning, plotting, delegating a lot more. I’m very hands on if I’m at Lupulo or Aldea. I spent ninety-five percent of my time at Lupolo [for the first three months].
It’s harder than just having one restaurant. Lupulo is a bigger beast… well, that’s too aggressive a word. There’s a faster pace in service, so adjusting to that but with the same standards of excellence as Aldea, going from 55 miles per hour to 95 miles per hour, making that adjustment and speeding everything up. The challenge for me has been quality control and consistency, getting the machine together. It feels like [we’ve been open longer than we have], the days are so long. I still remember the first week like it was yesterday but it feels like it’s been open a longer time. And the challenge for me has definitely been trying to really be present in both restaurants, establishing a system and structure.
Is there a symbiotic relationship between the two restaurants in terms of the food?
I think to be honest, to be fully honest and clear with you, Lupulo–the restaurant, the dishes–have been in my mind, in my head since Aldea opened. A lot of the dishes that came together at Aldea came from a rustic base, that rustic foundation. So what we’re doing at Lupulo are dishes that I’ve already thought of in a way or that I’ve eaten or that I’ve had in Lisbon or had that my mother cooked for me. I’d have to say about sixty-percent of the dishes have already gone through a thought process in my mind throughout the years.
What’s the difference in rhythm between Aldea and Lupulo?
From a cook’s perspective and how we move and operate, I think they are very similar. It comes down to how many components there are on the plate. There’s a tremendous attention to detail at both restaurants, attention to presentation, to seasoning. Lupulo is more challenging because of the volume. It’s a balancing act and we have to understand that just because we have a thirty-five seat dining bar in the center, we still have the same attention to detail. Even grilled chicken with hot sauce has to look attractive. Lupulo is Aldea’s mindset, sped up.
Like fast-forwarding a video?
Yes. It’s fast-forwarded. That’s what I’m constantly reminding the cooks and my wait-staff and management. When Pete Wells said in his review that some dishes look like they belong at Aldea, I was very happy to hear that. It represents and reflects who I am as a chef. Just because Lupulo’s a casual Portuguese restaurant doesn’t mean we can’t have these refined dishes. That’s the approach that we have … the emphasis and standard is still there.
Does doing this exhaust your energy, or give you a desire to do more?
For me, its about putting systems in place so I can replicate it. Do I want another restaurant or two or three? Probably. Am I ok for now? Yes. The rustic style of Lupulo can be recreated. I think this year or so is going to be a period of putting systems in place and establishing what I need to do and what my team needs to do so I can look ahead.
Have you been forced to become a better manager?
I came from the school of osmosis. [laughs] People couldn’t really articulate what they wanted, but there was a lot of osmosis and trial and error. It influenced me. I think in general, I’m learning to be a better communicator. I think in this day and age, it’s important to be a better communicator and delegate and communicate your vision. Or partner with somebody who can help you do that.
[At the same time,] I think that a being a good chef and being in a good kitchen, there’s a language in the kitchen that’s not spoken. It’s about listening, observing, smelling, touching … cooking like that is an understanding that comes with time. For example, my chef de cuisine and sous chefs over the years at Aldea, when you spend a long time together in a kitchen, there are things they are just going to get, whether looking at a sauce, or something else, just looking at it and pointing and having the other person know what’s wrong.
Can you speak for a moment to the critical cycle and how it’s changed and sped up in recent years.
When we opened Aldea six years ago, we had a critic in the dining room on day four or five and it continued after that with bloggers and people like that. As soon as you have friends and family, you open the door in New York City the next day, and the first dinner is a circus… Do I think it’s fair? No. I think a good restaurant takes time to find its needs, to refine itself, to find its comfort zone. I’ve been cooking in New York City for twenty-one years, and it’s always difficult. Is it six months, a year, two years? I can’t really answer that. I’m wired to understand that once you open your doors in New York City, you’re fair game. With social media, everybody’s a critic now. It’s fair and not fair and you have to have your shit together and hope for the best.
I was aware that when I opened Lupulo we’d be on the chopping block, on the critics’ eyes, from the moment we opened the door. I’m happy with where we are today, but can we be a better restaurant? Absolutely. We’re still fine-tuning lots of things. The menu has changed, systems have changed. At end of the day, will Lupulo be a different restaurant in six months? Absolutely. Will critics have a different experience in six months? Absolutely. I feel restaurants should be reviewed more often, or critics should get in more times. I think a lot of people would agree that in the first three months, you’re still finding your stride, the cooks are still trying to understand a lot of moving parts.
But it’s the reality these days and we’ve accepted it. I’m speaking on behalf of many chefs and restaurant owners who would agree with that statement. I think the landscape has changed the last decade. When I was a line cook at Bouley in the late 90s, critics were the last thing on my mind. It was seasoning. Back then, I came from a training where I was going to Kitchen Arts and Letters and reading the Times on Wednesday. That was it. Thinking back on those days still puts a smile on my face. It was really about cooking and just getting in there and cooking. I still operate that way. It gives me more comfort and knowing if a critic is out there, it really doesn’t matter. I’m confident and if I can give that confidence to my cooks and if we can get tasty, delicious food on the plate, we’ve done our part.