We Chat With: George Mendes of Aldea

"My friends were having pizza and I had to go home to eat cod. Little did I know I would revisit those ingredients in my later years as a chef."

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

Portuguese cuisine is traditionally rustic—a peasant-style food that doesn't really impress a camera. But at chef/owner George Mendes' Aldea, classic Portuguese dishes turn into plates that impress, with flavors that are so intense you might just polish your plate. Which, um, we did.

Specifically where are you parents from and how would you describe their native cuisine? My folks immigrated from Feras do Dao, literally a ditch of only about 800 inhabitants. The food of that region is heavily rooted in salt cod, specifically stews and braises and rice dishes. Very simple produce was being planted with a lot of farming going on.

Were your parents farmers? Yeah, my parents grew a lot of the food that they ate and it was very repetitive; the bounty wasn't an array. Both my mom and dad grew up very poor, and a lot of times they would barter for food with crops they would harvest. My father had a sister and five brothers, and sometimes they could only buy a dozen sardines to feed the entire family. So it was a lot of starvation—not to fatal results, but it was very difficult.

When they immigrated, what traditional foods did they want to keep close? They brought with them the simplicity of preparing food and growing their own produce. Growing up in the late seventies and eighties in Danbury, CT, there was always a garden planted, even if it was just a narrow strip of driveway leading to the garage. I remember as a child on a typical Saturday afternoon when the sun was about to set, my uncle would be out there watering his garden. I have memories of being there as a kid and taking in that scent. It's still dominating in the back of my mind.

Do you have a garden? I don't have a garden now. I wish. Someday I will.

Did anything shift in their way of cooking once here? First and foremost they immigrated here for a "better life." Eventually my mom got a job working at a pencil factory so there was a little more income, and we ate were the flavors of Portugal that my parents were used to cooking. A lot of the recipes were just passed on—no books. My mother either just cooked from memory or a piece of paper that was passed on from a good friend.

Did you experience a lot of culture shock, growing up in a very Portuguese household in suburban Connecticut? My friends' lunch boxes in elementary school were Twinkies and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; my mother would send me with buttered bread or a roll. I did experience the junk food movement and never brought a sardine to school for lunch, but after playing basketball my friends were having pizza and I had to go home to eat cod. Little did I know I would revisit those ingredients in my later years as a chef. That's what really inspired me to create the style at Aldea—to take those very rustic dishes that at times were very off-putting to me.

Portuguese food is generally very rustic, but your plates at Aldea are lush and refined. How did you decide you wanted to put those two different worlds together? I had about 15 years of very intense training in the cuisines of great chefs, here and in Europe, where I was being shown technicalities and craftsmanship but I also each chef's individual style. The biggest impact was working with Alain Ducasse, where I began to see this deep-rooted "cuisine of the land" in a style that had a very strong similarity to my upbringing.

In what way? Relying on what the garden provided. Ducasse had a refined style of cooking, but everything on the plate was so pure and simple. If I put it on a paper plate and removed all the luxury around it, I could see the honesty, authenticity and respect for tradition that was on the plate. And that's what had a big impact on me—the honesty in it. And I think that carries over into what I do at Aldea today. I represent the flavors of Portugal but translate it through my own lens with a kind of modern New York sensibility.

Do you see Portugal having a modernist evolution such as what started with Ferran Adria in Spain? I definitely think it's a possibility. There are a small group of chefs in Lisbon cooking at a different level, riding that "avant garde" wave and going through a little bit of a revolution. But remember the mass public of Portugal is conservative in their ways, stubborn to sticking to what their grandmothers showed them. Still I think that, yes, it's possible and it's already begun. But it takes time and more people and acceptance.

Who is doing that in Portugal right now? I think Jose Avillez is doing that really well at Belcanto in Lisbon.

How so? He's a perfect example of a chef who is a great craftsman and who's deeply rooted in the classical style of Portuguese cooking. He worked at El Bulli and realized his style was taking this Portuguese cuisine for a ride. Humor comes into play and different kinds of emotions happen at the table. He's doing it really well right now.

Three more quick questions: personal favorite dish? It's always the tomato rice that was served with grilled pork tenderloin cutlets that were really nicely charred and a simple green salad. Eaten outside. Those are flavors that I've always been in love with. Yeah, the rice dishes. That's what inspired the duck rice at Aldea—the last thing I put on the menu.

Favorite Portuguese beer? Super Bock. We have it here.

You follow soccer? Yup.

You're Portuguese but spent a lot of time in Spain, and they've faced off in some big ways these past few tournaments. Which way you lean? I'm Portuguese to the heart when it comes to soccer, are you kidding me? Sporting is my league team. And then when the European cup comes around... we took Spain for a ride. We played them really well all the way to penalty kicks. We should have made it to the finals, but...

About the author: Jacqueline Raposo is a writer and frantic private cook who also happens to be a first-gen Portuguese American kid from Connecticut. She devoured the Duck Rice. Devoured. Alternatively baking at www.thedustybaker.com and tweeting away at @dustybakergal.

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