Salt Cod King: George Mendes Will Bring Portuguese Cooking To The Masses
In NYC, Aldea's chef is planning a big fall opening
“Right now we’re off to the races,” says George Mendes, with the sound of clanging in the background. He’s standing at the Chelsea — or maybe we'll call it NoMad — construction site that will house his new, un-named restaurant scheduled to open later in the fall. It’s long been anticipated that Mendes, a Portuguese-American chef who just celebrated five years at his well-regarded Flatiron restaurant Aldea, would expand into a more casual style. Earlier this year, he popped up at Madison Square Eats with the highly enjoyable 100 Sardines, a lunchtime tent that served sardine toasts and salted cod croquettes, two classic dishes from his native Portugal that New Yorkers and visitors could not get enough of.
While he’s keeping some details on ice, we do know that the new opening will be in the style of a “rustic Portuguese café” and that the restaurant will be equipped with a large wood-burning oven, which Mendes hints will be a primary focus. He'll be cooking a butterflied flattened chicken with a South African chili called piri piri, and a nice selection of craft beers and great, affordable, Portuguese wines will flow.
When we called, Mendes was chalk-lining the floor plan, an important step in restaurant construction that actualizes blueprints in the physical space — which, Mendes says, doesn’t always translate and needs to be watched closely. “It’s a very crucial period,” he says, sounding tired, which could be the result of juggling a new restaurant, another successful one and the release of his first book, My Portugal. We were able to squeeze in 10 minutes, which was enough time to get the chef talking all about salted cod.
I ate at 100 Sardines a couple times and thought it was just phenomenal. Is the new opening gonna be similar to that?
Yeah, there are gonna be a lot of similarities. The pop-up was kind of like a taste of the type of food and the casualness that we’ll be doing with the new space on 29th Street. I’ll refer to it as 29th Street for now because its name is still to be decided! The food we did at [100 Sardines] was very down home, straightforward, beer-drinking food.
Humor me with a couple menu items you plan to serve.
There will be a lot of dishes like croquettes with bacalao, there’s gonna be very classical cod dishes — very peasant dishes like gratins and casseroles. There will be stews, especially in the colder months. Think lamb braises. We have a wonderful Spanish wood cooking oven that we’ll be using. So we’ll be doing a lot of things from there. The possibilities are endless and I’m excited to start cooking in the oven — and tinkering around with it.
And how are you feeling about this book being released? It’s very personal, and not a restaurant cookbook. It’s a travel book. I also feel like you’re laying a lot on the line about your own personal story, right?
There are no secrets. I think My Portugal, the title, really reflects my upbringing and my early visits as a child to Portugal and going back as a teenager and as an adult, and while being in Aldea, it really talks about the story of me growing up and being introduced to food. From my family and then uncles and aunts, and going to festivals in Connecticut, which has a very big Portuguese community and experiencing the culture for the first time. And there’s a lot of stories of me just growing up. How my parents, and my Dad especially, influenced my work ethic in a way. So it’s definitely a very personal cookbook on the road to being where I am today.
And I don’t like to call it a travel book. It’s more like a whole story of introducing the American public, or the world at that, to basic Portuguese food — through my lens. Because there’s really classical recipes in there that have not been tinkered with, and there are other ones that have been reinterpreted. Through my own vision or through the recipes from Aldea. The duck rice is on there and it’s four pages.
You also have a whole chapter on salt cod. I mean, that’s pretty massive.
Yeah. Exactly. The backbone of Portuguese cuisine is salt cod, so I felt that this chapter was very important. And I’m just obsessed with it and it’s something that grew with me over the years. So the book really dedicates itself to an array of difficultness, from complex recipes to home cook recipes. I do feel that it can be a chef’s book. There are recipes in there that will hopefully inspire good cooks and cooks-to-be.
Did you look at how Portuguese cuisine has moved away from Portugal? I know that that’s probably its own book — I’m sure it’s its own book — but did you discuss that at all, like in southern India?
I definitely discuss the former colonies, like there are recipes in there like for shrimp Mozambique style, from Africa which is using okra and things that would surprise people in Portuguese cuisine. Then there’s a Goan cuttlefish recipe. So the book kinda takes the reader on a little bit of a trip.
Have you traveled yourself to South Africa and Southern India?
Not yet. Those destinations are on the list for sure.
No doubt. You’re busy too. How often are you traveling to Portugal?
We’re going in a few weeks. On average, I’ll usually go – at the very minimum I’ll go two times a year.
I ask this of many cookbook authors, especially in the fall. There are a lot of books coming out, so why should someone buy your book? Why should they drop 30 bucks for it?
They should buy my book because it’s full of fresh, garden cooking. It talks about how you can visit your local farmers' market and cook from it. I think they should buy my book because they’re gonna discover a new cuisine that they might have not been familiar with before. And that is simultaneously very helpful, soulful, rich in heritage. I think it’s gonna take the reader on a long voyage. Of flavors. And preparations.