Chef Insider: George Mendes

Meet the poster boy for New York City’s Portuguese cuisine scene

Photo by Anna Webber 

Even in New York City, where it seems like every type of international cuisine is readily available, finding a great Portuguese restaurant was once a challenge. Thankfully, George Mendes changed this in 2009 with the opening of Aldea, a fine-dining spot in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood. 

Born to Portuguese parents in Connecticut, but a New York resident since 1994, Mendes learned to cook Portuguese food from his mother and aunt. He now combines these lessons with modern techniques at Aldea, where, for the last six years, he and his team have been earning all kinds of awards and accolades, including a coveted Michelin star. 

In 2015, Mendes expanded his mini Portuguese empire with the opening of the more low-key Lupulo, just south of Herald Square. Here, the chef continues to pay homage to heritage cooking, but this time with more rustic and casual dishes, exposing diners to the rich flavours of a typical Portuguese kitchen. 

What’s your favourite thing about Portuguese cuisine?

Its deep culture and history. A lot of the dishes have great stories behind them, because the cuisine is deeply rooted in ancestry and in Portugal’s former colonies from all over the world. For example, one story states that [long ago], when farmers didn’t have enough feed for the pigs, they began feeding them clams because [the clams] were plentiful, and this resulted in the pork tasting “clammy.” So, to mask the clam flavour, they prepared a dish of pork and clams with pickled vegetables, olives and potatoes. This is now the very popular Carne de Porco à Alentejana.

How does it feel to be the poster boy for the Portuguese cuisine scene in Manhattan?

It’s great to have that niche in the market. But the more Portuguese restaurants that open, the better; it will only spread the word, because there are different styles for every region of Portugal. In Porto, for example, the cuisine is very robust—there are more stews and rice dishes compared to the Algarve in the south where the cuisine is lighter, using more shellfish and sardines. We try to epresent all of this on our menus.

Which dish, from either of your restaurants, best reflects your cooking style?

My cooking is based on traditional styles, but so much more goes into reinterpreting the recipes—refining and improving on them. The Arroz de Pato (duck rice) from Aldea is the definition of refined rusticity.

What are you loving about the New York food scene right now?

I love that it’s so full of young, well-trained chefs opening small restaurants with small budgets. There is passion, love for the craft and a roll-up-the-sleeve approach to cooking with deep, robust flavours

Mendes's Favourite Iberian Spots in NYC: 

Tertulia “I love Seamus Mullen’s rustic style and bold flavours, plus most of the cooking is done in a wood-fire hearth.” 

Try: Any of the paella.

Raizes “A great corner restaurant and bar in Greenpoint serving a nice mix of Portuguese classics.”

Try: The grilled bacalhau.

Txikito “A fantastic Spanish restaurant by Alex Raij and Eder Montero, where they serve so many takes on Basque cuisine. The tapas are always delicious and unique.”

Try: The poached pil-pil cod.