Chef George Mendes on Building a Portuguese Pantry, Cooking with Piri Piri, and His Favorite Tool in His Home Kitchen
Since 2009 Chef George Mendes has been cooking some of the most exciting Portuguese food you can find in New York at his Michelin-starred restaurant Aldea. The trend-setting spot specializes in modern, seasonal twists on traditional fare — and there’s always something new to try. Mendes recently teamed up with Williams Sonoma to launch an exciting line of Portuguese-inspired sauces and condiments. We caught up with him to talk about the essential pantry items in Portuguese cooking, how to add some heat to your food with piri piri, and his obsession with egg tarts.
Tell us a little bit about your cooking background.
George Mendes: My parents are Portuguese immigrants, and my household was always full of great cooking from my mom. That’s where a lot of my inspiration comes from. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after high school until I went on a spontaneous trip with my senior marketing class to the Culinary Institute of America in 1990. We spent a day on campus and I fell in love with the atmosphere, the hustle, the stress, and the environment. So I went there.
I started cooking professionally in New York in 1992 under chef David Bouley. I also went to Paris as an apprentice in 1994 and again in 1998 in the south of France with Alain Ducasse and Roger Vergé. And then in the early 2000s I was in Spain with chef Martin Berasategui and briefly at El Bulli with chef Ferran Adrià. I’ve also authored one cookbook.
What’s your vision behind Aldea?
GM: In 2009 I opened my own restaurant, Aldea. I was able to combine all of my classic French training with my childhood Portuguese influences. Aldea is a modern Portuguese restaurant. We cook what’s seasonal, what’s inspiring us at that moment, and we also adapt to food trends and what we think our customers want. We’re nimble. That vision hasn’t really changed in nine years.
Who are your biggest influences in cooking?
GM: I think I have many. Certainly my mom who first planted the seed with those Portuguese flavors when I was a kid. Professionally I was influenced by David Bouley and Alain Ducasse and Martin Berasategui in Spain, and a touch of Ferran Adrià at El Bulli. I think everyone contributed in their own way.
What are the essential pantry items in Portuguese cooking?
GM: Olive oil, onions, garlic, paprika, bay leaf, parsley, cilantro.
How would you describe the piri piri flavor profile?
GM: The piri piri pepper is a Portuguese and southern African version of a hot pepper. They’ve got punch to them. It’s similar to the Thai bird’s eye chili, but about half its size. When it’s in a sauce, it definitely has that peppery hot profile with a touch of sweetness, and the nice acidity from the vinegar. It’s a perfect match for aggressively roasted meats like chicken, pork, rabbit, and quail.
What makes your new sauces with Williams Sonoma so special?
GM: The new line of sauces and condiments we were able to create are a solid representation of Portuguese flavors The citrus piri piri sauce is great with shrimp and the fennel garlic sauce is amazing with any kind of white fish.
I’m so excited about the idea of customers walking into Williams Sonoma and buying a sauce or a condiment that they can literally just heat up and add a protein to — whether it be fish, chicken, or shellfish — and eat it within five to 10 minutes.
What’s your favorite cooking tool in your home kitchen?
GM: It has to be my coffee grinder. It’s the thing I use most in my kitchen. I use it to grind coffee, of course, but also spices like black pepper and turmeric.
Tell me about these Portuguese egg tarts you’re famous for in New York. What makes them so special?
GM: I have a mixed history with egg tarts. I was first introduced to them as a kid at a local bakery in Connecticut, and they were so soggy and awful. But when I was in Lisbon in the early 90’s, I finally had them fresh from a local bakery and they had a perfectly crispy, crusty shell and custard-y center. They were so good. I think I had four of them that day – and they stayed with me.
I didn’t start making them until a few years ago at Lupolo (my restaurant, which is currently on pause). I tinkered with the recipe a lot. It’s very simple and yet so fragile and easy to screw up. There’s a lot of trial and error and precise measurements that needs to be considered — that’s the secret.
Interview lightly edited for clarity.