George Mendes: My Portugal

“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.”

– George Mendes, from our 2011 interview

Chef George Mendes and I have a few things in common: We both grew up with patriarchal figures who crush their own grapes into wine and store the questionable results in a gallon jugs.  We grew up with tomato plants shoved into tiny sunlit spaces, collard greens cooked down into soups, and salted cod making an appearance on many, many menus.  There were bars – well lit and amply stocked – in the living rooms and basements of our parents’ houses, and in those of our tios and avos as well; for some reason, every Portuguese person has a full-length bar in their house.

Yet, while our parents emigrated within years of each other from Portugal, and though we grew up only a few miles apart in Connecticut, that is where our similarities end.  I went to my state university for drama and writing; he went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.  I moved straight to New York City, enthusiastic and a touch uncertain; he did an externship at a restaurant in Connecticut I’ve passed by hundreds of times but never entered.  I found my foothold in performing, teaching, writing and producing; he found his with training from Ed Brown, David Bouley, Alain Passard and Ferran Adria, names that wouldn’t become familiar to me for a long time.  And though I’ve traveled “home” to my father’s island many times, and though Portuguese food is something familiar and comforting, my professional life has not yet melded with my history; George’s connection with his brought about his much-loved, much-starred restaurant, Aldea, and a gorgeous new cookbook, My Portugal, on sale today.

George Mendes' My Portugal

I want to say, because of my own affinity for the country that some Americans couldn’t place on a map, that I would be partial to this cookbook before even opening it.  I admit that seeing the cover for the first time made my heart skip a beat a bit; I can still recall my beloved grandmother cooking sardines at her stove, in kitchen slippers and worn apron, as my brother and I slurped caldo verde and drank laranjada. But I didn’t expect the book to so beautifully balance George’s past and present; to so clearly bring together the love he has for the country his parents came from fifty years ago with the very advanced training he’s had as a cook and chef in his adult life.

Writer Genevieve Ko smartly brings George’s almost reverential stories of childhood and his professional career together on the page.  She’s captured his personality deftly: his subtle, dry humor; the humility with which he presents a dish or a memory; the trustworthy perspective of a chef who takes himself just seriously enough.  Just as one recipe introduction sings a love song to simple salted cod and potatoes, another will follow where bread has been transformed into a “luxurious truffle-like emulsion and the goat into a melt-in-your-mouth confit.”

Genevieve also contributes photos from their travels back to Portugal, where they ate their way up and down the coastline, and deep in to the mountains and cities.  I particularly adored one tale of their being lost en route to a restaurant with notoriously stellar suckling pig: after racing the clock and fighting an absent GPS to make it to lunch before the restaurant closed, someone was sent to escort them past the dizzying roundabout and through winding roads to where, now closed, a plate of crispy suckling pig was waiting for them, the staff eating their lunch and welcoming them enthusiastically.  That story, with the warm accompanying photos that dot the book throughout, cannot help but encourage a cook to take on the recipe in their own home.  The still photographs by Romulo Yanes contrast the Portugal shots beautifully, shot cleanly overhead and crisply framed so that the old streets we see George rambling on and his new interpretations of traditional dishes come together comfortably.

Photograph by Genevieve Ko, courtesy George Mendes

Photograph by Genevieve Ko, courtesy George Mendes

Yes, the book is very much both old – with it’s flanking inner cover of the hand-painted blue tiles that hail from Portugal – and new (do I really need a sous vide machine?).  Some recipes nod familiarly, like an omelet with chorizo and linguica; the staple soup, caldo verde; clams steamed with white wine; that roasted suckling pig; octopus cooked down into soft submission.  Others are exciting in their newness and their update from tradition; it might take days to make his duck rice, but it will clearly be the most delicious thing you’ll eat for months.  Altogether, it’s 125 recipes both easy and complicated; both old-world and avant garde.

Yeah, it’s a good book.

Buy it at Amazon, read my old interview with him in my Serious Eats We Chat With… column and coverage of his New York Food Flood dinner at Aldea after Hurricane Sandy wiped our city. Read a newer interview with George about it on Fodor’s, grab a signed copy from Aldea’s website, hear writer Francis Lam pick his brain about it at the 92nd Street Y on November 3rd, check out the Food and Wine Best New Chef of 2011’s slideshow of one of his trips home on Food and Wine, and get the scoop on the new restaurant on Grubstreet.

Meanwhile, I’m packing up my saffron and heading to Connecticut to make Shrimp Alhino.  In the preface to the recipe, George credits his badass, master-carpenter father for being able to flip shrimp in a frying pan with one hand while the other secures him onto his cane.  My badass, master-carpenter pop makes a garlic shrimp so adored that it became a 3am staple at his annual New Years blowouts, and friends have stood over his shoulder many times trying to snag “the recipe”.  I’m not sure what dad will think of “shrimp essence” and “paprika filaments”, but I have a feeling he won’t stop eating long enough to ask.

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