George Mendes on Food Trends, Childhood Memories, and More

The chef will serve his Portuguese fare at NYC Wine and Food Festival’s ‘Cross-Country Dinner’
George Mendes
George Mendes

George Mendes talks about food trends, his expectations for the NYC Wine and Food Festival, and the New York restaurant scene.

The four-day culinary celebration, New York City Wine and Food Festival (NYCWFF), is taking place in New York Oct. 17-20, with a world class line-up of intimate dinners, seminars, tastings, cooking demonstrations, and more. On Friday 18, renowned chefs George Mendes, Sean Brock, and Daniel Patterson will team up for the festival’s first intimate sit-down dinner event, “Cross-Country Dinner.” The three chefs will bring together their distinctly different cooking styles and backgrounds, serving guests with a “cross-country journey of flavors,” featuring American-Portuguese, Southern, and North-Californian cuisine. We at The Daily Meal had a chance to talk with George Mendes, the chef and owner of Portuguese-American fusion venture Aldea, and get to know more about his thoughts on cooking at the “Cross-Country Dinner,” culinary trends, and his childhood memories.

The Daily Meal: Can you give a brief comment on what the “Cross-Country Dinner” means to you?

George Mendes: Dinners like this bring colleagues and friends together. It's always fun and a great chance to exchange ideas, tell stories, and learn from one another. 

At the dinner, you will all be preparing foods showcasing the local flavors of your “home town.” Though locally sourced food and farm-to-table dining has been an ongoing trend for a while now, do you think there still are new ways to promote and bring local food closer to the people of a city/town?

We have a responsibility as chefs to connect with and speak on behalf of farmers. To let customers know that farmers all the way from Pennsylvania and upstate New York are driving to the Union Square Greenmarket four times a week to sell their produce, and how important it is to support them. Support has grown over the last ten years, but it's an ongoing project. 

How do you think that the culinary scene in New York has changed since you opened your restaurant Aleda?

More and more consumers are looking for a casual dining experience. They're more focused on eating in a communal, family-style setting with food that is not too contrived or too creative, but instead just really, really good and made with high quality ingredients. I'm not saying that fine dining is dying — there's always a place for it — but more and more of these restaurants with a lower budget are just serving really great food from really talented chefs, and they don't need to have white tablecloths or anything like that. Chefs are having a lot of fun, and New Yorkers are embracing that fact.

What is a new food-trend you anticipate? Or a trend you wish to see?

Portuguese cuisine! Portugal is a country with beautiful ingredients and some of the best seafood in the world. More Portuguese restaurants have started to open in New York, and I hope the trend continues. 

What events and dinners would you recommend at NYCWFF?

The Daniel Patterson, Sean Brock and George Mendes Dinner, of course! (laughs) I'm very excited about Alex Atala's dinner, Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients. It's going to be awesome. 

There seems to be a connection between your childhood and your style of cooking. Are there any other significant moments in your life that had an impact on your style of cooking and influenced your decisions concerning your career path?

It really does connect back to my childhood and upbringing. I was surrounded by cooking - my mom and my aunt had a big impact on my passion for it, as well as the style of cooking I came to develop. I also think being athletic as a kid (I played soccer and basketball) made me want to choose a career where I could be on my feet. I love the rigorous pace of a kitchen. I could never sit at a desk! 

What would you say is specific or unique to your restaurant?

ALDEA is a very free-spirited restaurant. I like to think of what we do as a big tree: Portuguese cuisine is the trunk, the base of ALDEA's cuisine, and the branches are the various elements we incorporate into the menu; everything from our farm-to-table, seasonal perspective to the many different cuisines that inspire us. In the end, ALDEA is all about the food. 

What experience and memory do you hope diners to walk away with after dining at your “Cross-Country Dinner” at the festival?

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That they will have a culturally-inspired experience. This dinner will feature three very different styles of cooking: my Portuguese/Mediterranean approach, Daniel's killer California cooking with an emphasis on foraged ingredients and vegetables, and Sean's Southern-inspired fare. I hope they enjoy it!