We have been a fan of Chefs Club NY since 2017 when we did our interview with Chef Chris Szyjka who had a residency there and was also participating in Cochon555's NY leg then. It was in this interview that we found out Chefs Club was founded in 2012 by Stephane De Baets. This restaurant group features some of the world's top chefs in iconic locations including: NYC, Chefs Club Counter, Aspen and Taipei. Chefs enjoy being featured in these locations as well as being able to have takeovers in their space and menus.
In addition to their fine dining component of Chefs Club, in 2017 Chefs Club Counter, a fast casual brand opened as means to focus on this sector of the market. It was at a recent Michelin 4x4 dinner held at Chefs Club that we found out more about Chefs Club Counter and the current residency of Chef George Mendes with his concept restaurant AMAR! Our menswear cover rocks easy looks that Chef would wear in the restaurant as well as planning a number of tasks involving this restaurant as well as his Michelin starred Aldea in Union Square including summer's accessory - sunglasses. We talk with him about his Iberian/Portuguese cuisine, his culinary journey and how he maintains inspiration when it comes to making fantastic dishes. Whether you enjoy his offerings at Aldea or you enjoy enjoy his fast casual fare at AMAR, he's always bringing the love of Portugal in every bite.
ATHLEISURE MAG: When was the moment that you realized that you loved food and wanted to be a chef?
CHEF GEORGE MENDES: I think it – it really came in stages to be honest with you. I grew up in a Portuguese household where there was always fresh food on the table and a patch of garden even if it was in the backyard or on the driveway. My mother would always cook for my dad, my sister and I. We would always have home cooked meals 5 or 6 days out of the week. When I graduated from high school, I wasn’t pushed to go into the direction of going to college or to university. My mom and dad said that I should find something that I loved and work to make money in something that I wanted to be a part of. I took a field trip one day to the Culinary Institute of America with my marketing class and I spent the day up there and fell in love with it.
I think that I truly believed that I already had a seed planted in me from growing up around good food from my mother cooking at home, but also the holiday feasts always made a big impact. I can still smell the Portuguese table of the bounty of salt cod, rice dishes, suckling pig and filet mignon. It was kind of a mingling of Americana and Portuguese foods. So, there was filet mignon and surf and turf with lobster tails. There was this chicken rice and rabbit. I was just was planted at a very early age growing up that the the life and culture of living in a Portuguese community always had – food.
AM: Nice – it’s always food!
CHEF GM: Food there was always food. There would be Saints Day celebrations at a local Portuguese Community Club and there would be sardines on a charcoal grill, there was chicken grilling with pitti pitti sauce which has inspired recipes in my career today whether it’s a sandwich or half of a chicken grilled with the same sauce that I grew up with. It’s funny because I have come full circle now in a way!
AM: Can you tell us about your culinary experience from where you trained through restaurants that you worked with prior to Aldea?
CHEF GM: It all started with the Culinary Institute of America in the early 90’s. From there, I spent another year in a classical French restaurant at The Stonehenge Inn - classical French cook ing. Then I came to New York for the first time and took a cooking class with Chef David Bouley and then I asked him for a job on the spot because I was mesmerized by the kitchen itself and the brigade and how it reminded me of school a little bit. But the food had a big impact on me and I wanted to learn a different style of cooking.
I stayed with him for over 3.5 years and in between, there were stints in Paris at Arpège, a 3-star Michelin restaurant. I was able to do that for awhile in the late 90’s and then I came back to New York again and helped a fellow Bouley cook/chef open up his restaurant called Wallsé which was Austrian and went through the experience of what it was like to open up a business from scratch and to learn all the parts. From there, I took a job as a chef at the age of 24 at a little bistro called Le Zoo. I was very young and I was doing the kinds of things that I learned at Bouley. But I had the desire to still travel abroad and to learn from French Masters. So I moved to Washington DC which was a link to get me back to France again so I did that. I went to the South of France to work and came back to the US again and took a job working as a chef at a restaurant in Times Square with a very very heavy pre-theater business – insane!
AM: How did that feel?
CHEF GM: It was insane! It wasn’t quite scoop and serve style of cooking, but it was high volume and every thing had to be ready and get it done fast! I missed the finesse and I missed the tinkering. You know, tweezers weren’t around yet so we weren’t doing all of that yet – but 5-8 years later, I hit a point where there was a lot of noise coming out of Spain with this avant garde movement that was happening in terms of a culinary revolution. I thought, “wait a minute, Spain is a neighbor of Portugal," and I started seeing the relationship of this familiarity happening between the two countries especially with the flavors of the olive oils, garlic and the tomato. I worked with Martin Berasategui and that was a big lightbulb moment for me and that’s when I knew I wanted to create my own style and my own identity. I felt that I had trained for many years at that point and now was the time to create my own voice. He opened up my eyes to the cooking that I grew up with again. He said, “revisit those flavors that wholesomeness, rusticity the memories, those aromas and try to interpret them and put it all together. Put them all in a stock pot, mix it up and see what comes out.”
At that time, I took the Chef de Cuisine position at Tocqueville which was a French American restaurant with the agreement with the owners that I was given the opportunity to create specials and contribute to the menu and that was my first foray or first road to take the discovery of what I wanted to be as a chef and that’s what also led me to creating the style of Aldea. That’s when I realized that that was what I wanted to do and started calling it “refined rusticity.” It’s a term that I coined and we talk about it in the book a little bit as a means to really capture the rustic nature of Portuguese cooking and to finesse it all the way.
AM: How was it creating your book and how much time did it take you?
CHEF GM: Two years. Books are a fun project. They’re a lot of work, a lot of soul searching, a lot of hours, a lot of talking and writing – a lot of recipe development. Because a lot of the things that we do in the kitchen are not measured precisely unless you’re going into pastry. When we were doing the book, my author Genevieve would measure the cups and table spoons of this. It wasn’t just a drop of olive oil or a dash or a smidgen - those words didn't exist anymore. It was a fun project.
AM: Do you think you would do another cookbook?
CHEF GM: Yeah.
AM: Are you currently working on a cookbook?
CHEF GM: I’m not currently working on a cookbook as I have a number of restaurant ideas and concepts on my mind to focus on right now. But, books are a great way to put a lot of ideas together to help with your name and to expose it to the public more. It allows you to tell you story more and people can hold it in their hands and say, “I want to eat in this restaurant and I want to know more about this particular cuisine.” I really like that part of it.
AM: Tell us about Aldea and what one can expect when they are coming in to dine?
CHEF GM: They should expect what I like to say, “a roller coaster ride” in a way that they are able to eat in an open kitchen area with a chefs counter or chefs table or to eat in a romantic/intimate booth to the side or to go upstairs and to be able to eat in the Mezzanine or private dining where it can be more quiet. So, they’re given a lot of different dining environments. As far as the menu goes, that mark of classic Portuguese flavor but what I also like to call a free spirit that Martine and I believe in – we cook with the seasons, we cook with the farmer’s market – we cook with what’s inspiring us. There is a lot of inspiration from Japan and other former Portuguese colonies like Goa, India and Brazil and Macao, China. So there’s a lot of adventurous flavors going on there. You know I really want people to come to Aldea with an open mind. At the same time, I don’t want to over complicate it. They are coming to enjoy an anniversary or a birthday, but they are also coming in to be fed and nourished. So that's our number one responsibility.
We want to offer something that is creative and sometimes entertaining, but also making sure that you leave content, happy and satiated!
AM: You have received a number of accolades for Aldea including a Michelin star. Can you tell us what it means to receive that?
CHEF GM: You know, receiving a Michelin star is a great stamp being that I trained in Michelin star restaurants. Having a star of our own means a lot as it’s great recognition but it pushes us harder to maintain it or sometimes you get another one. It’s nice to be recognized being that the Michelin guide is French history and now that they are globalized, it’s great to have Portugal on the map. There's two Michelin star restaurants in Portugal in Lisbon and in Rocali and there’s a little Portuguese inspired restaurant here in NYC – Aldea. It means a lot to be in that book and it’s really satisfying, inspiring and it motivates us.
AM: Some people don’t know how you get one and what that process is.
CHEF GM: Yes the Michelin Guide historically and notoriously works anonymously with inspectors that come to your restaurant unannounced. They could be dining by themselves, a party of 2, 4, 6 or 8. We never know.
AM: So you have to be on your game all the day.
CHEF GM: Yeah – being on your game all of the time. It is like that!
AM: You have a pop up this summer going on with Chefs Club Counter called AMAR. Can you tell us how this came about to as well as the collaboration with international model, Sanne Vloet?
CHEF GM: You know, with Chefs Club, I have always had a relationship over the years with Stefane the founder and he has always given me opportunities to contribute to Chefs Club the brand and I have always enjoyed those opportunities. I have always had this concept of trying out or feeding a mass market with the lunch rush for what people want for lunch while also providing them something healthy and quick but also with the same stamp of flavors that we do at Aldea and in my DNA with my Portuguese focus. Stefan and I spoke for awhile and it grew into something small next door to an opportunity of the whole corner of Chefs Club Counter and here we are 2 weeks in and it’s going great. It’s great to have that opportunity in a place like Soho with foot traffic and lunch rush which is a whole different ball game for me and to feed people in an hour and a half which serves 150-200 people which is a total different direction from what we are used to doing over at Aldea. It’s taken some time to adjust and to tinker. Like food has to be plate within 10 seconds versus a minute. Things are a lot more immediate and we’re discovering new cooking techniques and combining ingredients that travel well – using online ordering platforms. So it’s been fun and it’s been a learning curve that’s challenging and a lot of work.
AM: How do you juggle running Aldea as well as AMAR – what does a typical day look like between these two restaurants?
CHEF GM: Well I’m lucky that Aldea doesn’t do lunch. So I’m lucky that I can do lunch at AMAR at Chefs Club Counter and be able to dinner at Aldea although AMAR does stay open a little later. But I am trying to split my time between the two. The month of June has been heavy focusing on AMAR right now, but it’s been going really well and Aldea is only open 5 days a week Tues – Sat and AMAR is lunch everyday haha.
I like to push myself and I like challenges and problems. Things that give me opportunities to grow because it’s very easy to become stagnant and to regress and rest on our laurels. You end up not moving so opening AMAR at Chefs Counter Club during the summer as a pop up has given me a new challenge that that’s what I really love.
AM: Why was it important to you to participate in this pop up this summer?
CHEF GM: First and foremost is to test AMAR the concept and to test the environment for fast casual and to see what that’s like. A lot of chefs these days that have fine dining restaurants want to dabble in fast casual with a quick serve environment. I was given this opportunity to do this for 3 months as a pop up so it’s an opportunity for a prototype that can be permanent afterwards. That’s the main focal point here. It’s also to make sure that we have a responsibility that the paying customers have something good to eat and quick. I think I come on board with the same standards and excellence that we have at Aldea and the reputation of Chefs Club. We’re doing a lot with Michelin and the 4x4 dinners as you know and representing that brand of Chefs Club and Chefs Club Counter in quick service is fun. It’s an interesting time!
AM: How important is it for chefs to utilize opportunities such as going on air, being on social media to showcase your brand and various projects that you are apart of?
CHEF GM: I like the opportunity to feed more people, reach a different audience precisely. Aldea is a fine dining restaurant where we have an average check average that the diner can spend about $110 to $130 per person for a number of courses and beverages. Doing AMAR, we’re now in the bracket of $18 to $20 a person. So, I really enjoy the opportunity to feed more people at a different time of day at the lunch rush for the quick serve environment.
AM: What are 3 signature dishes which can come from either restaurant that people need to try.
CHEF GM: At Aldea, it’s been 10 years but the Arroz de Pata (duck rice) has still been a signature dish that I have always enjoyed and the Hokkaido Sea Urchin toast at Aldea which I would say is a tie. Ah the Shrimp Alhinho Xerem - ah that’s good too.
AM: It’s hard to just choose a few!
CHEF GM: And then at AMAR, I’m having fun with these salads. It’s been about 2 weeks in and building a salad that is going to quench your hunger or satisfy you for running out of work for an hour etc and giving you a protein, veggies and greens to hit every food group and dancing with all of the people’s dietary restrictions – vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free and nut allergies! It’s been challenging but I welcome it because this is the age we live in and there are a lot of demands and people are very food savvy and watching what they eat and that’s what AMAR is. AMAR means “to love” in Portuguese and there is this care that is involved and a care for what you are putting into your body and high quality ingredients and care into the preparation and serving it. It’s a delicate dance between producing a lot of food in a short period of time and presenting it in a beautiful way. So there is a lot to put this into the mix.
AM: What are 3 ingredients that you usually have in your kitchen that you enjoy cooking with?
CHEF GM: Really good Portuguese extra virgin olive oil, fleur de sel which is flower of salt and I think the last one has to be fresh parsley, fresh cilantro and lemon thyme. I think that those three herbs are the anchor of my cuisine and what we really do to balance the power of protein and meats and vegetables. I love citrus as well so I cook with a lot of zest of lemon and lime and like the brightness and acidity that it gives.
AM: Iberian and Portuguese cuisine are a part of your culinary style. You are participating in a culinary tour this fall in Portugal and you are also a part of TAP Air Portugal’s Taste the Stars Programs, can you tell us about this and why these are areas that are also great to include in your chef’s portfolio?
CHEF GM: I think that it’s important to bring awareness to Portuguese gastronomy and I think that we are still under the radar. I think that we’re of the level of Italy or France or even Spain our neighbors. I try to build awareness with my colleagues in Portugal as well and bringing a group of people through an itinerary all over the wine country in Portugal and to dine at restaurants and cooking and demonstrations – talking about the culture of Portugal gastronomy is just another push into calling for exposure and attention. To say that you’re this little country and you’re trying to do something well. A lot of talented chefs are there. We have beautiful landscapes, beautiful architecture and beautiful ingredients. I think that we have some of the best seafood in the world. Having the opportunity to show people there that are going on this trip as well as doing what I do here in New York and with what we’re doing on TAP Air Portugal with the airlines – in Business Classes, we’re presenting people with Portuguese flavors with an Aldea DNA. Again, along that same goal of showing travelers and people flying to Lisbon and Portugal for the first time what Portuguese cuisine is for the first time. I think that airplane food gets a bad rap. I think that initiatives like these really help.
AM: It’s great that people have that culinary opportunity by being on that flight. Clearly, you travel quite a bit, what are 3 things that you have always have in your carry on when you’re heading to the next destination?
CHEF GM: Um wipes – cucumber wipes to keep fresh. I mean, I just love the air on airplanes it’s so stale and dry. Waking up from a nap on an airplane – I like to rest and I’m not a great flier because I hate turbulence. So I always take something to calm me – a lot of homeopath herbs right now that I enjoy. I like a good pair of noise cancelling headphones, an eye pillow, an eye mask and then a good snack. I try to board with a good yogurt or a Kind Bar. Those are my top things. If it’s a really long trip, I make sure that I have good music downloaded as well as a movie or two.
AM: Who are you listening to right now?
CHEF GM: Ah Tame Impala it’s an indie band led by Kevin Parker, they’re Australian and are amazing. I’ve seen them live and I’m going to see them live again in August at Madison Square Garden. I have to be honest with you, I think I love all genres of music. I could be into hip hop one day and be into classic rock the next. Then I’m into jazz. At AMAR, our playlist is very heavy into Brazilian and Samba jazz and I think that music is very powerful. It really resonates with me and sets the mood. It makes me happy and when I’m upset, I just listen to music and it just turns me around. It takes a really happy moment and makes it even happier. So I will talk to people who will say, “music does nothing for me,” and I’m like, “oh God – how can you say that?”
AM: Everyone needs a soundtrack! What do you do to stay in shape?
CHEF GM: I run. I’m a runner. I do a lot of half marathons and marathons. Right now, I’m a little injured but I love to run and I love the exertion of it and the mental strength that it takes to do the distance running whether it takes 13 miles or 26.2 to run a marathon. I love the runner’s high and what I feel after running a 30 minute easy pace run. It builds a lot of clarity, strength and I can spend some time in my own head. It’s been a good thing for me. Then I’m on my back. I like cycling. My girlfriend, Suzanne and I, tend to find ourselves on our days off as she has an intense job as well. We use Sunday afternoons to go for nice bike rides.
AM: What keeps you inspired to continue cooking? Is it going to travel destinations, goals etc?
CHEF GM: I’m inspired by traveling and I’m inspired by visiting new restaurants and catching up with my friends to see what they are doing. I think that Lisbon with the new 2 Michelin star restaurant it has and the 1 stars with these young chefs that are coming into their own and finding their own voice. I love to go to these places in Mexico like Tulum and eating in these restaurants that have these great Yucatan recipes and ingredients and salsas. Cooking outside and open wood fire grill – these things are very inspiring. But what keeps me really motivated is just being in the kitchen and looking at fresh ingredients. Cutting them open and paying attention to the color and texture and what they taste like. What new combinations I can come up with and what wacky interpretations I can do – why not grill a cucumber as opposed to just using it raw. I like tinkering around and being in the kitchen. I can let the team take care of regular customers and I can have the opportunity to just cook what I am feeling at the moment with no menu, no guidelines, no rules. To express what I am feeling at the moment!
AM: Are there culinary areas that you have yet to go to that are on your bucketlist?
CHEF GM: I want to go to South America – Brazil, Chile, Peru, Argentina. Chile - has hundreds of varieties of potatoes for example and I want to go and experience that!
Reserve your seat for Chefs Club Presents: Côté Médi by Chef Terrance Brennan which runs from July 10th - September 28th.
Groomer, Bamike Ogunrinu prepared the skin and styled the hair for this shoot.
MAKEUP PREPARATION PRODUCT LIST
PREP | BIODERMA Micellar Water | REBELS AND OUTLAWS Love Potion | DRUNKEN ELEPHANT B-Hydra Intensive Hydrating Serum | TWINMEDIX Pro: Refine Eye Corrector + Moisturizer | EMBRYOLISSE Protective Repair Stick Moisturizing Lip Balm |
HAIR | LAYRITE Superhold Pomade |
Kimmie Smith created luxury easy casual menswear looks for this cover shoot.
LOOK 3 PG 28 - 35 + BACK COVER | LOOK 2 + PARAJUMPERS Zipped Fleece | TED BAKER Sunglasses |
Paul Farkas shot this editorial using Canon Mark IV; and selected Canon lenses: EF 50/1.2 L, EF 24-70 f/2.8 L II, and EF 70-200 f/2.8 L II.
You can hear Chef George Mendes' interview this month on our show, ATHLEISURE KITCHEN which is a part of Athleisure Studio, our multi-media podcast network! Make sure to subscribe to find out when the episode drops. You can hear it on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and wherever you enjoy listening to your favorite podcast.