Chef Nuno Mendes grew up working on his family's Portuguese dairy farm. So when I ask him for his earliest food memory, I expect to hear about an ingredient that deeply reflects the Portuguese countrysideor, at the very least, an earthy Portuguese dish like caldo verde, the classic kale-and-sausage stew. Instead, "I'd have to say raw squid," the 36-year-old chef tells me. "There was only one Japanese restaurant in Lisbon at the time, but my dad took me there when I was six. And I just loved the raw squid."
These days, many chefs strive to convey a singular sense of place in their cooking: René Redzepi and his Nordic countries, Daniel Patterson and his northern California. But what happens if you're a chef like Mendes, who doesn't feel like he represents any one place? In that case, you might open a restaurant like Viajante (Portuguese for traveler), his new spot in London's East End. He also created a space called the Loft Project, a kitchen where his peripatetic chef friends can come to cook and experiment.
"I get restless," he admits. "I have trouble staying still." In his twenties, that restlessness led him from Lisbon to a culinary school in California, with later stops working at Jean Georges in New York, Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe and El Bulli in Roses, Spain. In between he ate his way through Japan, Thailand and China.
Now he's arrived in Bethnal Green. Viajante is located in a hip hotel called Town Hall that was once, well, the town hall in this up-and-coming section of London's East End. Historically the gritty counterpart to the East End's fashionable Shoreditch and Hoxton neighborhoods, Bethnal Green's heavily immigrant population has recently seen an influx of artists, chefs, designers and hoteliers. "It feels like New York in the 1990s," Mendes says. "Alive."
Viajante may require him to stay put, but the Loft Project allows him, metaphorically at least, to keep moving. It was inspired in part by the kaiseki meals that Mendes had in Japan. "With kaiseki there is this sense that the diners are guests in the chef's home, and that the chef has free rein to prepare what he wants," he says. Mendes started the Loft Project two years ago as a supper club, bringing a guest chef and 12 customers into his actual home. "When chefs invite other chefs to their restaurant, they say, 'Come to my house.' That's what I wanted."
Mendes defines the Loft Project, which has since moved into a dedicated warehouse space, as a "curated chefs' gallery"a place to showcase emerging talent. Some of the chefs are Londoners who might not yet have their own restaurant. Others are chefs Mendes admires from around the world, like Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur in Menton, France. The Loft Project is a way for him to have his finger on the pulse of what's going on in the larger world, even when he's tied to his own kitchen.
Eating my way through Mendes's menu, I feel like I am following a map of his journey to the East End. At his previous restaurant, Bacchus, Mendes earned a reputation as London's most molecular chef; but his single grilled fava pod, split open to reveal three fat beans mixed with a smear of tangy Azores islands São Jorge cheese, is as great a paean to the well-raised vegetable as anything turned out by California's Chez Panisse, and tastes purely Iberian. Yet the next bite, a spicy chicken-confit sandwich with shatteringly crisp coconut tuile "bread," catapults me to Thailand.
In the braised salmon skin Mendes serves with tofu, eggplant and dashi, I sense Japan. But it turns out part of the inspiration came from Portugal. Says Mendes, "Portuguese chefs often crisp fish skin to use as a garnish. But I like the idea of keeping the skin soft, the way people eat it at home, and turning this part of the fish that is usually discarded in other parts of the world into something succulent." The squid that Mendes remembers from his childhood makes an appearance too. It is still raw, but paired with an icy black-ink granita for a dish that's cold and sweet and briny.
After more than a dozen courses, the only thing I can't find evidence of is his time in Santa Fe. And then the first dessert is served: blueberries, flecked with lemon thyme and shards of something sweet and crunchy. I take a bite. There they are, the flavors of the Southwest. Mendes watches me from his post as I examine the crispy bits of caramelized goat's milk on the fruit. "Yep," he says with a smile. "Cajeta."
Lisa Abend's forthcoming book, The Sorcerer's Apprentices, about the chefs at Spain's El Bulli, will be out in March.
Chef Nuno Mendes' World
Nuno Mendes opened Viajante in a former town hall in the East End, now a hip hotel called Town Hall.
Mendes's braised octopus with potatoes, chorizo and egg was inspired by his time at Spain's El Bulli.
A spicy chicken confit sandwich with a smoky eggplant-and-soy milk parfait is an homage to Thailand.