My Portugal Series - George Mendes

We're back with our August installment of My Portugal, a monthly series where we dive deep into Portuguese culture with some of our lifelong friends here at Portugalia Marketplace. Let's give a great big welcome to our next guest:
A first-gen American born to Portuguese immigrants, Chef George Mendes found his love of food at an early age. Throughout his career, Mendes trained at prestigious establishments including Bouley in Tribeca and Arpege in Paris, later forging his own path with Aldea, a Michelin-starred gem that first introduced New York City to elevated Portuguese cuisine in 2009. Mendes now helms the culinary program at Raffles Boston, launching the property’s signature restaurant Amar, the brand’s famed Long Bar & Terrace, streetside patisserie Cafe Pastel, and the speakeasy, Blind Duck.
Portugalia Marketplace: George, can you tell us a little about your background and what inspired your passion for cooking?
George Mendes: My curiosity was sparked at a very young age from my mother and aunts. Our holiday gatherings were a big feast with big buffet tables, and I always had a knack for what was going on in the kitchen – a curiosity. My mother and my aunts would all be huddled around the stove, chopping, prepping and cooking things, and I think there was a natural attraction at that point.
PM: What inspired you to turn your focus towards Portuguese cuisine?
GM: When I worked in Spain under Chef Martin Berasategui, I was really inspired by him and how he was translating rustic dishes that were prepared for him by his grandmother into modern offerings. And then in Paris, same thing with Alain Passard – he too was taking traditional recipes from his grandmother and modernizing them, in addition to creating his own style. When I witnessed that, I began to reflect on my own childhood and my mother and father and all those gatherings and I was like, okay, well, its Portuguese traditional cooking, and that’s when I decided to apply it. 
PM: Congratulations on the upcoming opening of Amar, your new restaurant in partnership with Raffles Boston! Can you tell us a little about what inspired this new venture, and what guests can expect when visiting for the first time?
GM: I mean it’s pretty simple. What inspired me was the bounty of seafood and quality of ingredients in the Boston area, the surrounding waters of Maine, and the entire East Coast. The quality is impeccable. Being a part of the Raffles team and opening this modern Portuguese restaurant within the Raffles property inspired, motivated, and excited me. Guests can expect abundance of shellfish like clams, shrimp and mussels. The more robust dishes — rice dishes and a lot of seafood — will come off our wood burning grill. 
PM: We’re huge fans of your cookbook, “My Portugal: Recipes and Stories”, and it’s been a customer favorite here at Portugalia Marketplace. Do you have a favorite dish from the book that you find yourself returning to?
GM: The duck rice, which became a signature dish of mine. I can’t say or guarantee that will be on a menu at Amar, but aspects of it or different rice dishes will definitely feature duck on the menu. It’s yet to be seen. When I flip through the pages of the book and come across it, I am still very inspired because of the complexity and the different cooking techniques and precision that it requires.
PM: Are there any Portuguese dishes or products that you feel should be more commonplace here in the United States?
GM: Traditional Portuguese dishes are very simple. They are very rustic; a lot of them consist of no more than five or six ingredients. There’s a lot of rustic dishes up in the northern small villages and cities of Portugal that use a lot of fresh animal blood, for example, but I think that is a very touchy and sensitive subject, and it’s very hard to capture those kinds of dishes or even execute them here. But for the most part, many of the recipes and ingredients are attainable, and therefore as we open the restaurant and proceed with the changing of seasons, the dishes will change as well.
PM: What would you say are your must-see stops and destinations when traveling through Portugal? Do you have a favorite city? Restaurant? Bit of culture?
GM: I’m absolutely in love with the South and the Algarve region of Southern Portugal. It’s especially relaxing in the summertime on the beaches of southern Portugal. Travel north to the Douro Valley wine region and spend time in Porto. Porto has really evolved into a modern city that offers an amazing level of gastronomic experiences, nightlife and architecture. It’s a very vibrant city to visit. It’s hard to pick one favorite; I could literally spend a week in Lisbon, but I enjoy flying there and then visiting other parts.


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