Last week, we welcomed another group to Herdade do Esporão and among the guests, all linked to wines and gastronomy, was George Mendes, chef and founder of Aldea and Lupulo, two of New York’s most well-known Portuguese restaurants.
George was born in Connecticut to Portuguese parents and so had contact with Portuguese culture from an early age. Portuguese was the first language he learned to speak, and gastronomy was a way into a country he didn’t actually know but was part of him.
After training, his first steps into the world of cookery were interestingly in Paris, which is why his foundations as a chef are closely tied to French cuisine. He then went to work in Spain, before starting to wonder which direction to take next.
After trying out other cultures and distancing himself from his background, he returned to the place where he always knew he would be – Portuguese gastronomy. His roots were there, there was no escaping it, and in 2009 he opened his first restaurant, Aldea, in New York.
“I was hoping to understand whether people would get the concept. It was a way of introducing Portuguese gastronomy to Americans, many of whom had never tried it. At the time, I was still in the phase of working out what I really wanted to do and how I felt. I think working as a cook also mirrors what we’re feeling, how we are, how we react. When cooking very emotional recipes, which stirred up memories, it was important to feel good myself to pass this on to others”.
“I started something which would later help me to open my second restaurant in 2015. After introducing Portuguese gastronomy to New York, I felt comfortable to aim higher, and at Lupulo I started to prepare dishes like bacalhau à gomes de sá (salt cod with potatoes, eggs and onions), kale soup and butterflied barbeque chicken, all authentic and fearless dishes.”
Each time he visits Portugal, he returns to the United States more sure of what he’s doing.
“The first time I had contact with Esporão was through Aldea. Pedro Lopes Vieira and my sommelier at the time met up and were wine tasting. I fell in love with the wines very quickly and we started stocking them in the restaurant. When I was writing my first book, My Portugal: Recipes and Stories, five years ago, I came here for the first time. When you visit the places where things are actually made, back to the source, seeing the vineyards and soils, it’s incredible. It really made an impression on me”.
In five years, a lot has changed here. Amidst olive oil and wine tastings, walking through the estate, visiting the cellars and winery, and lunch in the Esporão restaurant, George couldn’t be happier with his return.
“The day was very relaxing. Of all the travelling I’ve done, this is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The Alentejo region offers this tranquillity and beauty, the aromas… and the land itself, it all leaves a very powerful impression. This is only my second trip here, and it’s been even more impressive than my first. Lunch and the wines were fantastic. We tried the Esporão Reserva 2011 which I loved. I think this place will always be very special for me”.
And for us it’s great to hear these words, as it shows the importance of proximity.
Until next time.