Menu
Search

Nuno Mendes: My Career in Five Dishes

Ahead of the much-anticipated opening of new restaurant Lisboeta this March, Nuno Mendes discusses the dishes that have punctuated a unique career spanning iconic eras in London dining

Nuno Mendes Five Dishes

It’s fair to say Nuno Mendes is a chef with an international outlook. Born in Lisbon, he spent time on both coasts of the USA as a young chef working in some of the country’s best restaurants before word of East London’s up-and-coming food scene reached him. “I always tried to live in cool neighbourhoods,” he says. “I lived in Miami Beach, and the Lower East Side, the East Village and Brooklyn in New York, the Mission District in San Francisco. I really liked that sort of counterculture, and the creative hubs of the cities.

“I came to East London in 2003 to spend like two weeks with one of my best friends, and I was like ‘Shit, man, this energy reminds me of all these places.’” Mendes would move here permanently not long after, and in an unlikely turn of events for the then-nomadic Portuguese chef, he ended up setting roots here. Bacchus was his first solo restaurant, which by his recollection emblematised both the chaos and the creativity of the East London scene at the time, with techniques learned from Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Ferran Adrià melding in the raucous energy of a former gangster pub in Hoxton, and Mendes creating a new, less stuffy and edgier form of fine dining in real time.

After that and the experimental, collaborative Loft Project, came the acclaimed Viajante in Bethnal Green, where Mendes refined his craft and brought in more personal influences, including that of his native Portugal. And when Viajante – which held a Michelin star for three years – closed in 2014, Mendes took on a sure thing: the iconic Chiltern Firehouse, where a more easygoing style of cooking helped it become one of the truly ‘it’ restaurants of the 2010s.

New opening Lisboeta will see Mendes showcase the classic food and wine of Lisbon and the surrounding regions

The latter half of Mendes’s career in London, though, is an altogether more thoughtful one. Starting a family was to come, alongside a slow but steady gravitation towards authentic Portuguese food and ingredients, something he put into practice at Taberna do Mercado and in overseeing food at the Bairro Alto Hotel in Lisbon. And he’ll take it to new heights at Lisboeta, a gleaming new Charlotte Street restaurant opening this March that will see Mendes showcase the classic food and wine of Lisbon and the surrounding regions.

The opening is one that’s inevitably captured Londoners’ attention, even as he continues the transition from tasting menus to sharing plates. “The emotional gratification that I get from showcasing Portuguese food is greater in some ways,” he says, “because I feel like I’m doing it because I’m passionate about it, and I feel like I’m doing something positive.

“I can see a chain reaction: I’m making it possible for people to stay in business in Portugal, for people to be travelling to Lisbon and to other cities, and for people to get to know some of those people that I work with, to give them a spotlight.” His five dishes trace a unique career and a singular mindset, and a journey that reflects both his birth city, and his adopted one, too.

Oysters and onions, old and new

Bacchus

Nuno Mendes Bacchus

“Bacchus was a crazy ride, but I honestly think it was probably the most exciting restaurant I’ve ever had. It was crazy. It was completely ahead of its time. Hoxton Street was a tough part of the city to break into, we had people coming in with some of the craziest stories – getting robbed on the street, people setting my bins on fire, bicycles getting nicked, people walking into the restaurant and stealing people’s watches and phones, and people saying ‘What the fuck are you guys doing here? I just want to have a fucking pint of Guinness.’ I think it captured that energy. It was chaotic, but it was so much fun, the cooking was very free, we had an open kitchen, we did tasting menus, but we looked at people like, ‘What do you want to eat today?’ This dish was a classic combination. I was still quite raw, having been at El Bulli before, and some things I was doing at Bacchus were still kind of from those days. But this dish was very expressive and I felt like, while I didn’t come up with spherification this dish was really mine. I think at one point, I started looking around and seeing what other people were doing, and sometimes it influences you and it changes your path. But I think back then, I just did it. I was mixing things, and my food wasn’t Portuguese at the time. I always wanted to introduce Portuguese flavours, but I struggled at the time because there was none. It was very hard, and the supply chain wasn’t there, then little by little with Viajante we started getting a little more of that. Bacchus was definitely not a commercial project, but it was very exciting.”

Crab doughnut

Chiltern Firehouse

Crab doughnut at Chiltern Firehouse, London

“Opening the Firehouse, man, it was hectic. The party was happening, it’s just that I was not the one in the party. I told them ‘Look, I’m not going to be the guy to say “Here’s the plate,” – that’s not my thing. I like to be involved.’ André Balazs gave me space to do that, and it was fun. The crab doughnut became a signature dish. I could talk about a lot more interesting dishes from there, but I feel like that’s the crowd-pleaser, and I put it on the menu precisely because of that. But it was at Viajante that we actually came up with it, and also it’s rooted in the Portuguese bolas de Berlim, which are the custard doughnuts that you find in Lisbon, so it played on the idea of getting one and actually stuffing it with seafood rather than a sweet filling, but then having a sweet doughnut in the back. I’m no longer associated with the Firehouse, but I was there for a long time and I feel like I gave a lot of myself to it.”

Rissóis de camarão

Taberna do Mercado

Nuno Mendes Rissois de camarao

“This is really the dish that took me on a journey to exploring and showcasing Portuguese food. My partner is South African-Portuguese, years ago we had some friends coming over, and she was like ‘Shall we make some prawn rissois? I have a recipe.’ We were cooking and making all the layers, and I remember seeing my grandmother making this when I was four or five. I tasted them and closed my eyes and had that goosebumps moment, like ‘Fuck, these are incredible.’ You almost forget these things, but I couldn’t stop thinking about them. And I said ‘This is so special. This is something so unique. I want to make these.’ I was thinking of doing a food stall and make rissois and custard tarts, but I want to serve them warm and make the rissois to order. I never did the stall, but the idea turned into Taberna. I started looking deeply into it and thinking ‘There’s so much stuff that we have, the diversity and mercantile history that adds so many layers to our cuisine, that’s so interesting to showcase.’ At the time, people thought of Portuguese food as like Spanish food. So with Taberna, I wanted to say ‘This is Portuguese.’ I wanted to separate it from Spanish food. That’s basically the journey we went on. But it then explored some of the mercantile influences – the Japanese influences, some of the African influences, the Macanese and Chinese – there were dishes we were serving that were 100% Portuguese, but could be from somewhere like the backroads of mainland China. So I wanted to showcase that, and I wanted the food to have a real story behind it. It forced me to start investigating, and working with people who were also passionate about it and to explore more.”

Grilled giant squid with turnip tops and runner beans

Bairro Alto Hotel Restaurante (Lisbon)

Food at Bairro Alto Hotel Restaurante Nuno Mendes

“Bruno Rocha is the executive chef at the hotel, and we’ve been on this journey together. I met him and we really bonded, and he understood where I wanted to go. At the time, even in Lisbon, no one was really celebrating Portuguese ingredients or Portuguese food, and I felt like I really wanted to go that way. And I felt like the luxury of being in Portugal, in Lisbon especially, is to be able to do that. We have a terrace on the fifth floor of the hotel that overlooks the river, and one of my luxuries is to be able to speak to our guests there when they’re having a dish and say ‘This comes from there, this comes from there.’ So I wanted to celebrate that. This became one of the signature dishes for that project, and it was a personal journey. Just down the street from the restaurant there’s a small tasca, a family-owned restaurant – the mum cooks, the daughter’s on the front-of-house and the father’s behind the counter taking bills and preparing desserts – and the food is really amazing. The menu changes on a regular basis, but they always have cuttlefish, and Bruno and I used to go there every time I’d come to Lisbon before the restaurant opened, and ask for grilled cuttlefish, runner beans, with turnip tops. We’d say ‘Bring us some extra-virgin olive oil and some Maldon salt,’ and we made our own thing. And it was so good. So we said ‘We’ve got to do this dish as a tribute to the tasca.’ It was a dish that came out of a tasca, it came out of Bruno and me, our friendship and our time together. It’s a slightly more elevated version of the food you eat in Lisbon every day.”

‘Milk’

Viajante

Nuno Mendes Viajante

“I grew up going to my family’s dairy farm. I’d spend my weekends and summers there sometimes, but between Miami Beach and San Francisco, I had a detour in the Alentejo. At 22, that’s not where you want to be, but that experience was invaluable – it really connected me so strongly to the Alentejo, the food, the space, to my family history, the product, and the cycles of working on a self-sustainable farm where everything was being produced and consumed. It was really quite amazing. At the farm, the milk was filtered and then held in a vat at four or five degrees for two hours. You’d come in in the morning and take a big scoop of raw milk from a cork vessel, and it’s incredible. It’s the flavour, but the connection to the land, too – they were happy cows, they went to pasture every day, and the milk changed over the seasons based on what they were eating. And I wanted to do a dish that was inspired by that. It was just raw milk, milk ice cream, milk meringues, a milk purée, milk skin and then just a little bit of xylitol, which makes it really fresh. There’s just a little sweetness – it’s like when you drink milk, and we tried to keep it as close as possible to that, and make it with good-quality raw milk to get close to that memory. But the dish is taking it further – expressing that, but in a different medium. And it also symbolises what Viajante was – it was experimental, but it was also very personal.”

Loading