By Ali Kurshat Altinsoy
Originally from Lisbon, Nuno Mendes worked at Coyote Café in the US before starting his stage at elBulli. After, he traveled extensively through Asia before landing in London, where he went on to become chef at the avant-garde Bacchus, and later founded the Loft Project, a sort of supper club in which up-and-coming chefs from around the world are invited to take up residence and showcase their cooking to a small group of appreciative diners. In April he launched Viajante, which may well be the best restaurant to open in 2010. Here, in a special guest appearance, he is interviewed by the most knowledgeable man in food, Ali Kurshat Altinsoy.
As a stagiaire, what tasks did you like best?
What I liked the most was just to be in kitchen and see how things were done. That and the rabbit brains. I thought they were quite cool.
And the least?
Oysters. Shucking oysters all day. Everybody’s doing oysters all the time. It’s a bit boring.
What were your impressions of Ferran?
I realized that he was really a nice, warm person, despite the distance that was there. I remember him drinking a Heineken one night before service and singing…it was that album that came out at the time, Me Gustas Tú by Manu Chao. It was a Saturday, and I was in Entrantes Frios [Cold Starters], so I was right next to the pass. And he was drinking a little beer and singing Me Gustas Tú. Obviously it wasn’t very loud, but it was like, “What? Is he really singing?” Very cute.
What did you do during your time off?
Hung out with the boys. Wandered the streets of Roses. Roses is a shitty place, sorry. I had the chance to go to Cadaqués, and that was fantastic. It’s where Dali used to live.
Something I would always do, during staff meal, I would try to take five minutes and go and sit on the cliff right by the ocean, and just sit there, and just observe, take in the space and scenery. That was quite special.
What do you remember about the other cooks? Any good stories there?
I think the best story is Mateu–a lot of stagiaires have this story. Driving with Mateu either up to elBulli or back down late at night. Everybody who works there knows that Mateu is a fucking maniac on the road. He fucking pushes the limit, because he’s been working there so many years, he just knows the road, and he drives it as fast as he can. It’s just fucking scary. It feels like you’re in the rally car, and you don’t know if you’re going to make it.
Did your stage change you, professionally or personally?
Yes and no. It was a very introspective moment in my life. I came to elBulli because I always wanted to do my own thing. I think I was trying to learn and analyze myself, to see what kind of person I was. I think elBulli assured me that I could follow my own path. I knew that already, but I think what I went there to see is whether or not you could do your own thing, and try to grow in your own direction.
Is there anything on your menu now at Viajante that owes a direct debt to your time at elBulli?
Yuba—milkskin– is one of my favorite things, and the first place I saw that was at elBulli. Now I have dish with charred leek hearts, leek ash emulsion, hazelnuts, and milkskin. Milkskin: I love it.
I know you haven’t eaten there, but was there a dish on the elBulli menu you especially liked?
It actually sounds kind of disgusting, but there was this piece of pork fat they were serving with soy and mushrooms. That was very nice.
What was your favorite family meal at elBulli?
Fideuà. I remember one night they made one using langoustine heads. It was fucking tasty.
If you had to summarize it, what would you say was the most important thing you learned at elBulli?
As long as you set your mind to do it, and persevere, you can achieve anything.