George Mendes is chef of the New York restaurant Aldea, where he serves an Iberia-inspired menu inflected with what he calls a “global palate.” After gigs at Wallsé and Bouley, and apprenticing at Martin Berasategui , he tried to do a full stage at elBulli, but wasn’t accepted at the time. Three years later, though, when he was between jobs (he had just left his position as chef de cuisine at Toqueville) he managed to convince chef de cuisine Albert Raurich to take him on for a few weeks before he went back to New York and opened Aldea.
How did you feel when you finally made it to elBulli?
The air there was so thick with intensity and creativity. And it was really hectic the first couple of times during service—everyone was so energetic and hungry, in the athletic sense. I thought, “Holy shit. I can’t believe I’m really here.”
What did you find most striking or surprising about the kitchen there?
The organization of it all. Considering how long that tasting menu is, the amount of chaos it could generate is astonishing. All the clients come in at more or less the same time. There’s food coming out of three or four places at a time. But it’s all so organized.Did you work in one station or move around?
I got to move through three stations in the main kitchen, plus cold station and pastry. And I was in small kitchen [where family meal is prepared] for one day. I thought it was really cool that that was the original elBulli kitchen. Ferran made a point of telling me that.
What was your impression of Ferran at the time?
He was very pensive, very observant. Sometimes he would just pick something up and stand there, looking at it. He had the concentration of a surgeon.
And of the other chefs?
Albert Adrià never gets enough credit for being a big creative force on the savory side as well as the sweet. He walked over one day during mise when we were all—there were about 20 of us– picking the pinenuts from pine cones. And he said, “Why are we throwing away the cones?” And then he went off and tried to make a sorbet from them.
I ran into him a few years later at Painkiller on the Lower East Side, and he was like, “Tio, que pasa?” I couldn’t believe that here was one the best chefs in the world, sitting in this bar on the Lower East Side, and he remembered me.
Did anything about your time at elBulli disappoint you?
Only that I didn’t get to be one of the two people who came in at 9am to do creativity with Oriol and Ferran. I had to come in at 1pm, with everyone else.
What was your favorite family meal?
Anything with fish—the sardines, the mackerel. It was so fresh.
What would you say was the most important lesson you learned there?
ElBulli taught me to take risks, to walk on thin ice, to break rules. It taught me to ask things like “Who says you have to serve soup first? Why not serve it as the fourth or fifth course?” It gave me a free spirit.