Interviews

Nuno Mendes

Nuno Mendes photographed by Jamie Orlando Smith

The renowned Portuguese chef loves a late-night taco with a cold beer, but he can’t stand bananas

Describe a moment that changed your life
The day before starting at the California Culinary Academy, I went to pick up my knives, uniform and books. That night, I couldn’t sleep. I had butterflies in my stomach and kept thinking, “Am I doing the right thing?”. I was 23 years old, and there was so much at stake. By the end of the first day at the Academy, I knew I had found my path and that the passion would just grow and grow. Which it did.

Which childhood meal do you still crave?
When I wasn’t feeling well, my paternal grandmother used to cook a whole chicken with its innards, rice and a little ginger, to make a rice soup. The smell of it coming from the kitchen and then the actual eating of it would warm me up inside and make me feel so good. I was cured! My father was also incredibly passionate about food. When I was young, he would take me travelling and to restaurants – and he taught me about ingredients.

What do you listen to when cooking at home?
I like background music that is instrumental rather than music with vocals; it gives me space. I like a Japanese noise band called Mono, but also Max Richter, Explosions in the Sky and This Will Destroy You.

Where do you like to eat out?
East London has become extremely interesting and diverse in culinary terms. My favourite places include Lyle’s, The Laughing Heart, The Marksman, Rawduck and Pidgin.

Favourite junk food?
I love tacos. I’ve lived in New Mexico, San Francisco and New York and, late at night, there is nothing better than spicy tacos and cold beer. 

What was it like to open your first restaurant?
There was a lot of emotion in that period of my life. The restaurant got off to a flying start and three months later my daughter was born, bringing the exhilaration of becoming a father. And then, three months after that, my father died. He was the man who first stirred my curiosity about food. 

Share a cooking tip
I don’t like throwing food in the bin, so I look at an ingredient to see how it can be used in its entirety. Vegetable trimmings can be pickled or fermented, or used for stocks. Meat and fish can be cured to give them a longer life. Soft herbs can be used in oils. It’s all about being resourceful. 

Any foods you don’t like?
I hate bananas; I can’t stand their flavour and texture. I also struggle with sweet yogurt because I was force-fed it by my mum as a child. 

What bothers you about restaurants?
I hate front-of-house cockiness. I’ve seen arrogant service so many times all over the world and, as the guest, you’re made to feel like you’re being schooled. It’s so important to make your guests feel happy. 

Describe your perfect meal
That’s easy. A Goan feast with lots of friends. What a special experience! The food would be fragrant, with a strong connection to Portugal, and we would have at least a dozen dishes, including prawn xek xek, balchao, which is a sour seafood preserve, and a fiery vindaloo.

All about Nuno

• Born in Lisbon in 1973, Nuno Mendes left Portugal at the age of 19 and went to the United States to study marine biology. After two years, he quit the course and eventually became a student starting at the California Culinary Academy.

• He worked in kitchens in America, Japan and Spain (mentors included Wolfgang Puck and Ferran Adrià) before taking a job at Bacchus in Hoxton, east London, in 2006.

• His Loft Project pioneered the supper-club movement: chefs from around the world came to showcase their food. He opened Viajante in London’s Bethnal Green in 2010 to great critical acclaim.

• In 2014, Nuno became executive chef of Chiltern Firehouse, the celebrity hangout in Marylebone. In 2015, he launched Taberna do Mercado (in Spitalfields), a relaxed restaurant serving Portuguese dishes.

• Nuno lives in Haggerston, east London, and is the father of three children: Orla, six, and four-year-old twins Noah and Finn.

Interview by James Steen, originally published in Waitrose Food, October 2017