Sitting in his gym gear sipping chamomile tea outside a north London deli, Nuno Mendes could be any other neighbourhood dad. There are hints that he’s spent the entirety of his adult life working in kitchens – a half-concealed tattoo; the occasional four-letter swearword that slips from the depths of his salt-and-pepper beard – but the garrulous, good-humoured figure waving hello to passing acquaintances is about as far from chef-bro cliché as it’s possible to imagine.
Mendes would be the first to admit it has taken him a while to get to a better-adjusted and ‘more relaxed’ place. His career has taken him around the world – from culinary school in California to a very different sort of education at the legendary ElBulli in Catalonia; from Lisbon to Japan to New York and then, finally, to London in the early 2000s. His earliest venture in the capital was Bacchus in Hoxton, where he knocked out some of the most adventurous food ever to be cooked in a pub kitchen. He then channelled a similarly iconoclastic spirit to elevate the humble supper-club format into what became known as The Loft Project, an influential series of dinners hosted in Mendes’s own home that would showcase such future luminaries as The Clove Club’s Isaac McHale and James Lowe of Lyle’s.
All of this took its toll on a young, ambitious chef. We start by talking about one of his first projects in London, Viajante – a boundary-breaking temple to molecular gastronomy that would hold a Michelin star from 2011 until it closed in 2014. The Mendes of a decade ago was different – living in edgy east London, racked with ‘nervous energy’, ceaselessly pushing himself ‘to get better, better, better’. This meant long hours, with any free time spent taking what he calls ‘pilgrimages’ to other similarly ambitious restaurants – a life ‘solely focused on food’. It was ‘gluttonous, hedonistic’ – and it was also, he now realises, profoundly unhealthy.
Having children changed things (he has three, all under 10) – or forced Mendes to change things for himself. Like some of his peers entering their second or third decade in the industry, he began to think more about the world outside of food, about the importance of finding the passion and motivation that would allow him to get up every morning and go back into work with a spring in his step. Cooking, he realised, should be about pleasure, should be about fun; it should still be possible to deliver exceptional food without infecting an entire kitchen with stress or anxiety or unhappiness. It was, in fact, a chef’s duty to defuse stress as much as possible; to create a better working environment than the high-stakes pressure cooker that is the average kitchen. He describes one kitchen where exceptional ingredients would arrive on the pass with their flavours strangely muted, the product of a staff ‘riddled with hatred’ for a dictatorial boss. His conclusion is simple: ‘Happy people make happy food.’
The latest test bed for this approach is Mãos, a typically experimental and forward-thinking 16-seat restaurant-cum-immersive-experience set within Shoreditch’s Blue Mountain School. Prices put it squarely at London fine dining’s top table, but what is striking about dinner there is how decidedly unfussy it all feels: guests are first welcomed into the kitchen and then shown through to a wine room and what looks like a dining table. Except the whole restaurant is the dining table – you are encouraged to wander freely throughout it, interacting with fellow guests and servers and the exquisite mouthfuls of Portuguese-meets-Japanese-meets-food-of-no-fixed-abode that they ferry around the interconnected space. As might be expected, it’s not for everyone – especially not those with a rigid set of expectations about what fine dining should entail. There have been snarky blog posts written on the subject; on my visit there, I was impressed by the food but conscious of how many elements of the experience might rankle with those used to getting white tablecloths and heavy carpets for their £150 a head. But Mendes sees this as an inevitable consequence of opening somewhere that questions the very nature of fine dining; in general, he has been delighted by how guests have rolled up their sleeves and immersed themselves. ‘People want engagement. They want an experience that’s a little more visceral.’
Or perhaps that’s just what he wants. He is, he declares, tired of conventional tasting menus – ‘bored’ of all those courses, all that fat, all those carbs, of finishing dinner so late at night and feeling stuffed as a Christmas turkey to boot. He wonders whether the fine dining model as a whole looks increasingly unsustainable – that the days of 40 staff for 30 guests, of the painstaking culinary intricacy that that sort of wage bill permits, may well be over.
These days, a bowl of tiny lágrima peas means more to him than any amount of caviar; he rejoices in how cooks are ‘finally super in-tune with the seasons and valuing local products so much more than we used to’. He finds more satisfaction in local and seasonal ‘curiosities’ than in the litany of perversely commoditised luxe ingredients that used to characterise menus in high-end restaurants.
A recent trip to Oaxaca was rich in unique discoveries like this. Mendes was in the crucible of indigenous Mexican cuisine with 13 other chefs from around the world – all ambassadors for Champagne Krug – and the house’s cellar master, Eric Lebel. The main purpose of their visit was to explore the myriad possibilities of the capsicum, all 50,000 varieties of which can be traced back to the same Mexican parent. The story of the journey is told in Krug’s Rock Pepper Scissors, the fifth in a series of ‘single ingredient’ books the house is producing; the trip took in a dawn visit to a chilli farm, a tour around the city’s sprawling Abastos market, and a traditional Zapotec meal in the nearby village of Teotitlán. Mendes has a vivid sensory memory of the sights, sounds and smells of a cooking culture wholly unlike our own; the local techniques of grinding spices and chocolate to make mole and nixtamalizing corn to make masa for tortillas; the scent of grilled tasajo and toasted chilli heady on the wind. Few ingredients, in fact, are more emblematic of the Mexican kitchen than the chilli itself – whether served raw, dried, smoked, roasted, or blistered over a traditional comal, it tells a story of the cuisine’s dizzying range and complexity.
Mexico, he says inspires chefs because its food culture is ‘coming full circle’, going back to the old techniques and processes and seeing what they can teach us about cooking in today’s kitchens. He was excited to bring back a metate (grinding stone) from his travels – until it was confiscated from his hand luggage on the not unreasonable grounds that it could be used as a weapon (‘I was gutted’). With or without his repatriated metate, he professes a deep love for Mexican food, courtesy of a stint working with Mark Miller at Coyote Café in Santa Fe. Opening some form of Mexican restaurant has been a fixture on his bucket list for years.
It’s not like he’s been slacking in the interim, though. There was an award-winning cookbook, Lisboeta, celebrating the food of his hometown; later this year, he will return there as part of a swanky new hotel development. Plus there’s the small matter of his ongoing role as executive chef at The Chiltern Firehouse, the Fitzrovia celeb-magnet that has remained one of the toughest reservations to secure in London since it opened in 2014. Reviews from the critics were uniformly positive, but that doesn’t do justice to quite how much of a cultural phenomenon the place was in the heady few months after it opened. There was maybe a similar mad scramble when Ollie Dabbous opened his eponymous restaurant in 2012, but before that you’d have to go back to The Ivy or Le Caprice in the ’90s – a ticket so hot that even A-listers were made to wait for a chance to sample the instantly iconic crab doughnuts.
Mendes has a vivid sensory memory of the sights, sounds and smells of a cooking culture wholly unlike our own
Things were slightly different at Taberna do Mercado, a Portuguese-inspired restaurant that Mendes opened in Spitalfields market a year later. Despite some positive early coverage, the restaurant became just one of many casualties of a broader hospitality industry downturn when it closed its doors in 2018. He is philosophical about the experience: ‘It gives you perspective. Sometimes you lose sight of what reality is like for the rest of London. I didn’t think we were invincible. I thought we had a good project, a concept that was very dear to me, and I felt that the location was a challenge, but it was a work in progress. And it didn’t stack up. It was very painful, but it was a good lesson.’
Mendes sees Taberna do Mercado’s struggles as symptomatic of a broader malaise: greedy landlords increasingly out of touch with the reality of running a restaurant in 2019 London. He recalls seeing something similar when he lived in New York: independent businesses would spring up in cool neighbourhoods, then rents would skyrocket. ‘All of a sudden, the independents don’t want to do it anymore, they can’t take the risk. So they either open very safe businesses, or you have corporates going in there that put more of the same. And I feel that really ruins the nature of the neighbourhood.’
We are sitting only a few minutes’ walk away from Islington’s Upper Street, a living (maybe that should be dying) example of exactly this phenomenon. Once nicknamed ‘Supper Street’ for the sheer volume of interesting places to eat crammed along it, nowadays the vacant lots tell a sad but increasingly familiar story of oversupply and contracting demand. When I ask Mendes where he likes to eat in the area, he reels off a list of north-east London local heroes – Westerns Laundry, Primeur, Perilla, Towpath, Little Duck/The Picklery, Smoking Goat, Lyle’s, The Laughing Heart: it’s basically a manifesto for recession-proof restaurant design. Some of them look wildly different from each other on paper, but at their heart they all have a similar casually excellent, lightly worn modernity in common: good food, nice rooms, no unnecessary fuss.
I ask him what he makes of the more recent wave of restaurants that – to put it politely – feel like they offer a little more style than substance. Instagram, I suggest, may be responsible. I’m being mischievous, since, when it opened, the team at Mãos requested that diners not share photos from their meal – a radical notion in a London restaurant economy that at times seems wholly sustained by social-media hype. Now that chefs’ secrets are laid bare on Insta Stories or are the subject of a loving soft-focus profile on Netflix shows like Chef’s Table, are we actually losing something by making them, and their food, so accessible?
The reply is unequivocal and surprisingly heartfelt: ‘Absolutely. Some people don’t even want to travel to a restaurant anymore. It exposes too much. I’ve actually disconnected Instagram from my phone. I used to post things, but I just wasn’t enjoying it. It’s too invasive. I like going to places and discovering – being immersed in new experiences. You lose that with Instagram.’
This explains why Mendes sometimes gets frustrated when he sees diners breaking off mid-meal to take photographs – especially when he can clearly tell that they’re only eating at his restaurant ‘to say that they’ve been there, to tick the box’. And when he goes out? ‘I don’t necessarily want fine dining. I want to enjoy myself. Have a nice social moment. Have amazing food, amazing service, amazing wine – just have a good, fun experience. And I feel Instagram gets in the way of that.’ Has he ever designed a dish with Instagram in mind? ‘I don’t know. Maybe one day I’ll do it. But please shoot me before I do.’ On further consideration, maybe the gym clothes and chamomile tea give the wrong impression. That sounds like a proper chef speaking.