Unlike every other nominee, chef George Mendes of Aldea in New York City arrived at the competition venue alone–a daring move with thrilling results.

  • The final dinner of the 2013 Culinary Masters Competition took place at 28 Crosby, the loft-like space at the International Culinary Center in SoHo. Chef George Mendes of Aldea in New York City prepared a menu based on the Portuguese dishes of his childhood.
  • Each course was scored on a 100-point scale on the basis of presentation, flavor, originality, and execution.
  • Chef Mendes consults his hand-written schedule for the event. Preparations began four days earlier.
  • Mendes arrived at the event alone and relied on instructors and students at the International Culinary Center to prepare his competition menu–in full view of the judges dining on the other side of the glass.
  • Master chef Daniel Boulud gets a bite directly from his nominee.
  • Boulud and Mendes provided commentary on each dish as it was served.
  • First Course: Sea-Urchin Toast
    Cauliflower, Pickled Mustard Seed, and Shis
    Dom Pérignon Rose Vintage 2002
  • Second Course: Shrimp Alhinho
    Garlic, Pimenton, and Coriander
    The Hilt Old Guard Chardonnay 2010
  • Third Course: House-Cured Bacalhau
    Burned-Bread Purée, Smoked Beets, and Cod-Skin Broth
    Jonata Flor Sauvignon Blanc 2010
  • Fourth Course: Arroz de Pato (Duck Rice)
    Duck Confit, Black Olives, Chorizo, and Orange Puree
    Jonata La Sangre de Jonata 2008
  • Fifth Course: Sonhos (Little Dreams)
    Portuguese Cinnamon Sugar-Dusted Doughnuts
    Jonata La Miel de Jonata NV
Best Arroz de Pato in New York. No, in the U.S - perhaps in all of Portugal! -Greg Fontana

As Mendes briefed the serving staff on his modern Portuguese menu, a waiter posed a question: What about diners who do not eat garlic? “If they are allergic to garlic,” Mendes said, “I’m sorry, just show them to the door.” Mendes is famously true to his roots, and his competition menu was no exception. “It’s all Portugal—straight off the boat, the stuff I grew up eating,” said the chef, who quickly returned to the kitchen. While the other nominees brought the top cooks from their restaurants to execute their competition menus, Mendes arrived at the venue alone and had just a few hours to train a crew of mostly culinary students and instructors supplied by the center’s cooking school. He explained his Shrimp Alhinho, a traditional (and garlicky) dish refined with a potent sauce made from shrimp heads and deglazed with brandy and Pernod. For another dish, Mendes cured his own bacalhau (salted cod) and tenderly cut the fish into pure white blocks to be served with vivid-red smoked baby beets, burned-bread purée, and a petal of tomato confit. The centerpiece of his menu, Arroz de Pato (duck rice), was broken down into its many components, ready to be assembled: confit legs, crisped duck skin, sous vide breast meat, and a fragrant base of Sollana rice, rich with smoky pimentón, black olives, and chorizo.

Moments before the dinner began, Boulud entered the kitchen, looked at Mendes, and declared, “Oh, he’s already sweating. Good!” The rapport between the two chefs is deep. “He pushes me,” Mendes said earlier. “That’s why I love him.” After the Shrimp Alhinho was served, Boulud stood up and made another declaration: “This is so Portuguese, so George, so refined.…This is soul food—the soul of your grandmother is in this dish.”

To hear Daniel Boulud tell his story, he is a Lyon farm boy at heart–a farm boy who began cooking in a Michelin two-star kitchen in the city at age 14; worked for Roger Vergé, Georges Blanc, and Michel Guérard; and rose to culinary stardom in New York at Le Cirque in the late 1980s. When he opened his own restaurant, Daniel, in 1993, he initiated a new age of French-American cuisine. His signature is one of the world's most imitated dishes: sea bass wrapped in paper-thin slices of potato cooked to a crisp, served with an intensely reduced Barolo sauce. And of course you can drink red wine with fish: Daniel Boulud said so.

Twenty years later, Daniel remains the flagship of Boulud's Dinex Group, which operates 14 restaurants around the globe, including Midtown Manhattan's DB Bistro Moderne, where Boulud ignited the gourmet hamburger craze in 2001 with a baseball-size burger packed with braised short ribs, foie gras, and truffles. Now priced at $32, this classic remains on the menu. Boulud has shared his inspirations in eight recipe-filled books, including Daniel: My French Cuisine, which is being published in October. Even today, the self-proclaimed farm boy lives over the store–though his Upper East Side digs above Daniel are anything but rustic.

The chefs who have trained under Boulud are legends in their own right–Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, Nicholas Wilber of the Fat Radish, and the pastry genius Dominique Ansel, to name a few–but Boulud chose George Mendes, who has never worked for him, as his nominee for this year's Culinary Masters Competition. Like Boulud, Mendes, 41, has roots on the farm–and again like Boulud, he is transforming American cooking by infusing it with his heritage. The son of Portuguese farmers who moved to the United States two years before he was born, Mendes grew up in Danbury, Conn., where his parents kept a vat of salt cod soaking in the garage.

On graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1992, Mendes went to work for his first mentor, David Bouley, at Bouley in Tribeca. Two stages with Alain Passard at L'Arpège in Paris drilled home the importance of presenting perfect ingredients simply. Later experiences with Roger Vergé and Alain Ducasse–and a stint cooking the French luxe cuisine of Lespinasse in Washington, D.C.–honed Mendes's command of classic technique in modern kitchens.

But his time with the Basque chef Martín Berasategui in 2003 seems to have influenced his own cooking style the most. He began to explore the flavors, ingredients, and techniques of Spain and Portugal, and soon after he opened his Manhattan restaurant, Aldea, in 2009, Mendes began developing a personal cuisine that brings the tastes of Iberia to the New World. His signature dish, arroz de pato, presents rice baked with succulent duck confit, chorizo, and black olives, and served with an orange purée and sliced duck breast. He cannot take it off the menu: It is his potato-wrapped sea bass with Barolo sauce. –David Lyon

My second meal in New York City was at Daniel. I was a young cook, just graduated school. I saved some money and took my girlfriend. I still remember that meal. I had an herb ravioli.

Nine-herb ravioli.

Then I had a squab dish. The leg had a farcie and it was wrapped in something like phyllo and served simply with a mixture of haricots verts and lima beans. What hit me so hard was how powerful the dish was. I felt like I was eating my parents' garden vegetables. I can honestly say that you are someone I aspire to be like someday. I have a long way to go.

Cooking is a very long journey. For me, it's been four decades. It's going to be a beautiful journey for you. I don't know what will materialize, but I want to give you the right encouragement. The cuisine you are doing today has a lot to do with your heritage. It is always ingredient driven and technique driven, but with a lot of soulfulness in the food.

That is where I think we are similar. You also have a lot of family and cultural ties in your cuisine. I think that chefs' styles should always tell a story and have a historic and authentic background. Anybody can sauté a piece of fish. But what you put with it or how you do it and the reasons why tell a bigger story.

When I eat at your restaurant I have to have the suckling pig. I come from a farm, and I've eaten a lot of suckling pig in my life, but you fragment the pig in different textures. I also always want something with bacalhau [salt cod]. I always want something from your Portuguese heritage and from your Spanish inspiration. Not the spontaneous, coming-back-from-the-market dishes, but the ones that are more soulful.

I first staged with Alain Passard in 1994. It was in his kitchen that I saw bacalhau for the first time outside of a Portuguese restaurant. The last time I had seen salt cod was at my mother's house. But I go into a three-star Michelin restaurant, and Alain Passard is doing something with it, and I'm like, "OK, what is going on here?"

It takes me back to the time when they had to preserve everything, and there were strong associations of taste and flavor. That is the soul of forgotten cuisine that needs to be kept alive. I think you always love to put a little bit of that in your cuisine.

We make our own bacalhau. We buy the cod fresh. To watch the product transform from something that is very bland, white, and flaky into something that has fermented a little bit and has more bite and flavor is a very appealing thing.

That is the real Portuguese umami.

Portuguese umami is right! I've got to tell my mother that one.

Do you do paella, George?

A lot of times the duck breast that we do, arroz de pato, is called a paella, but it really isn't. I started thinking about rice dishes that my mother cooked with rabbit or with rice and beans. In this very old traditional Portuguese cookbook, I found a recipe that says, "Ingredients: duck, water, chouriço, and olives." And then it goes, "Procedure: find the duck, kill the duck, pluck the feathers, and bring a pot of water to a boil. Then cook the duck, add rice, chouriço, and olives, and serve it at the table." I took the idea and turned it into something more complex.

The dish is really vibrant, fresh, local, and market driven. It's the authentic, traditional idea made to work on a menu. I think we are very lucky to have you in New York. I think you are going to inspire and influence a lot of young South American, Portuguese, and Spanish chefs.

I have a lot of work to do.

Not much. Just keep cooking.

International Culinary Center in SoHo, New York
Event Sponsors