Though unfortunate, we tend to judge people by their appearances, and most likely have preconceived ideas of what a chef should look like. Nuno Mendes, however, doesn’t fit into this category. Judging by looks, he could pass for an experimental artist or even as an ex-punk-rock musician – or maybe a philosopher or an independent theatre producer; certainly not a chef! But there is one thing that everyone would agree on after meeting Nuno Mendes – the guy is übercool.
He was one of the first chefs to play with molecular techniques in London - at Bacchus restaurant, which closed in 2008. He was also the first to open a supper club inside his own house, The Loft Project, followed by the first avant-garde restaurant inside a hotel – and in an unexpected location,Viajante.
Now, once again, he’s pioneering a very exciting project – The Long Table, the first night time street food market in East London.
The man is not only a talented chef full of great ideas, but is one of the most authentic people that I have ever met. There’s no artifice when it comes to Mendes, and his work with “underground” artists in East Lodon utterly lacks in pretention or pose.
East London is famous for its rough streets, bars and galleries, and it is certainly not part of the chic London restaurant route. But this is the corner of the city with which Nuno Mendes fell in love: «This is the most exciting part of London, in my opinion. At the markets, we can meet old friends or make new ones, enjoy lovely fresh food, meet local artists and artisans– we are not anonymous!»
In 2010 he opened a new venture inside the Town Hall Hotel, deciding to call it after his own nickname, Viajante (Traveller), which he believes perfectly defines his nature: «I was and still am a traveller, and the term represents both my personal and my professional story - and a metaphor of who I am in spirit!»
Freedom of expression is a common thread that runs through both his concepts as well as his individual dishes. Mendes uses herbs foraged in the countryside around London and delivered daily to Viajante; his compositions elevate simple English produce, interacting with his complex techniques, and multicultural contextual cuisine.
Some examples? Scallop sashimi with frozen froth (made by putting a siphon in the blast chiller), cucumbers, celery, and dill in milk brine; or maybe grilled fava beans, São Jorge cheese and brioche crumbs - the fava beans are cooked, returned to their pods, and served with fine herbs, as if the pod were blossoming. More than a meal, what Nuno offers at his restaurant, Viajante, is a journey. The dishes symbolize chapters of his own experiences.
«I’m Portuguese and at the same time, a citizen of the world, and my food is a reflection of my journey as chef and human being – so, it is a traveller’s story,» he explains. The menu is offered only at the meal’s end. There is no ‘à la carte’ option, but only 3 tasting menus: with 3, 6 and 9 courses at lunch, and 3, 6, 9 and 12 courses at dinner.
What is the reason for this unusual system? The chef answers thoughtfully. «People are used to knowing and planning everything in advance. I want to offer an experience in which my guests will be surprised, can relax, enjoy themselves and feel free to travel along with me!»
How about new projects? He opened another restaurant this year, also inside the Town Hall Hotel, called The Corner Room, which has also become a great success. This has an ‘à la carte’ menu, with equally exciting seasonal dishes, reasonable prices, in a perfect blend between a casual tapas bar and an avant-garde restaurant. And it appears that Nuno Mendes is already “cooking up” many other new projects.
In my personal opinion, this is the most original and organic chef you’ll encounter in the UK. Not only because he sources products from farmers and foragers, but for the reason that all his ideas develop organically and passionately…
And as he likes to say: his projects are always under construction!