A first-generation American born to Portuguese parents, George Mendes has fond memories of the elaborate, festive meals his family would prepare while he was growing up in Danbury, Connecticut. From a young age, he knew he wanted a creative career, and food was his first love. Soon after finishing high school, Mendes enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
After graduating in 1992, Mendes worked at the original Bouley in Tribeca, where he met his mentor, chef David Bouley. There, he sharpened his cooking skills as garde manger, entremetier and poissonier. To further hone his talent, he participated in two month-long stages at Alain Passard’s Arpege in Paris, France. At Arpege, he learned two fundamental principles of his cooking today: sourcing the best ingredients and simple preparation.
When Bouley closed in 1996, Mendes became the executive chef of Le Zoo, a small French bistro in Greenwich Village, where he began to develop his own cooking style. Mendes returned to fine dining two years later as executive sous chef at the three-star Lespinasse in Washington, D.C., working under Sandro Gamba. At Lespinasse, Mendes worked with the best available ingredients to create the restaurant’s signature “French luxe cuisine.”
During his year and a half at Lespinasse, Mendes traveled to France and staged at Le Moulin de Mougins under the legendary Roger Vergé, and at La Bastide de Moustiers under Alain Ducasse. The Bastide menu, which changed daily, relied on the adjacent garden for all vegetables and herbs, and Mendes enjoyed working in an environment that emphasized the freshness and seasonality of the ingredients. He then returned to New York to help his friend and fellow Bouley alumnus, Kurt Gutenbrunner, open his Austrian restaurant, Wallsé.
In 2003, Mendes staged with highly acclaimed Basque chef Martin Berasategui at his eponymous three-star Michelin restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. There, he explored the heritage and contemporary culinary trends of the Iberian Peninsula. Berasategui introduced Mendes to the culinary avant-garde movement by teaching him to add personal flair to traditional recipes, while remaining true to the ingredients’ flavors. This experience made a significant impact on his career, as he worked alongside one of Spain’s most acclaimed culinary masters to create the cuisine that would later influence Aldea’s menu. Upon returning to New York, he joined Tocqueville as chef de cuisine where he was inspired by the nearby greenmarket and his recent travels in Europe. After more than three years running the kitchen, Mendes left to pursue his own restaurant venture.