Nuno Mendes is not your normal chef. With his grey-flecked beard and long hair he looks more like an indie-label musician than someone who'd crop up chopping onions. If you wanted a succinct way to describe him, you could label him a sort of art-house chef; the Spike Jonze to Gordon Ramsay's Steven Spielberg. It sums up his out-of-the-box thinking, his aversion to compromise (more of which later), and his desire to stamp a very personal signature on everything he touches. It even helps to illustrate the eclectic twang of his New York-cum-Portuguese accent.
Mendes' recent opening, Viajante in the new £20m Town Hall hotel in London's Bethnal Green, is just the kind of project you might expect from an independently minded artist - a bold vision conceived away from the spotlight. Even the location of Viajante - perched among the kind of run-down pubs and scruffy foreign grocers that you wouldn't find, say, in Mayfair - says a lot about the chef.
"I've always lived in east London and always supported it," he explains in his soft accent. "I love the ghetto-chic, the up-and-coming bohemian side of it. It reminds me of areas I've lived in before - like Brooklyn and the Lower East Side [of New York]."
For a man who was effectively out of a job for 18 months - between his restaurant Bacchus (in Hoxton) closing and Viajante opening in April this year - Mendes has gained something of a cult following. This is remarkable, when you consider that Bacchus represented only his second position as head chef in London, after running the kitchen in Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurant Rama in the Mayfair club Fifty St James's.
Bacchus opened in January 2007 and was marketed as fine-dining-in-trainers. By the time it closed in September 2008 it had built up its fair share of fans, among them The Sunday Times critic AA Gill, who wrote that "the food was remarkably inventive and cleverly thought out. The flavours were at worst interesting and at best inspired".
However, it was Mendes' temporary supper club, The Loft - a 14-seat speakeasy-style restaurant housed in his apartment in Shoreditch - that really captured the imagination of a recession-hit public when it launched in February 2009. With a secretive, word-of-mouth reputation and long tasting menus of Mendes' playful modern cooking, it proved the perfect precursor to Viajante and kept him firmly in the foodie consciousness. "You can get easily lost in London in two years. It moves on so quickly, people can forget who you are if you're not in the public eye," he says.
Now, after the false dawn of Bacchus and the underground success of The Loft, Mendes finally looks set to make a sustained mark on the capital. And he couldn't ask for a better setting. The Town Hall hotel is the £20m vision of entrepreneur and hotelier Peng Loh (see below), and it was he who approached Mendes to take over the food and beverage side of the operation while the chef was still at Bacchus. The idea, and the possibilities it presented, immediately appealed.
"I loved the project, from the chance to design my own kitchen and concept from the ground up, to the different strands of the cooking," Mendes says. "The restaurant is the main focus for the moment but once it is totally set up I have ideas of what I want to do with the breakfast menu, the bar menu, the conference and banqueting menu and the room service menu."
The original idea was to run Bacchus and Viajante together, but when Bacchus's owner Philip Mossop decided to turn the site back into a pub, Mendes was left with 18 months to plan and prepare for Viajante. It is, as Mendes says, a long time to be away from the stove. But without those 18 months, Viajante might not exist in the same form it does now.
Mendes' playful, modern cooking remains, but now fulfils much more of the promise shown at Bacchus. Diners can choose from six, nine or 12 tasting courses (£60/£75/£85). The dishes are hard to do justice to in print, but - to venture a description - they toy with flavour, texture, temperature and even appearance. For example, the curiously listed skate wing brioche with roasted yeast, bread with potato powder is a rounded and soft hunk of skate that at first appears as a large curl of squid meat, served with yeast foam and cubes of brioche. The dessert of dark chocolate and water is a superb fondant with hazelnut ice-cream, praline powder and a blackcurrant gel.
The Loft not only gave Mendes the chance to try out his new dishes on the paying public, but the supper club's influences show immediately in the layout and concept of the new restaurant. A sparkling open kitchen is the first thing that catches the eye, boxing off the front of the room and bathed in natural light from the sash windows behind. With no metal shelving or barriers, bar a small service counter, between the 36 covers and the kitchen, it almost has the feel of a front room.
"That's what I wanted - like at The Loft," he says. "I wanted it so that the barrier between front and back of house is gone."
Mendes' involvement from the very start of the project meant he was not only able to design the fine-dining kitchen, but also the three other kitchens, which will facilitate his running of all food and beverage at the hotel. Most big-name hotel chefs shy away from the more prosaic concerns of breakfast, conference and banqueting, bar menus and room service, preferring instead to concentrate their efforts squarely on fine dining. In fact, among all the Michelin-starred hotel chefs in London, only Hélène Darroze at the Connaught runs all elements of the F&B. For Mendes, however, it was a further opportunity to put his stamp on the hotel.
"As much as I love fine dining, it is about showcasing my food in other areas," he explains. "I want to sell the Viajante experience to conference and banqueting markets - they should want to come in because of the appeal of the restaurant."
As well as the open Viajante kitchen, there is a conference and banqueting kitchen, a private dining kitchen and a central kitchen preparing food for all three. When all sides of the operation are fully up and running, they will be manned by 25 full-time chefs and 10 stagieres.
Does the discipline of cooking conference and banqueting have to differ from fine dining? "Not really," Mendes replies. "We have to adapt our menus but the idea is still to keep it as close to Viajante as possible. Things will be done pretty much as they are in fine dining."
There are also plans in place for a bar menu of Mendes-style tapas dishes - "not the kind of bar menu you'd see anywhere else" - as well as a unique breakfast menu. "It would use a lot of ideas and techniques we use in the kitchen at Viajante. It would be a modern breakfast, maybe even with a tasting menu for brunch," he explains.
You can see why Mendes waited so long for the Town Hall Hotel to reach fruition. It presents, at last, a platform on which he can make the kind of mark on London that he has long hoped to achieve. It was five-and-a-half years ago that he arrived in London, like Bob Dylan pitching up in New York in the 1960s with just a suitcase full of talent and ambition.
"I just knew I wanted to move to London and become a head chef," he says. "I love London - it's amazing. It's a city I've been watching for many years. The late 1990s and early 2000s have been very kind to London. It has the same energy that New York had in the 1990s."
A latecomer to cooking, Mendes only enrolled in the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco aged 23, after studying marine biology in his native Portugal. Stints with the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Rocco di Spirito at Union Pacific preceded time spent working with Jean Georges Vongerichten at the three-Michelin-starred Jean-Georges in New York. Also during these years came a stint that he now seems eternally associated with - a month-and-a-half stage at El Bulli.
THE EL BULLI INFLUENCE
Do the constant references in the media over-hype Ferran Adrià's input to his development? "When I look at what I do now - El Bulli is 10% of everything," he says. "The one thing El Bulli gave me was to make me think outside of the box. It's living proof that you can follow you heart."
After working for Vongerichten again in London, Mendes' next move certainly did follow his heart, rather than his wallet: "When I left I had two offers - one to open Bacchus, one to open a restaurant in Trafalgar Square for a very famous London restaurateur. The pay was much better at Trafalgar Square, but you have to make decisions sometimes about what you want to achieve in life - whether you succeed or not is another matter. It can be hard not to compromise."
A WORK IN PROGRESS
These days, the same out-of-the-box thinking and refusal to compromise his ideas is still in evidence at Viajante. Not only has his cooking moved on - and remains a "work in progress", he says - but his initiatives at the new restaurant continue to defy the norm.
The most unconventional of these is the idea to employ only two full-time front of house staff, and have the remaining restaurant staff as chefs in whites. At the moment, a few chefs will deliver and explain plates from the open-plan kitchen, but the idea is to move this on.
"The duties of cooking and serving would be shared by everyone," Mendes explains. "It is an idea again inspired by The Loft - I want it so the barriers between front and back of house are gone completely."
The Loft, meanwhile, has evolved into a creature entirely new to the London scene - a gallery to showcase chefs. "The product is now even more interesting than before," he says. "It now hosts resident chefs in the same way as art galleries host artists. We have everyone from well-established chefs to sous chefs trying to make an impression. I see the space as like a music venue for new bands."
The project is now run by Mendes and a partner, who does much of the organising. Is it a lucrative side project to have? "I'm not looking to make lots of money," he says. "But I like the idea - to showcase promising chefs." They, in turn, are surely very grateful, with some now hired by restaurants, partly on the back of their star turns at the supper club.
The Loft's generosity in providing such a platform for young chefs befits Mendes. For the record, he's one of the nicest people I've ever interviewed: soft-spoken and open - slightly shy, even - and devoid of the artistic ego or temperament that might befit a man with an aversion to compromise.
So when I ask him what the future holds, you can't help but be on his side: "The acknowledgement of accolades is nice, but I'm not striving for them," he says. "What I'd like is for my restaurant to be a point of reference in London - that would be great. And if it can be recognised out of London - that would be fantastic. Those are my aspirations."
THE TOWN HALL HOTEL
The opening of the Town Hall Hotel has been a long time coming. It is nearly three years since hotelier Peng Loh, who owns the Majestic Hotel in Singapore, put plans in place to transform the 1930s Grade-II listed former town hall, with its neo-classical stone frontage, into a top-end hotel.
Before, the building had lain practically derelict for many years, used occasionally as a location for films such as Atonement and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The total refurbishment cost £20m and the result is a 98-bedroom hotel that beautifully exploits many of the old features, such as the grand marble and stone staircase and the beautiful wood panelling - especially in the old council chamber, which is now a conference and cinema room. A contemporary extension was added and facilities now include a gym and a pool to complement the mix of bedrooms, one-bed suites, two-bed suites and apartments. Also, to complement the original sculptures, which were retained and refurbished, the hotel enlisted the support of not-for-profit organisation Artsadmin to run an open commission scheme asking up and coming local artists to create works for the new hotel.
CHARRED LEEKS AND WHITE ASPARAGUS, HAZELNUTS AND MILK SKIN
For the charred vegetables
4 large leeks, soaked in water to remove the dirt
1 bunch of white asparagus (around 8 in number)
Maldon sea salt
1 rosemary sprig
1tbs hazelnut oil
For the milk skin
2 litres fresh whole milk
200ml single cream
For the roasted hazelnuts
200g roasted peeled hazelnuts
2tbs salted butter
For the leek ash emulsion
2 soft boiled eggs
100g peeled roasted peanuts
200ml grape seed oil
200ml hazelnut oil
2 lemons, juiced
A dash of tabasco
For the garnishes
Picked red vein sorrel
Maldon sea salt
For the charred vegetables
Grill the leeks until they get quite dark on the outside and vacuum pack them so that they continue to steam and cook through.
Peel the outer layers until the centres are exposed and reserve the outer layers for the ash emulsion. Cut the leeks into 5cm rounds and season with salt and hazelnut oil.
Peel the white asparagus and trim the tails, season with salt and rosemary and wrap them in aluminium foil. Roast them in a pan over a low to medium heat until the asparagus is cooked through and begins to char a little bit and also steam at the same time.
Cut the asparagus into 7.5cm pieces and reserve for plating.
For the roasted hazelnuts
in a shallow non-stick pan melt the butter and gently roast the hazelnuts until they become nicely caramelised and golden brown. Reserve for plating.
For the milk skin
Empty the milk into a very wide, deep pot, turn the heat on the lowest setting possible and gently warm the milk up until a skin starts to form on the surface.
Once this skin has thickened slightly, detach it from the sides of the pan with a palette knife and gently lift it from the pan with the tips of your fingers to make sure it doesn't break.
Place it in between pieces of baking paper brushed with single cream. Repeat this several times until the milk completely evaporates and the skins become too thick and yellow. Reserve for plating.
For the leek ash emulsion
With a hand blender, whisk all of the ingredients together except for the oils in a deep and narrow round container.
Slowly add the mixed oils until everything is smoothly emulsified into a black mayonnaise. Adjust seasonings and reserve.
Dot some of the leek ash emulsion around a shallow plate, scatter the warm leeks and asparagus around and cover with large pieces of milk skin.
Spoon some roasted cracked hazelnuts around the plate and sprinkle with red vein sorrel. Season with Maldon salt and drizzle with hazelnut oil. Serve warm.