Nuno Mendes was born in Lisbon and grew up with a passion for travel and food cultures, in part inspired by his father and grandmother. He remembers being taken to a Goan restaurant in Lisbon when he was a child, and this formative experience awakened a passion for discovery and flavour that would come to define the chef throughout his later career.
Nuno Mendes attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and, once qualified, received further training in Japan. The experience clearly left its mark; the unique idiosyncrasies of Japanese cuisine along with the use of bold ingredients such as raw fish, yuzu and umami flavours have distinct influences in the way Nuno Mendes approaches his own food.
The chef spent some years traveling the world, gaining experience under Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Ferran Adrià, the ‘godfathers of experimental cuisine’, as well as Wolfgang Puck and Rocco DiSpirito. Upon coming to London in 2006 – he was intrigued after news of east London’s buzz made it all the way over to New York – Nuno Mendes headed up the short lived (but long remembered) Bacchus in Hoxton, which combined gastropub ambience with molecular approaches to cooking.
After Bacchus closed its doors Nuno Mendes founded the cult domestic pop up known as the Loft Project, whereby the chef would prepare food in his own home and guests would dine communally around his kitchen table. Part supper club, part performance art, the project developed into a platform for some of the world’s finest experimental chefs – including both Sam Nutter and Sam Miller from Copenhagen’s Noma – to demonstrate their molecular prowess in a uniquely intimate environment.
In 2010 Nuno Mendes opened his own restaurant, Viajante, in Bethnal Green. The concept of Viajante was evident in its name; in Nuno Mendes’ native Portuguese viajante means traveller, a tribute to the chef’s own wanderlust. The menu was filled with global influences – particularly Iberian, South American and Japanese – and his close-knit staff were, by the chef’s admission, ‘all travellers, but one family’. Just as Nuno Mendes and his staff had travelled the world and ended up in vibrant east London, here the ingredients were taken ‘out of their contexts’ and rehomed on the plate, combined with new flavours and textures.
The food Nuno Mendes was creating at Viajante was quite extraordinary, and Matthew Fort commended the chef on turning Bethnal Green, then still on the cusp of its rejuvenation, into ‘a place of gastronomic pilgrimage’. Dishes such as Cured lobster and charred leek, Lamb belly with milk skin and Green apple with shiso and maple demonstrated dazzling technical skill along with pioneering combinations of flavour. It was not just the hordes of eager punters who were won over – in 2011 the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star which it retained until Nuno Mendes left the restaurant in 2014.
Upon leaving Viajante Bruno Mendes took over the restaurant at the exclusive Chiltern Firehouse in Marylebone. The restaurant (with a hotel and bar on the premises) was the brainchild of global hotelier André Balazs and quickly gained the same cult status as his other perennially popular celebrity hotspots, such as Chateau Marmont and the Mercer.
Nuno Mendes’ reputation as the East End’s most inventive culinary mind did not disappoint the Chiltern Firehouse’s discerning clientele, and visitors were quickly won over by his flair. There is, perhaps, less of the avant-garde in the menus at the Chiltern Firehouse compared to the gastronomical Viajante, but Nuno Mendes’ use of ingredients and flavour remain every bit as confident. Iberian influences are clear in his deft handling of fish and pork (think chargrilled Iberico pork with courgettes, or the much lauded monkfish dish, cooked over pine and served with puffed barley) while the crab doughnuts with coral dusting and maple-glazed salmon with smoked broth hint at the innovative streak that made him so revered.
With Chiltern Firehouse still pulling crowds and a new Portuguese casual dining restaurant planned for 2015, the capital’s appetite for Nuno Mendes’ unique, stylish cuisine shows no sign of abating. The feeling, it seems, is mutual; the chef has travelled all his life in pursuit of cultural – and culinary – enlightenment, but it is in the vibrant melting pot of east London he that has truly found his home.