Celebrity chefs aren’t exactly in short supply, and yet while Nuno Mendes is a familiar name, the Portuguese chef, best known for his food at London’s Chiltern Firehouse, isn’t attracting crowds of paparazzi anytime soon. And that’s just the way he likes it.
Forty-six-year-old Mendes, who grew up in Lisbon, has a new venture that’s about as far away – philosophically at least – from the Firehouse as it gets. Mãos, located in the Blue Mountain School building in east London, is less of a restaurant and more of an intimate kitchen-dining room. Guests join Mendes’ team (and 15 other diners) for dinner, and over the course of an evening they feast on his seasonal dishes, while getting to know each other around the table.
Here, we talk to Nuno about Mãos, his love of Goan food and what his children expect for breakfast.
Quintessentially: How did the idea of Mãos come about?
Nuno Mendes: Previously, I had worked on things such as The Loft Project, where guests came to my house and engaged with our cooking in a super-informal format. In a setting like this with Mãos, diners create a dialogue around the food, with us and the kitchen. Having a space where the table isn’t an anchor, and where you can wander off, explore, and immerse yourself is very appealing. Economically and politically, the restaurant landscape is experiencing a lot of turmoil and uncertainty, so this is much more suitable. It’s small, it’s contained, and it’s special, and it has more to it than a restaurant. You can walk through to the kitchen and the wine room, converse with other guests around the table, and even come back to look at The Blue Mountain School itself.
Quintessentially: It’s a unique experience dining there...
Nuno: I’m so happy to hear that. We want it to be a dinner party where the guests get to know each other – obviously helped by our wine room! Once they feel at ease and can let their guard down, it really is a communal experience, and very enjoyable. We don’t have a closing time either, so sometimes we still have people here engrossed in conversation at 2:00 am with no signs of slowing down!
Quintessentially: It was interesting to observe the connections people made across the table: whether they went to the same university, or followed each other on Instagram…
Nuno: You need to be brave to pay in advance for an experience that you have very little knowledge of, knowing you’ll be sitting at a table with strangers. In that sense, everyone who attends has something in common already. Some of the guests are visiting London on their own for a few nights and looking for a good food experience. They don’t necessarily want to be sat alone at a table in a crowded restaurant. You find they feel comfortable and make friends easily, which can be difficult in a public space.
Quintessentially: Some of the techniques you use are inspired. The simple onion sphere that we enjoyed was one of our favourite dishes…
Nuno: That’s a blast from the past! The person who created the technique was Ferran Adrià, the chef from the famous El Bulli. There was a lot of inspiration in that dish. Cooking went from being highly technical – something we called ‘techno-emotional’ – before veering towards a natural Nordic style. Now I think we’re at a point where we have lots of different tools and techniques, but we need to remember to draw inspiration from the past.
Quintessentially: What's a day like for you at home? What do your children like to eat?
Nuno: They expect a buffet! Porridge, pancakes, cornflakes (organic, of course). It’s a morning of “ready, steady, cook”. I try and make time for breakfast even with all the distractions on weekdays. But after the breakfast hurdle, I try and exercise – mainly to keep my sanity and switch off my phone. I strive to maintain balance and keep my mental health in check as I travel a lot.
Quintessentially: Do you have a favourite style of cuisine, and if so, any favourite dishes?
Nuno: I love dishes from Goa; I have such a passion for this food, which has Portuguese DNA running through it. It brings back so many childhood memories, especially the smells. I’ve travelled to Goa and spent time living there, and I’d love to open a Goan restaurant one day. I particularly love bebinca, a coconut cake that’s made one layer at a time, with caramelisation on top.
Quintessentially: Was it these childhood memories that made you interested in becoming a chef?
Nuno: I fell in love with food at a young age. It was my father and grandmother who inspired me in the kitchen, and who fuelled this passion for cooking. I didn’t know that this could be a career, so I started out on a different path. I was going to be a marine biologist.
Quintessentially: Why didn't that work out?
Nuno: It was a means of escaping Portugal. It was the one course that wasn’t available [at home], but, the places I was offered had really nice beaches and lots of sunshine – like Miami! So, I moved there as I was curious about living in the US, but it wasn’t as I imagined. I wasn’t the Jacques Cousteau type.
The US didn’t have a great culinary scene, but I was introduced to a lot of cookery schools there and I attended one in San Francisco. It was nerve-wracking, but I found my calling in life
Quintessentially: Do you find that when the thing you’re passionate about becomes your career, the work/life balance becomes so blurred that you’re consumed by it?
Nuno: Exactly, I think it’s a problem I have. The only criticism I have of my job is that I wish it was my hobby and that I didn’t need to think of it as a business. It would make it purer if I could disregard the thought of making a living and not have to question my creativity to check if it’s commercially viable.
Quintessentially: What's next?
Nuno: I’ll be opening in Lisbon in 2020, my first project in Portugal and something I'm immensely proud of and can't wait to share.
If you’d like to sample Nuno Mendes’ Mãos supper club-dining experience, please get in touch with your lifestyle manager for all the details.
Mãos, 41 Redchurch St, Shoreditch, London E2 7DJ