Wall Street Journal: George Mendes on a Journey to His Portuguese Roots

PORTUGAL HAS BEEN a big influence in my personal and professional life. I’m from a Portuguese family, grew up in Connecticut eating Portuguese food and run a Portuguese-inflected restaurant in New York City. I’ve been to the country at least a half-dozen times—as a baby in the 1970s, as a teenager in the ’90s and as an adult. But my visit last July was by far the most profound.

The trip was the last of three focusing on discovery and weight gain—in other words, it was for cookbook research. My co-writer, Genevieve Ko, and I drove around Portugal for 10 days, eating at small, out-of-the-way establishments, the kinds of places only locals would know about (or sometimes even be able to find).

One of our first stops was Porto, home of Port wine. We walked the cobblestone streets and ate at a restaurant called A Grade. It felt like a tavern, with a small bar, wood benches and a television in the corner blaring the news. But a waiter dropped a small plate of bacalhau on our table—and as soon I put one of the crispy, golden-brown codfish fritters in my mouth, I knew this place was serious.

One of the specials was a dish of the tiniest deep-fried sardines, which you eat whole. The fish are rare, and each one was like a crunchy bite of ocean. The octopus was roasted in the oven with potatoes and melted in your mouth like butter. The potatoes were blistering hot; their smoky, intense flavor took me back to when I was a kid and my mother would roast fish and potatoes on Sunday afternoons.

We headed to the Alentejo region, just south of Lisbon, and took a tour of the Esporão winery, followed by lunch prepared by the vineyard chef. Gazpacho was served with fresh mint, marinated figs and crispy bread floating in it. We had bacalhau with crispy ham. But the coolest dish was a pork-neck confit that the chef had cooked overnight, then charred on a wood-burning grill. The lunch was elegant, and the flavors were so powerful and authentic to the region. I was reminded that you don’t need to buy prime pieces of meat to make a delicious meal.

That evening we dined at O Chico, which serves down-home Alentejo cooking. There was a soup made from purslane, and a dish of fava beans stewed with blood sausage and mint that blew me away. The owner (also the chef) wasn’t simply cooking fava beans. He dried fava beans in the pod, took them out of the pod, dried them some more, then cooked them without peeling them. They were funky and a total showstopper. We ate and drank and talked with the chef until the wee hours of the morning. He didn’t go to cooking school or train with anybody famous. He learned from his grandmother and through trial and error. “I can give you any recipe you want,” he said to me. “But I can’t give you my palate.”

“’I can give you any recipe you want, but I can’t give you my palate,’ he said.”

The next morning we drove to the Algarve region, aka the Portuguese Riviera. Our new friends at the winery had tipped us off about a restaurant called Villa Lisa, on the outskirts of Portimão. It was supposed to be a half-hour drive from the hotel, but it took us an hour and a half. Siri gave me bad directions—to the right number, the right street, but definitely not the right place. I stopped and asked a local, but he had no idea. I called the restaurant and they got us there—get back on the main road, get off at a so-called exit, go down a dirt road. When we arrived, we had a soup made with tiny baby clams, flecked with cilantro and a few drops of lime juice. There were beautiful potatoes that had been mashed with a ton of olive oil and wild oregano with the flowers still on it. As chefs, we often don’t know when to stop—we have to embellish, to add one or two more things. These dishes had three ingredients, sometimes just two, and yet they shined so brightly.

The highlight of the trip was going back to my family’s village. Ferreiros is about 2½ hours north of Lisbon. It’s small—about 2,000 inhabitants—and is full of Moorish and Roman buildings. It’s what you’d imagine the European village where your ancestors grew up looks like. When I was a kid, it would take five hours to get to the village from the airport. The final approach was an old dirt road; you would see donkeys pulling carts of grain—or, if it was wine-harvest season, taking grapes to the press.

For years I’d wanted to eat at a place in Ferreiros that is only open a few nights a week. The man who runs it, Joao “Faia” Martina, was born in the village, immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s and became a cook. When I was growing up, he had a restaurant called O Faia that served the best Portuguese food in Danbury—the entire state, some said. Faia’s dishes, like arroz de marisco (“shellfish rice”) and a clam-and-pork combo that is Portugal’s answer to surf and turf, were among my first introductions to traditional cooking.

Faia retired and moved back to Portugal. He soon started cooking at the local meeting hall, the Cas do Povo, and now he operates the kitchen as his restaurant. Not like a place in New York—there’s a foosball table in the back, kids are always running around. And there is no menu; you sit down and tell the chef what you’re in the mood for and he tells you what’s come in fresh from the market that morning—grouper, sardines, octopus.

My meal there was an emotional experience. I had no idea, back when I was a kid and he was screaming in his kitchen, how Faia’s cooking would influence me—that the base of garlic, onion, bay leaf and paprika simmering in olive oil would make its way into my own cooking. And 20 years later, there I was in Ferreiros, biting into this cuttlefish preparation, just off the grill and still tasting of seawater, it was so damn fresh.

It’s a powerful thing to be a chef for so long, then discover this rustic, gutsy cooking style—and realize that it’s actually where you started out. That trip, I think, made me a better, braver cook. It taught me not to be preoccupied with appealing to a modern New York palate, not to be afraid to bring forth more regional and classical cooking, to dig deeper into my upbringing. To use my roots.

—As told to Sara Clemence

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