Nuno Mendes, Chef/Patron, Viajante, London

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st May 2012

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

Having studied at California Culinary Academy in the 1990s and gained experience working alongside Wolfgang Puck, Rocco di Spirito and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Nuno Mendes has become one of the most talented chefs working in the UK. Nuno opened the short-lived cult favourite gastropub Bacchus, before later opening up a restaurant called The Loft from his own apartment. The latter project involved some of the world’s best chefs cooking in front of patrons to provide a unique and intimate experience that, according to Nuno, changed his idea about how restaurants should be. Following these successes, he more recently opened up Viajante at Bethnal Green Town Hall Hotel, inspired by the world cuisines he had been exposed to throughout his culinary education. Viajante also won Nuno a Michelin star, rewarding the eclectic and experimental cuisine that Mendes has become well-known for. His unique, creative approach to combining interesting and unusual flavours has won Nuno a great number of fans and has seen Viajante go from strength to strength. Nuno I just want to say thank you so, so much for inviting us in. It’s a real privilege to come in and see you, and get a view of what you do. In your own words describe Viajante for us please. Well thank you for coming here it’s an honour also to be part of all the chefs that have been on your website, Viajante, the restaurant, the nickname, Viajante is a Portuguese name which means traveller. I'm Portuguese so the name is reflective of my heritage, my Portuguese upbringing, but it represents a voyage of tastes and textures and sensations, emotions that we hopefully present you with, as our guest for dinner or lunch. The concept of the restaurant is based on or inspired by my travels, our travels, we have influences from Portugal and Spain, influences from Asia, influences from South America, Africa. Viajante is also very representative of East London of the multicultural or cultural diversity that we have here, the artistic spirit that we have in this part of town and this force of going against the grain or doing your own thing. There's a real raw energy here in East London isn’t there? I think so. I think it’s very energetic, it’s quite a lot of struggling artists trying to make it. I like that about the area. There's a lot of everybody’s trying to push themselves further and come up with new ideas and concepts and doing something interesting. So for me it’s very inspiring. I walk the streets, I meet amazing people doing amazing projects and I want to see how…I want my project to be big enough for this and interesting enough to actually match some of what they’re doing. Something I'm very passionate about and I know you've really championed this is giving young British chefs a great platform to showcase what they do, through the Loft Project, Paul Foster, Sam Nutter, Ben Greeno, Marcus McGuinness, John Freeman, lots of really, really talented guys. What was your thought process behind the Loft Project? Well when the Loft Project started, it was a chance project, it came out of what was basically the response to what was happening at the time in London. We were in 2009 or 2008, London was hit by a recession and all of a sudden a lot of people had quit their jobs, restaurants closed, people had to think about interesting ways and be resourceful about finding new ways to make a living. As a result of the recession my restaurant, Bacchus, at the time closed and I was working on this project Viajante but it was two years away from actually launch, so I had to come up with a way to keep myself going, financially. So it was driven by necessity? As well yes. I mean I've had the dream to create a restaurant in my home for a while. The concept of the Loft is something I've been trying in my head for a long time but the idea came about when I was in New York and I wrote down the whole concept and funny enough it was actually what I've created in London is not too far from that original idea. The Loft was incredibly successful and the concept of having your restaurant, your home, you're cutting down your overheads, you are personalising the experience and so giving more than just a meal. In this case it was a meal for 16 guests around the table, they don’t know each other, they meet, they interact there, the kitchen’s open so they see the chef, they meet us, we discuss, and it becomes more like friends. It forces them to be sociable as well doesn’t it? Exactly yes. It’s not the fine dining experience that is insular and everybody’s at their own table and it’s no longer there, it becomes a social event. It’s a nice meal with friends I guess. It was a huge success. I mean our prices weren't exactly cheap but I think the value is very good for what we gave and funny enough in the recession era we were busy the whole time. And it must have been hugely rewarding as well when you see these guys go on to do their own things and be successful in their own right? Absolutely yes. The Loft Project started there with me and as a result of seeing the success of it I thought it would be a fantastic platform. I didn’t want to close it down I wanted to continue with the idea; to bring the chefs, struggling chefs, not struggling chefs but aspiring chefs, chefs they are at the point right now perhaps a sous chefs somewhere or they’re looking for their next project, give them a chance to showcase their work in a raw, pure atmosphere. The overall response of most of the chefs there who have been through the Loft was incredibly positive. So a lot of them are now doing their own things and they’re doing fantastically which is amazing. It’s amazing they were part of the Loft Project, and we helped them with that a little bit I guess. And can we see a re-emergence of the Loft Project? Is that something you want to recreate? Well with the Loft we're actually on the verge of signing a new lease for a new premises so it is coming back. We moved out of our old house and I used to live there so now it’s no longer going to be my house but we've found a new space and should be launching in the next couple of months. But I'm sure there'll be lots of people looking forward to that and one of the other things I wanted to touch on, I think you've been in the UK now seven years how has your food style evolved in that time? Has your food been on a journey? Absolutely yes I mean every day I always learn. I learn everything. I learn more and more every day, every time we touch food, every time we work with ingredients, every time we work with different people, meet different people, we go to different restaurants, we meet our friends, we see what our friends are doing, all this is inspiration. Where do you like to eat? I like to stay in East London. I go sometimes into town, into Soho. I was at Polpo this I really like what Russell Norman does, his projects are Polpo and Polpetto, Spuntino is fantastic as well. I visit him and his projects a fair bit. I go to Sequoia, I love Junior what he's doing Barrafina, quite a few restaurants that I go to visit in town but I spend most of my time here in East London. The Young Turks were friends; they had a fantastic project and now they’re at the Ten Bells and I think that was the best meal I've had in a long time, was at the Young Turks at the Ten Bells. I thought it was quite punk rock and it was really pure and the energy was amazing I love the food of course, I'm a chef at the end of the day but for me it’s very important, the experience they create I find that a lot of restaurants sometimes they’re almost too stiff, they’re a little too contrived they don’t allow the chef to show, I mean… There's no personality they’re very stiff. Yeah there's an energy on the plate but then it kind of like dies down around it. So I like to be in a place where I'm surrounded by this energy. Last question for you then if I may, you've been here seven years, East London is now your home, very successful projects but where are you going to be in five years time and what do you want to do? What projects are you working on for the future? Can you say? Yes of course I have a lot of dreams I don’t like to sit still I like to keep thinking about new things and new projects. That's the creative artist in you. Yes I guess. It’s hard because it’s… Are you ever satisfied though? Does it sometimes niggle you because nothing’s ever quite right and when you get to there you want to be further on again… Yes the goalposts keep changing and it is tiring in a sense … Because perfection’s always the next stage isn’t it? Yes. I really struggle to switch off and I really struggle to say, “Well this is it I'm just going to take it for what it is and just ride it.” But no there's more I mean we're relaunching the long table which was a huge success last year and I think hopefully it will be an even better success this year. Again we're relaunching the Loft Project. I've been toying around with the idea of doing a project in Portugal and that project is going to have natural wines involved, we're going to have a wine space so we're going to have vineyards that are going to produce wine, we're going to produce vegetables, we're going to have a small hotel perhaps a six or seven room hotel and also a really nice restaurant, just to name a few, there's quite a lot more. I’m not sure where I'm going to be in five years, I hope I'm healthy and that my brain is still functioning and my family is still okay and hopefully in five years I'll be more satisfied and content with the way things are happening, who knows maybe not, maybe it’s for ever. Well as I say I can’t thank you enough Nuno. Pleasure. It’s a real privilege to meet you. My pleasure thank you.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st May 2012

Nuno Mendes, Chef/Patron, Viajante, London

IN ASSOCIATION WITH