By Mickey Rapkin, GQ
In late 2006, George Mendes, the chef de cuisine at Tocqueville, announced he was leaving to open his own place. Unfortunately, real estate issues, construction delays and the sewer system pushed the opening back for a year, and then two. His Portuguese-inspired restaurant Aldea didn't open until 2009, when it was declared one of the best new restaurants in the country by GQ's Alan Richman. This past weekend, Mendes, taught a class at the New York Culinary Experience where ordinary citizens get to cook alongside the likes of chefs like Alain Ducasse. For his part, Mendes taught participants how to cook with shrimp heads. Mendes explains:
You made Shrimp "Alhinho" (recipe below), which is a Portuguese take on garlic shrimp. Where do people go wrong when making shrimp dishes?
You want to extract the maximum amount of flavor from a given ingredient. So I use shrimp that have their heads on. Most of the flavor of a shrimp is in the head. I make a sauce out of just the heads-where we roast them and add some veggies and some brandy and Pernod, and roast the heck out of them and mash them through a food mill or a press.
Where do you get shrimp with their heads still on?
You can definitely source them. Citarella will get them for you.
Speaking of ingredients, have you been to Mario Batali's Eataly yet? It's in your neighborhood.
Not yet. It's on my list. I have a lot of friends who tell me how spectacular it is. I'm going to make it out there, I just haven't had the opportunity to yet.
You trained at the CIA-the Culinary institute of America. Do you have a horror story from your student days?
I went right from high school into cooking school and I was the youngest in my class. I'm 17 years old, and I fell in love with walking around in the pristine white uniform and white tall hat and slaving over the stove, but I had very little experience. In a lot of the classes you'd have to make three, four, five dishes, and have them ready within an hour and a half. I was constantly struggling. I'd toss and turn at night because I'd try to organize myself as much as possible-to the point where I had Post-it pads and masking tape labeled everywhere. Meanwhile, everybody would be putting out their dishes and I wouldn't be able to put out a single thing. This got burned. Or I cut my finger on this. Or I messed up this recipe. Or I just ran out of time.
You do a lot of sous vide cooking. I was at Williams-Sonoma the other day, and I found a sous vide kit for home use. Is this something people should be trying at home?
Absolutely. Cooking is a science. It's evolving and we're taking advantage of modern day technology. The kit is this immersion circulator, which actually started in the pharmaceutical industry. It's a water bath. You fill up a tub of water. You turn the machine on. It pumps the water, circulates it in a precise temperature range, so you're cooking at exactly 149 degrees Fahrenheit or 65 degrees Celsius. The cut of meat is in a plastic bag and coking slowly. You're applying a very nonaggressive heat to the given product, which results in melting textures, no shrinkage, and preservation of all the juices.
Any other benefits?
You can cook overnight while you're sleeping.
You left Tocqueville to open your own place, Aldea. But it took two years-thanks to real estate troubles, etc. How did you spend your days during the down time?
Banging my head against the wall. I was there every day watching-waiting to see this wall go up, or waiting to see the bathroom take shape. There were numerous delays.
What was the worst construction delay?
There was an issue with plumbing orders being held up, so there was a stop order-a period of three weeks where there was zero happening in the space. I'd walk in and be like, "Well, this sucks." The press was all over me asking about the delay, and no one understood that it's inevitable. I've had this conversation with Keith McNally. No matter who you are or what you are trying to do there is going to be something or another that pops up and you have to sit there and wait.
The signature dish at Aldea is the duck confit fried rice.
If you told me a year and a half ago that people were going to come to Aldea and order the duck dish, I'd be like, "You're a liar. There's no way."
Ha! Where'd the idea come from?
I remember sitting by myself at the chef's counter and looking at the menu in its current state. I thought I needed one more dish on the protein side. I wanted to do something with rice, and I just went back to my mother's cooking. My mom used to cook dinner for my sister and me five or six days a week. Maybe two times a week there was a rice dish-usually with rabbit, or a vegetarian preparation or just beans, chorizo and rice. I wanted to do something with duck, I went back through Portuguese cookbooks and said wait a second, There's a classic rice preparation called arroz de pato, which is a duck rice in a very poor, simple, rustic, grandmother's style.
I love that signature dish was added at the last minute. Most stories about you mention that you're a handsome dude. Have you been approached for a TV cooking show?
Yes I have.
TV is a great vehicle, but at the end of the day I want it to be about Aldea, and me as a chef, as craftsman. I don't want to be a TV chef who is never at my restaurant. I refuse to do that and if you ever see me go down that road, please give me a call and say 'Hey George, you're a liar.' Aldea is my baby, my most important thing. I'm a year and four months old.
I won't say I'll never do it, but it has to be the right thing.
What's the next goal for Aldea?
To keep my seats filled.
Give me three items always in your fridge.
Half and half and coffee in the morning, water and cat food.
2 shrimp heads
1/2 onion, sliced thin
1/2 fennel, sliced thin
5 shallots, sliced thin
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon saffron
1/2 cup brandy
1/2 cup Pernod
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespooon tomato paste
Water, to cover
2 sprigs tarragon
2 sprigs parsley
Canola oil, as needed
.20% Xanthan gum
16 shrimp, cleaned and de-veined
6 garlic cloves, minced
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 tablespoon pimenton
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro
1 tablespoon lemon juice
- Toast the shrimp heads in a thin layer of canola oil. Add mirepoix and spices and sweat till soft.
- Deglaze first with the brandy, then the Pernod.
- Add butter and tomato paste and cook 2 mintues. Cover with water and simmer 30 minutes.
- Take off the stove, add the herbs and infuse 15 minutes. Pass through a food mill then strain through a chinois.
- Allow to cool, then add .2% Xanthan gum by weight and buzz with the beurre mixer.
- Season and sear the shrimp in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil 30 seconds on each side to caramelize. Remove from pan, set aside. Lower the heat and add the remaining olive oil and the minced garlic. Cook the garlic slowly, shaking pan, until lightly golden. Add the pimenton and mix well. Return the shrimp to the pan and let cook another minute on each side. Add the chopped parsley, cilantro, and lemon juice.
- Heat the shrimp essence. Place 4 shrimp in center of each plate. Spoon a small amount the garlic-olive oil mix over the shrimp and then a spoon of the essence on top of and around the shrimp. Top with the paprika filaments and the micro cilantro.
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