I have always been inspired by observing people in their element. Quiet moments lost in the creative process of doing what they love. Observing when someone doesn’t even know they are being observed… absorbing the tiny movements and details that result from passion and precision that have become ordinary to them. I find these moments to be extraordinary: they excite me, they fuel me, they inspire me.
A few months ago I had a very fortunate, chance meeting with Michelin-starred Chef George Mendes. He was cooking at the Bon Appétit test kitchen, preparing a boldly flavored, classic and very rustic dish he had created for Lupulo. It was shrimp and bread porridge, the very same peasant-style dish he grew up eating with his Portuguese family. Upon tasting it, the dish was transportive—so simple yet complex in flavor. In the midst of this creation, we had a quick chat and I very boldly asked if we could cook together for EyeSwoon. To my pleasant surprise, we scheduled a date to cook in the Lupulo kitchen!
About a week later, yet another chance encounter: my husband Victor and I were sat across from Chef George at a dinner party! We discussed our upcoming cooking date and so much more: food, flavors, music, dancing, fly-fishing, relationships, travel, adventure… Discovering that George likes house music, and that we likely shared a Victor Calderone dance floor years ago, was another fateful, swoony twist. And then the food began to arrive, prepared by another great chef, Justin Smillie.
Here is when observation came into play. I watched Chef George plate the food for us from the family sized portions. I was keenly aware, entranced even, of how he delicately held the fork with both elegance and grace, how he plated the food ever-so-artfully, and even how he tasted the food—ceremoniously putting fork to mouth. Each action was precise and deeply rooted, but also quiet. In these simple acts there was passion, purity and honesty. Like the bolt of a flashback memory, I recalled the first time I saw my husband in his element at the recording studio. How he touched his equipment so gently, even how delicately he stroked the vinyl record, back and forth, with the touch of his finger to find just the right spot on the track. There was an art to these very minute actions, these aligned moments and I shared my recollection with George and Victor.
These moments are often overlooked, yet they are so special. In my humble opinion, they are pure magic—they are the moments that make us, us. They capture who we are at our core and what brings each of us to our respective crafts. Just as I saw George in the passionate, simple act of plating food, George also saw me. He noticed things too: he commented on my astute palette and my keen awareness of flavors. You really do get to know someone when you share a meal together—it is an act of vulnerability, really. I could not have dreamed of a better precursor to cooking in the kitchen at Lupulo, for after that dinner I felt like I knew Chef George so intimately.
At Lupulo, we recreated that shrimp porridge dish together (only slightly refined from his childhood days), as well as open-fire wood-roasted piri piri chicken. Cooking on an open flame is the oldest form of cooking and Chef George firmly believes it brings out stronger flavors from any given ingredient. And finally, we made a salad of bright vibrant cucumber and razor clams. Something that Chef George shared with me is forever burned in my memory, he said: “I want each ingredient to taste more like itself”; for the “cucumber to taste more like cucumber, revealing its purity.” And he swears by using the entire ingredient. So, we charred a cucumber’s skin to dust on the salad and also used the meat of that charred interior, we pickled the cucumber, and we simply sliced raw cucumber 2 ways, all offering varying textures and flavors from the same ingredient. What an incredible, swoon-worthy philosophy! At its core, the food represented at Lupulo is free-spirited and authentic, expressing bold, unforgettable flavors. I am honored to have gotten to know Chef George Mendes in those very quite moments of sharing a meal together, and even more so to have been invited into his kitchen. Next, to the dance floor, Chef!
Chef George shares his swoony Shrimp Porridge recipe below and a video here on Bon Appétit