His Portugal

The point at which I finally gave up on renowned Chef George Mendes was when I realized that it took three (3) whole chickens to make his “Spring Chicken Rice” (page 114 of his book My Portugal).  I will expound on that later.  George Mendes is the executive chef of Aldea, a Michelin starred restaurant in New York City, and is the son of Portuguese immigrants from Danbury Connecticut.   He studied at the world-famous Culinary Institute of America and worked at Bouley under the instruction of chef David Bouley. He subsequently trained under Alain Passard at L’Arpege in Paris.

I followed his career with appreciation since like me he is the son of Portuguese parents and has an unbridled passion for cooking.  He is an ambassador for Portuguese cuisine and culture who has cemented his place in the annals of Portuguese and American culinary artists.

So, when I finally purchased his cookbook recently, I was disappointed.  Primarily because it is pretentious.  Nowhere is it more evident than in his “Spring Chicken Rice”.  Mr. Mendes describes the dish as being in the spirit of his family’s rabbit rice which is “homey”.  This is anything but homey which means relaxed and laidback.  It takes three chickens, two different stocks and an entire afternoon just to “mise en place” (getting everything ready before you begin to cook a dish). Here is what happens to each of the birds:

  1. A regular chicken stock is made from the first chicken which Mr. Mendes says you should let cook for 3 hours.
  2. The second chicken is used to make a “brown chicken stock” utilizing 3 quarts of the regular chicken stock above. He gives no cooking time, but it took me almost two hours to get this stock to the desired consistency he described.
  3. Finally, the third chicken is used to make the “spring chicken rice” which took an hour and a half to make.

It takes five hours to merely create the stock of the dish, but you aren’t ready to begin making the dish.  You also must make a “refogado” which he describes as the Portuguese sofrito which he mispells (he spells it soffritto).  A sofrito is a Spanish origin confit of garlic, onion, peppers, and tomatoes cooked in olive oil. It is used as a base for many dishes, especially stews and rice preparations.  The Portuguese call it refogado, but it isn’t anything close to what he describes.  I learned how to cook from my parents, worked in a Portuguese restaurant and been around Portuguese establishments for years and I never witnessed a Portuguese chef use anything resembling what Mr. Mendes describes.

A refogado in Portuguese cuisine is the preliminary step in dishes where you sauté or sweat your aromatics along with onions and garlic in an olive oil base.  There are rarely any tomatoes in it, and you don’t prepare it ahead of time and jar to be used in other dishes.  It becomes part of the dish you are making from the onset. To make his refogado you must peel, and seed tomatoes then cook them with the onions and garlic for at least an hour.  This takes to prep time for his “spring chicken” up to six hours before you even turn the as on for this “spring chicken”.

When you finally do begin to make the dish you better break out the reading glasses because the recipe is spread out over two pages.  The steps are exhausting as you must put in different parts of the chicken at different times.  The aromatics are placed somewhere in the middle and you must babysit the arborio rice.  I hate using arborio rice for this reason.  The starchiness of the rice along with its almost impenetrable coating means it must cook for a long time.  You essentially keep feeding it stock along the way because unlike other rice grains there is no liquid formula allowing you to place a pre-determined amount of liquid at the onset for it to cook.

The final dish isn’t worth the time and expense.   In New Jersey a whole organic chicken costs $7.99 so before you start to make the dish you are already down $24.  For all the time spent it just tastes like chicken and rice.  There is nothing that jumps out at you that justifies the steps taken to get there.  You are anything but a spring chicken when you finish making it.

The problem I have with the book is that it isn’t practical for the home chef.  I don’t have a cadre of kitchen staff to divide up the work and I certainly don’t have the time to make what is essentially chicken with rice.  The “spring chicken” is just one example of his overbearing and over achieving recipes.  His “tomato rice” takes forever to make and doesn’t even resemble the Portuguese classic version.  It is more tomato risotto than tomato rice.  His caldeirada (Red Snapper with Shellfish, tomato and saffron) ignores the very basic requirement of layering and placing all the ingredients into the pot cold in the beginning.  That is the hallmark of the dish and what essentially makes it so delicious.  He uses so many bells and whistles, including a sous vide step, that it becomes daunting.

The book is aptly named “My Portugal” because the Portugal he describes (using recipes and stories) isn’t the Portugal I know.    It is his interpretation of Portuguese cuisine and to his credit he has made a name for himself.  He achieved the greatest honor a chef can hope for when they awarded him a Michelin star.  I understand the notion that one must place their stamp on a genre to make it unique.  There are hundreds and maybe even thousands of Portuguese cookbooks so who needs another one unless it is unique or has an interesting spin?  He achieves that with “My Portugal” for it is nothing like what we see in typical Portuguese cookbooks or any cookbook for that matter.  Where he fails is in making his food accessible and practical for the home chef.  It isn’t exactly “WD-50” by Wylie Dufresne (where you need laboratory equipment to make the food) but it isn’t something you can make on a weekday either.  I don’t mind the elaborate steps or challenge because it is through difficult recipes that we grow as home chefs.  What I object to is the fact that the finished product doesn’t warrant the time or expense involved.