Chiltern Firehouse chef Nuno Mendes: ‘It seems like there are people who had an agenda to come in and knock us’ (ES Magazine)

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Chiltern Firehouse is London’s hottest dining destination. Now its Michelin-starred head chef is branching out, opening up his own restaurant on the other side of town — and it couldn’t be more different. So what’s eating Nuno Mendes, asks Victoria Stewart.

Never in London’s history has one dining room generated so many column inches in so little time. Since it opened 16 months ago, Chiltern Firehouse has hosted virtually every A-lister there is — from Eddie Redmayne to Kate Moss to Bill Clinton and the Camerons. Everyone from Nigella to Kylie has sat on its vaulted smoking terrace accessed via a secret door in the toilets. Come nightfall, a pack of paparazzi loiter outside the gated entrance on Marylebone’s Chiltern Street; there’s a back door to avoid the scrum.

The Firehouse is owned by André Balazs, the suave hotelier behind Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont and The Mercer in New York. When it opened, securing a table the conventional way was almost impossible, with diners told it was ‘full for the foreseeable’. As one newspaper put it: ‘Unless your name is written on the Hollywood Walk of Fame then you may as well give up.’

So the arrival of a bijou restaurant from the chef behind it all — Michelin star-winning Portuguese import Nuno Mendes — in Old Spitalfields Market came as something of a surprise. Taberna do Mercado has a team of just eight, compared to (up to) 52 at Chiltern. Evenings are walk-in only, and the menu is rustic, inspired by Mendes’ childhood and the restaurants of the Alentejo region of southern Portugal. There are Portuguese pastries, house-tinned sardines and sheep’s milk cheeses, plus larger, restorative plates such as açorda, a traditional soup made with cod, bread and egg: ‘Those are the dishes that I really remember and miss.’

As for its East London location, he says: ‘I wanted to do it in a place where we have the footfall and the space to showcase the project.’ Working in a small kitchen, he says, ‘is much easier, it’s so gratifying. It’s fun.’ He doesn’t want it to be ‘a destination’ but ‘a place where you’ll come in and sit down and have some wine and cold snacks… I’ve been trying to do this project for a long time, almost four years I think, but I never found the right site.’

Still, it’s hard to imagine Moss et al queuing up on Commercial Street. One can’t help but wonder if something might be up. After all, Chiltern’s coverage hasn’t always been kind. Newspaper critics were divided; some in raptures, others outright dismissive: ‘The cooking ranges from the merely comforting to the plainly inedible,’ huffed The Telegraph.

Others raged at the impossibility of obtaining a table. Then, last summer, officers from Westminster Council’s food safety team awarded the restaurant only two stars out of a possible five. According to newspaper reports at the time, officials had found dirty surfaces, food served below safe temperatures, poor access to soap and hot water, and broken glass in a freezer. They have sorted the problems out, however — an inspection last week awarded four stars.

All the time, Mendes has maintained a dignified silence, while Balazs is seen out and about at social events, keeping the press titillated with his on-off relationship with Uma Thurman. Almost all major interviews with Mendes have so far been politely declined.The criticism levelled must have been troubling. ‘It seems like there are people who had an agenda to come in and knock us or to say mean things,’ he says, sitting in a café near the Firehouse. Mendes, 42, with a freshly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, is still wearing his trademark kitchen clogs, an old canvas bag slung over one shoulder. ‘It was like, why do you want to hate us? But, whatever.’ He speaks with a soft, transatlantic accent and a heavy helping of Portuguese.

Mendes trained at San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy. After graduating, he spent 15 years working with some of the world’s starriest chefs, such as Wolfgang Puck, the man behind Cut at 45 Park Lane, who caters for the Oscars, and Ferran Adrià at El Bulli. He played a key role in establishing East London’s food scene. In 2006 he opened the gastropub Bacchus and ran one of London’s first supper clubs, The Loft Project, at his Shoreditch flat. Fäviken’s Magnus Nilsson, The Modern Pantry’s Anna Hansen and Noma’s former sous chef Sam Miller all did residencies there.

In 2010 he opened Viajante, in the former Bethnal Green Town Hall, which won a Michelin star in 2012. He closed it at the end of February 2014 before moving to Chiltern Firehouse. Says Mendes of opening a new Viajante: ‘I felt that the project ended abruptly… it was a project that was on its way up so I felt it should somehow have another chance. But maybe in a space where it can be its own entity rather than being part of another entity.’

A year before construction had properly started, Balazs requested a meeting with Mendes at the Firehouse’s building site inside the old Marylebone Fire Station, which dates from 1889. ‘We started speaking about the food and from the moment we spoke I kind of knew… I still have the rough drafts of those menus and most of the signature dishes are still there.’ He and Balazs tried all of the dishes: ‘We did a lot of tastings. I worked with James Truman [Condé Nast’s former editorial director, now global food and beverage director for André Balazs properties] a lot. André is so busy with different things, so James and I were really the ones who spoke on a daily basis.’

Once Chiltern Firehouse opened, sharp-clawed critics weren’t the only challenge Mendes faced. There was the small matter of cooking for the world’s most famous faces. He wasn’t in the kitchen when Clinton visited, although Yoko Ono’s visit did startle him: ‘I was like, “Shit! That’s Yoko Ono!” And I mean, I’m not a big fan but… it’s Yoko Ono! I think that’s the only time I’ve done a double-take. We’ve had some amazing, incredibly talented people coming through that door.’ He’s also had visits from Raymond Blanc, Michel Roux and Alain Ducasse.

He admits the demands of running two restaurants are ‘stressful’. Family time is scarce: ‘My wife misses me. My daughter is four and my twin boys are two. And I miss them. So I try to compensate. Once things settle down we are going to go on a good vacation.’ His South African wife Clarise, whom he met at a friend’s wedding in Malta, looks after their children, having given up her career as a stylist. ‘No matter where you are you always feel guilty because you feel you should be somewhere else. It’s hard.’

His parents divorced when he was young; his father was a pharmacist and he was not close to his mother. He credits his dad and his grandmother for getting him into cooking. The menu of Taberna, says Mendes, is in part a tribute to his father: ‘[He] really taught me so much about food. The first risotto, and the best risotto, I ever had was made by him. And as a kid I would look over the counter and see [my grandmother] and learn. I’m so fortunate that I’ve had such a long education in food.’

Originally published in ES Magazine