With his buzzy Portuguese restaurant in East London and his role as Executive Chef at A-list favourite Chiltern Firehouse, chef Nuno Mendes is a man who can sure keep those plates spinning. In his gorgeous new book, Lisboeta: Recipes from Portugal’s City of Light, he goes back to his roots and celebrates the cuisine that first inspired him. Here, he reveals his insider guide to where to drink and dine in Lisbon, the city closest to his heart.
Who or what was your biggest inspiration as a young chef?
Growing up in Lisbon, there weren’t any really high end or cutting-edge restaurants, but the quality of our ingredients was very good – most products were organic, and things just grew naturally. I was completely taken by the seafood; our amazing cuttlefish, squid, clams, oysters and prawns. This really spurred me on, and was my biggest inspiration. We had a farm and I grew up observing a nose-to-tail eating before it was a dining trend, and was what people eat in the countryside. In my cooking, I use a lot of pork and seafood so it’s in my DNA and what I feel passionate about.
You’ve travelled extensively and your dishes have a variety of global influences. What made you want to go back to your Lisboan roots with your new book Lisboeta: Recipes from Portugal’s City of Light?
I wanted to really delve into my early experiences and go to the birthplace of everything, and I wanted to capture the city’s rhythm – the way we eat [Lisboans] is interesting. I tried to capture the recipes that I grew up eating, flavours that inspired me, and my take on those alongside classical dishes you can find in Lisbon. It’s a very exciting city. There are a lot of young chefs cooking and the traditional Portuguese product and style is really highlighted. For a long time, we hid it, or weren’t confident enough to champion it, but now with the quest for new cuisines and influx of tourism, it’s perfect for us to be able to showcase technique, ingredients and tell stories that are close to our hearts.
For a long time, Lisbon was trying to appease. There was an attempt to offer people what we thought they wanted, whether that was Spanish or Chinese. Now we have the confidence to say, ‘look, if you come to Portugal you’re going to have Portuguese food and we’re going to tell you a story’. This has really reenergised the restaurant scene, which was at one point a bit old and fading.
When putting the book together, were the recipes ones that have been in your archive for a while, or did you create them especially?
They are recipes that I grew up eating, that I wanted to do my own version of while remaining as close as I can to their origins. There are a couple of recipes that I do at Taberna do Mercado [Nuno’s East London restaurant], like the custard tart recipe we developed. I wanted to have an honest and super tasty way to capture Lisbon and its food.
The book is accessible, so you’re able to cook from it at home. I want to offer food that people can cook easily; it’s not just a coffee table book! You can take it to the kitchen and have fun with it.
Is there one dish that is closest to your heart?
There are so many! This is a really personal book with so many childhood stories and memories – all the recipes are close to my heart. Really, it’s about the way I like to cook Portuguese food; lots of the recipes are sharing plates and big pots of stuff. It’s honest and super tasty.
Portuguese have such a strong, diverse pool of influences in our cooking because of where we’ve been, and Libson is really the convergence of that – we use spices, we use chili, lots of coriander and fermented ingredients. It’s a unique way of cooking and I hope I’ve captured that in the book.
When you return to Lisbon, where do you like to eat?
Chef José Avillez has amazing projects in Lisbon – Belcanto, Barrio do Avillez and Cantina Peruana. I love Alexandre Silva, who’s got a restaurant called Loco. It’s experimental, and cutting edge. They’re really pushing the envelope while using Portuguese ingredients and telling a Portuguese story, and have just been awarded a Michelin star, and another chef friend of mine, João Rodruiges has an amazing riverfront restaurant called Feitoria. Technically he’s one of the best chefs in Lisbon, and again it’s all about local product but elevating it to a fine-dining level.
Where do you recommend for excellent local wines…?
There’s a new wave of wine bars now stocking really progressive local products.
Café Tati sells excellent natural wines from Portugal that you can drink in or buy to go. That’s quite rare, as the natural wine scene hasn’t really kicked off in Lisbon yet. It’s a cool, authentic little spot and the jazz is great too.
…and the best cocktails?
My favourite place is Cinco Lounge in Barrio Alto, it’s been open for years but the cocktails are so special and progressive. When you’re in Lisbon you really want to enjoy being outside – there are amazing rooftops there. The Insolito on the top of Independence Hotel is a fun but casual place, and the cocktails are awesome. It has a really old-school lift that takes you to the rooftop. There’s an old derelict factory close to the riverfront, LX Factory, that was going to be demolished but eventually creatives were allowed use the space. Today, it’s full of studios, workshops, bars and restaurants. Its rooftop bar overlooking the bridge is Rio Mararvilha and is perfect for sundowner drinks. It has a cool Brooklyn vibe.
What markets or delis are your favourite for picking up artisanal Portuguese produce?
On Saturdays at Príncipe Real Park there’s a great organic market that sells local farmers’ produce alongside crafts. Then there’s a flea market, Fiera de Ladra, that’s pretty crazy, where you can find authentic antiques and clothing. Around Príncipe Real, you’ll find excellent design shops, too.
How has the Lisbon food scene changed over the last decade?
What makes me the proudest, is to see Portuguese chefs doing Portuguese food. They’re no longer trying to hide their Portuguese roots; they’re showcasing them so the product is much better. Instead of using average ingredients that have been flown in, they’re using traditional, indigenous ingredients. The scene is becoming more advanced – even scientific – but is, above all, honouring its heritage.