Miami-based chef José Mendin is also an acclaimed restaurateur, food expert for Vivemejor.com—and a recent dad. His culinary influences include classic Latin flavors from his Puerto Rican roots as well as a distinct Asian palate as well. Recently, Mamiverse Food sat down with Chef Jose to get his thoughts on food and family.
Mamiverse: You clearly come from a culinary family with the unique luck of having your great-grandmother as a professional culinary instructor. How did she influence your learning to cook? Was she particularly hard on you? Are there dishes you made together?
Mendin: As a little boy, I wanted to cook with her but I couldn’t because I was too young. However, she was able to open my mind to ingredients that I would normally as a kid not have tried. For example, I remember she had me taste beef tongue and told me it’s was steak! Another time, she gave me frog legs and told me it was chicken. I grew up enjoying her recipes and finally learned them through my mother when I was older.
Mamiverse: It sounds like your dad is also passionate about cooking and food. Can you share any stories of cooking with your dad or how he influenced you as an early cook?
Mendin: My dad can’t cook an egg, but his passion for food made me fall in love with the industry. He is a foodie and traveler at heart and goes 2-3 times a year to Europe just to visit his favorite food spots. When I was growing up, every Sunday he would take the entire family to try a new restaurant. It was definitely something I looked forward to and that inspired me to become a chef. When I told him I wanted to pursue culinary school, he challenged me by getting me my first job in the kitchen of a close friend’s restaurant. It was not easy, but his passion was so influential that ever since then I wanted, and still want, to make him proud with what he likes most: good food and good service.
Mamiverse: What are some of your favorite preparations in classic Puerto Rican cooking? Is there anything you feel is misunderstood about the cuisine?
Mendin: If you ask me, Puerto Rican cuisine should be considered comfort food. I am Puerto Rican and obviously grew up with all its flavors, but not many people know that our cuisine comes from a mix of cultures such as African, Native Indians, Spanish and Caribbean. One of the traditional side dishes that will always be served on my table are Tostones with a mix of America’s favorite Mayo Hellmann’s® Real and ketchup, something we call mayo-ketchup.
Mamiverse: Some of your early training involved working with Asian inspired dishes and ingredients which you successfully continue to do today in your restaurants. What similarities do you see between Latin and Asian cooking?
Mendin: Asian cuisine has ingredients I never saw until working in Asian restaurants. Both Latin and Asian cuisines are very flavorful and I enjoy incorporating their ingredients into my cooking. However, I am very respectful of every recipe I prepare, so I only use these new ingredients to highlight its flavors.
Mamiverse: Let’s talk about the word chef’s dislike “fusion.” Why is that an inaccurate description of the food of two or more cultures coming together?
Mendin: Sometimes I am a bit thrown off by the word fusion, because it may be used as an excuse to mix ingredients that don’t really make sense together. However, there is nothing wrong with fusion cuisine when done properly and to make the recipe better and unique. I do this a lot at my restaurant but I have years of working these ingredients, so I know how to use them the right way.
Mamiverse: You have also spent time in Spain. Can you share with us what is your feeling about what is going on now in contemporary Spanish food?
Mendin: In my opinion, Spanish contemporary cuisine is going to a higher level with new ways of making traditional dishes taste better and more fun. I first encountered this food in 2002 when a restaurant called La Broche opened in Miami with students from Chef Ferran Adrià, who is considered one of the best chefs in the world. I went to eat there and was so blown away by their flavors that I knew I had to go to Spain to learn from them. La Broche closed its doors a year after opening; Miami was not ready for it yet, but in Spain, I learned how to take old recipes and make them even more flavorful with modern techniques.
Mamiverse: You are also a dad—can you share some thoughts on cooking with your son—how are you introducing him to food and cooking? Any advice for Moms trying to do the same? What are some ways to train a child’s palate?
Mendin: As I always say, there is the chef at the restaurant and the chef at home, and they are completely different! For instance, at home you don’t have an assistant that cleans for you, or the same time to prepare a dish. You want to be fast and effective at home, especially when cooking with your kids.
My son is not a big fan of veggies, so I’ve introduced him to fun ways to prepare them. For example, we toss green beans with a little bit of Country Crock® and toasted almonds, and he loves them! Eight out of 10 kids think veggies with Country Crock® are delicious, my son included. As a food expert for Vivemejor.com, I can recommend making it easy, tasty and fun for your kids to enjoy some of the foods they struggle to eat at meal time.
Mamiverse: For anyone thinking about entering a culinary career, what’s your advice?
Mendin: It is very important that you love food and cooking, otherwise it won’t work out. It really takes a lot of passion to make it in the food industry.
Recipes courtesy of Vivemejor.com.
Learn more about Chef José Mendin.