Vitals: Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico; the second of three brothers; father, Jorge, is a lawyer; mother, Zayda, is a stay-at-home mom. Earned a Bachelor’s in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University. Now 33, he’s a single dad to 4-year-old Ian Jose.
Experience: Worked the line at Nobu Miami; Executive Chef and later Assistant Corporate Chef at SushiSamba in Miami and Las Vegas; opened South Beach’s hot Pubbelly restaurant in the Fall of 2010 with partners Sergio Navarro (pastry chef and overseer of restaurant design) and Andreas Schreiner (marketing and administration guru.) Since then, Mendín and his partners have gone into empire-building mode: they opened two more restaurants (Pubbelly Sushi and Barceloneta, both on the same block as the original) and one more is scheduled to open later this year.
On being nominated for a James Beard Award this year: “A friend of mine called and said ‘Hey, you’ve been nominated.’ I went onto my computer and was sure it was a big mistake. When I got to their website I saw it was true. I couldn’t believe it.”
On becoming a chef/owner: “We put everything into the restaurant, all of our money. When we opened we all we had was $1,000 in the bank. Sergio and I cooked all the food and Andreas sat guests because we couldn’t afford to hire anyone. We did our own publicity using Facebook and word of mouth. We gambled it all, and it turned out great. On our first day, there was a line of people waiting to get it.”
Food philosophy: “The food I cook is a result of the experiences I’ve had and who I am. The French techniques I learned in school and cooking in other kitchens. The sushi I spent so many years cooking. The Spanish food I learned to cook when I worked in Spain for several months. Y que soy boricua. I’ll never stop being boricua. All of that comes out in my food.”
Favorite quote: “El que no está orgulloso de su origen nunca valdrá nada porque empieza por despreciarse a si mismo.” (He who is not proud of his origin will never be worth anything because he begins by devaluing himself.) It’s a quote from the late Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement.
Childhood kitchen memories: “My mother ruled over her kitchen. No one was allowed in there. She kept it clean and organized—we couldn’t even wear shoes in there. She made dinner every night, except for Friday when my dad, who was a restaurant aficionado, would either take her or all of us out. If he was taking just her, we had to fend for ourselves!”
Favorite dish Mami made him: “Fricasé de pollo. And the tostones con mayo-ketchup that were always at the center of the table no matter what we were eating.”
How he knew he wanted to cook: “I was in college at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez all set to study psychology—but I didn’t like it and I wasn’t very good. I was unhappy and I’d stay home from class sometimes and cook for my friends who came over when they got out of school. That I liked.” At first, however, his parents weren’t so sure. “My dad made me go work in a restaurant for a year before he agreed to pay for my culinary school. So I started as a dishwasher, and it was whole new world for me. Once, they asked me to go get an eggplant from the refrigerator, and I didn’t even know what an uncooked eggplant looked like. There were tough days, but I knew this is what I wanted.”
The bet he has with his dad: “My dad’s always had a mustache. He bet me that if I win a James Beard or am named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef he would shave off his mustache. I was nominated this year for Beard but I didn’t make it to the finals, so his mustache is still there.” For now.
Below, Chef Mendín shares a recipe for Pubbelly’s popular heirloom tomato salad, which like many of his other dishes, puts on display his ease with ingredients from around the world and his knack for blending flavors. Still, it’s simple enough to make at home just about any kind of tomato you have on hand.
For the salad
4 large heirloom tomatoes (or any fresh tomato) cut into 2-in cubes
4 white pearl onions, thinly sliced
2 cups fresh blueberries
3 T Ponzu (see recipe below)
4 3-oz pieces soft tofu
1 T olive oil
A small drizzle of sesame oil
A pinch of sea salt
2 chives, thinly sliced for garnish
For the Ponzu
2 cups rice wine vinegar
1 cup white soy sauce (you can substitute with light soy sauce)
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1. In a large mixing bowl, toss the tomatoes with the onions and blueberries, and dress with the Ponzu.
2. Place a piece of tofu into each of four individual small bowls. Arrange the tomato mix around the tofu. Drizzle with the olive oil, then the sesame oil. Sprinkle with sea salt and garnish with chives. Serves 4.