George Mendes and Daniel Patterson on Restaurant Milestones and the Appeal of Failure

“If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.” Photo: Liz Clayman

Yesterday, in honor of Aldea’s five-year anniversary, Coi chef Daniel Patterson flew in from San Francisco to collaborate with George Mendes on a one-night-only tasting menu. It was as much a celebration of their friendship as it was of their longevity in the industry. (As Patterson says, “Once you get to be 5, it’s okay.”) Grub used the opportunity to sit down with them before dinner to discuss the challenges of being a chef-owner, how the New York restaurant scene compares to San Francisco’s, and if either chef has plans to open a new restaurant here.

How did this collaboration come about?
Mendes: I met Daniel maybe four or five years ago, and I had an opportunity to dine at Coi. I always kept in the back of my head that one day, I was going to have him come to Aldea and cook with me. And a few months ago, my GM and I started to talk about how we were going to celebrate our fifth-year anniversary, and I said that I wanted to bring back the guest-chef series. It’s an honor to have him here in a small little restaurant in New York City.

And Daniel, you’ve visited New York several times in the past few months. What’s the allure that’s pulling you to the city?
Patterson: My friends, that’s it. One thing that I think is so important is to celebrate five years: It’s a real milestone, and I’m always amazed when I come to New York at how hard it is to run a restaurant here. I have so much respect for the people who not only cook here, but cook and own their own restaurant. Ginger Rogers had this great quote about Fred Astaire. She said, “I did everything he did, except backwards and in high heels,” and that’s kind of the difference between being a chef and a chef-owner. So I was really happy to come here and celebrate what I think is a significant milestone. Because once you get to be 5, it’s okay.

Mendes: Really? [Laughs.]

Daniel: Trust me, it’ll get better eventually. I think. I’m still waiting myself.

What are some of the unique challenges of running a restaurant in New York?
Mendes: The saying goes: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. I don’t necessarily believe that, but it’s definitely a challenging place. It’s your restaurant. You’re the image. It’s your house. To have that opportunity to express who you are as a chef to your customers without anything else getting in the way — I mean, there are 30 or 40 or 50 more headaches that come with it — but I’ll take them anytime over having to collaborate or report back.

Just yesterday, Daniel and I were talking like, “Man, don’t you some days just want to be a line cook?” I would love to come in and go to my locker, change into my uniform, go to my station, unpack my knives, put my phone away, and just run a station and say, “Yes, chef, yes, chef, yes, chef.”

Patterson: It’s so funny: The young kids want our jobs, and we want theirs, because you don’t realize when you’re a young cook what a special time it is when you’re learning the craft. One of the things that I love about New York is that there are so many talented chefs here, but also so many people that are dedicated to hospitality — who are devoting their life to their profession. George and I share values, and our focus is on people being happy. That’s all you care about in the end. Youth is always impatient, and I’m the last person who should talk, because I was 25 when I opened my first restaurant, but I’d already been cooking for 11 years at that point. I still knew nothing, but I had no idea how little I knew at that moment, because now I still feel like I know nothing.

Mendes: I have those revelations in the morning a lot, and at night.

Patterson: And you discover something — a little thing about a dish to make it better — and you’re like, “I cannot believe that I was doing that all wrong!” I think the really compelling reason to come here and cook is the sense of community. It’s friendship. I feel like that more than anything, and especially as I get older, that’s the most important. That’s what you hope to create in the restaurant: this sense of the table, which I think we’ve lost a lot in this country.

Do you ever still think about opening a place here?
Daniel: No. At one point, my friend was going to open a bar. He designs all my restaurants, and he said, “Would you do the food?” I’m like, “Of course!” Which somehow became, I’m opening a restaurant here. I do not see a time at which I would be capable of opening a restaurant in New York and running it as well as I could run it in San Francisco … The more I cook here, the more I realize, Wow, I’ve got it really good in San Francisco. It’s a much — I don’t want to say easier — but I know the difficulties. I know the purveyors. I know the systems. I know the city very well. I would have to start from ground zero, and there are so many good restaurants here, I’m not sure they really need one more person coming and opening another place.

Patterson stayed focused in Aldea’s kitchen.Photo: Liz Clayman

Here, there’s this hype-beast culture surrounding restaurants — everyone is obsessed with what’s brand-new. George, how do you respond to that?
Mendes: I’ve felt pressure every day since I opened the doors. Yeah, there’s new restaurants opening up every week. There’s the hot new restaurant. There are the great restaurants that have been here for 25-plus years. It comes down to staying relevant and believing in what you’re doing … Someone asked me today, “How’s five years? How’s it been?” And it’s been nothing but up and down. A roller-coaster ride of real highs and real lows.

You’re introducing a casual concept for the first time in Madison Square Park, 100 Sardines. Is that something you’re planning on building upon?
Mendes: Stay tuned. We’re going to have a lot of fun with that. We’re going to really put out true, rustic, simple Portuguese dishes — some sandwiches, some great rice dishes. And we’re going to be grilling. I describe it as Aldea’s bad baby brother.

More than ever, chefs are opening fast-casual spin-offs. Beyond the financial benefits, what’s the appeal?
Mendes: To do this level of high-standard cooking, and living up to the level of Michelin and all that, it’s backbreaking work. Daniel and I both enjoy it, but at the same time, there are days where we both just want to grill a piece of fish and throw some sea salt and lemon on it. Daniel has Coi, and then he has a number of other casual restaurants that I’m sure have the same high standards of excellence and food, just a lot simpler.

Daniel: I’m really lucky. I was thinking when you were talking about what happens to a restaurant — how it improves when it gets older. A lot of it is about the team. I’ve known my business partner for 13 years. Since we started opening restaurants, he’s the one who’s been overseeing them. I only have to cook at Coi. I’m in the mix at the other ones: I’ll taste things, stick my hand in to some degree, but I also have a family. I have two kids, so I get to do my own cooking at home, and then the restaurant cooking is restaurant cooking.

Daniel, you opened your restaurant when you were only 25. What do you think about this uproar over Flynn McGarry’s New York Times Magazine cover?
Patterson: I have no comment.

Mendes: It’s good to start young, but it takes a lot more work. Be careful with the media. Learn the craft.

Patterson: The only thing I would say is: If you want to be a woodworker, you can’t just go out and buy a saw and a piece of great wood and think that you’re going to turn it into something special. It’s the same thing with cooking. It just takes time. It takes so many hours logged to begin to get the kind of mastery that’ll allow you to execute at a high level. It’s just one of those things.

It’s like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
Patterson: Ten thousand hours, exactly. But they have to be diligent hours. You can’t just show up and go through the motions. There has to be a sense of passion and drive for a certain kind of excellence. You can’t get there quickly. You can’t rush it. I think what’s great is when people get inspired to want to go into the profession for good reasons — because they want to cook for someone, out of generosity, out of a sense of hospitality and community. It’s not possible to have too many good, committed cooks at any level … If your motivation is not to make people happy, I don’t think you’re ever going to be a good cook.

Mendes: It’s a craft about consistency. It’s about every day coming in and cleaning artichokes the same way, making the sauce the same way, and being consistent. Consistency is everything. You have to enjoy it and love doing it.

Patterson: The boringness in the kitchen is really born from a desire to give everyone the same level — not to have anyone have anything that is wrong in any way. We’re human. We fail … It’s about risk-taking and acceptance of failure. That’s the big thing for my restaurant: we’ve taken a lot of risks in a big sort of way, and they’ve largely worked out. But in little moments, we’ve tried things that haven’t worked. But if you’re not doing that, you’re not discovering new things.

Mendes: If you’re not failing, you’re not growing. I believe that strongly.

Patterson: In a funny sort of way, I think failure is intrinsic. You have to have a certain percentage of what you do just not be right, otherwise it’s too safe and you’re just going to start going backwards. I think that’s true that, as a restaurant gets older, it can get complacent. You have to fight against that every day, and come in and say, How can we be a little bit better than we were yesterday?

Mendes: Right on.

BFFs.Photo: Liz Clayman

George Mendes and Daniel Patterson on Restaurant Milestones and the Appeal of