Portrait of a Palate, Chef Mendoza and The Unión Dinner Series

Collaborative to the core, writer and reviewer David Immel attended the first of Chef Robert Mendoza’s The Unión Dinner Series. Chef Mendoza worked with friends and family to create a narrative dining experience, blending story and food. Edited by MSK, illustration by Greg Bemis.



Chef Robert Mendoza glowed as he planned the Unión Dinner Series. The creation process consumed him. His commitment to passion showed in the details: his auntie Leonor hand formed tortillas and tamales because he asked her to out of respect, the thirteen hours it took to make his mole negro, the pairing of juices with each course that highlighted new tastes in old standbys, the difficult and fussy hand stretched queso oaxaca, the tablecloths that came from his family.

As one of Chef Mendoza’s housemates, the dinner had even more depth for me. I saw him pouring over cook’s books after working long hours at Fireside restaurant in Portland, Oregon. I had never seen someone shine with creative light while drafting a menu.


Unión Dinner Series Menu

The night of the dinner brought me out of the cold and into a drafty back room at Old Salt Market, a converted garage space. The room soon warmed with space heaters and cooking smells, with close seating at two long tables. The food arrived, well paced, with Chef Mendoza’s shy smiling stories. One of the highlights for me was the fish course: rock fish, quickly blanched in salt water, chilled and served al crudo style with a jalapeno, lime, basil, and cilantro dressing paired with a fan of fresh avocado. His auntie Leonor got fresh ashes to bleach the corn that went into her tamales. She also made one of the best fresh cheeses I’ve ever had. The ‘corn water,’ or agua de pinole, was similar to but lighter than horchata. It was revelation in beverage form, it paused the meal and stood on its own. The parting touch was Mexican hot chocolate, made with water in tiny cups.

  pescado-de-roca-crudo   ensalata-de-queso-oaxaca

Pescado de Roca Crudo                     Ensalata de Queso Oaxaca

The food reflected the creative glow. Chef Mendoza would tell a story before each dish was served. Each element of each dish was connected by his stories, short and awkward at times, but still those stories showed how much he loved what he was doing, and the he loved what he was doing for the sake of letting others love it too. There was no conceit, no self-aggrandizement, no sales pitch for the commodity of Chef Mendoza. It was a love for his history, a love for the process of creation, and a love for the people who taught him to love creativity. His humble little introductions, sometimes only a sentence or two, made the meal come alive as art.

One of the things that made the dinner an incredible experience was that Chef Mendoza was in the room, setting plates, introducing each course, and giving insights into the recipes and his relationship with the dish being served. His aged auntie, Leonor, was there, cooking at tableside. The farmer, Mark Wooten of Phantom Rabbit Farms, who Chef Mendoza became friends with through his employer was there helping to prep, cook and serve the meal.

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 Auntie Lenor / Chef Mendoza                 Mendoza Family Heirloom Tablecloth

Chef Mendoza’s own personality, his slightly unpracticed, unpolished warmth gave depth to the dining experience. In introducing each course he highlighted how it was meaningful to him: memories of his childhood afterschool snacks, fresh masa tortillas with a marriage of leftover moles; his journey through culinary school’s discovery of technique; his internship at an up-and-coming restaurant in Mexico City where he was inspired to maintain cultural authenticity of farm to plate; talking with a farmer standing over a kale bush that had become a side dish. These small tales brought each dish into a relationship with the Chef, his experiences and his passions. In turn, it invited the diners to share those relationships.

suprise-course-2-fresh-masa-torilla-with-marriage-of-moles   entamatado-de-res

Surprise Course: Fresh Masa & Mole                Entamatado de Res (Beef Stew)

He named the event the Unión Dinner Series. La Unión, Guerrero Mexico is his mother’s hometown. He spent some time there after being raised in Salinas, California and it was there he, “discovered real tacos.” The literal translation of unión, of coming together, has deep meaning for Chef Mendoza. He saw the dinner, both in the creation process and as a finalized event, as a means of coming together of his past and his future, his family support and his successes with friends and strangers, his creativity and his skills.

Chef Mendoza plans another Unión Dinner this spring before he moves north for another internship. He has been accepted as an intern at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Washington. The next Unión Dinner Series will be held March 30th, email for reservations.

huarache-de-vegetales   gallineta-mole-negro

Huarache de Vegetables                Gallineta (Quinea Fowl 3 Ways)

helado-de-horchata   suprise-course-of-fresh-vegetable-tamales-with-mole-rosa

Horchata Ice Cream                               Fresh Vegetable Tamales w/ Mole


Leo Daedalus Interview, The Late Now

Young & Fictitious writer David Immel sat down with Leo Daedalus, creator and host of “The Late Now” to talk about the show and Greek mythology.

Daedalus, a driven intellect, created “The Late Now” to showcase his passion for collaboration: the talk show/late night/variety show format is filled with the Northwest’s artists and characters, brought into focus by Daedalus’ wit. Daedalus researches his guests; he shares what he’s gained from looking into their worlds. Daedalus brings a monthly event out of his imagination and passion for eclectic subjects. He intends to re-invigorate the dusty format of the variety show, to make it alive with people engaging with their passions. Check the website (www.thelatenow.com) for more information. The next show is Thursday, February 6, 8:30.

Q: So Leo, I’m no journalist and wasn’t sure how to proceed with an interview; I decided to go with my strengths: my curiosity and my listening skills. If it’s alright with you we’ll collaborate on this ‘interview.’ I won’t record it or take notes. I’ll use my listening skills to recall your statements, write these statements into a draft of an article and then ask you to review that draft. That way this will be more of a collaborative writing effort than a traditional interview…

A: Sounds fine to me. I’m all about collaboration.

Q: Great! I struggled with questions to ask then decided to go with what I was curious about. Anyone can get the who, what, when, where and why about “The Late Now” and basic biographical information from your websites. Beyond the basics, my curiosity leads me to three questions and two statements. Shall we?

A: I’m intrigued by the format you suggest and one of my main intents in producing “The Late Now” is collaborating…let’s give it a try…

Q: First question: What would the uninitiated find in “The Late Now?”

A: Primarily the event is a variety show, like the late night TV show format. I interview guests; there’s always live music and interviews, sometimes sketches or radio plays, all sorts of antics and laughter. I feel strongly that the variety show format has tremendous room for vitality and try to bring that dusty old format alive. The late night TV shows have become nothing other than vehicles for commercial purposes; everyone on there has something to sell. One of the purposes of “The Late Now” (TLN) is to entertain and inform. I try and keep things moving, keep them alive and kind of unpolished in a way that prioritizes the in-the-moment connection. Time and time again people come up to me and say something like, ‘I laughed the whole time and learned something along the way,’ that’s what I want: people to laugh and think.

Q: First statement: From your imagination, describe the experience of a first-timer to TLN.

A: Like the old time variety shows, like Steve Allen or early Carson there is looseness, unpredictability, approachability, a sense of we-don’t-really-know-what-were-doing-but-we’re-having-a-blast about the event. I want to bring together artists, thinkers, and types of creative people who don’t usually mix. I think there is often a balkanization among artistic communities, among supporters of artistic endeavors: the poets don’t always mix with the dancers; the philosophers don’t really know the chefs. I want to create a space for these people, the creators and their audiences to mix. Say someone hears about the event, knows very little about it and brings a friend along. That friend, not knowing a thing about TLN, I hope will find a space to laugh and walk away thinking. I hope to create a space for people to really enjoy being exposed to new things. Sadly, for some it’s a rare experience to really enjoy learning, especially about things they don’t see themselves being interested in. Too often we’re a bit intimidated, by say opera, it seems too tough to learn about it, to enjoy it. TLN may be in some small way a safe place to relax into being informed. I hope to revitalize the old variety show structure first with guests, passionate people who share what they love with me, with an audience. Second with a loose approach that allows for fun and unpredictability. Third with a sense of space for exploration of ideas.

Q: Second question: For the cognoscente, the guy-in-the-know, why come to this one, this TLN#19 next week?

A: They can expect to be entertained; not just to laugh, but to be engaged. If they know the show from previous shows or they know one of the guests but have not been to a show before they can find a space to be excited about creative, passionate people sharing their craft, their passions. They can, of course, always expect the unexpected. The lack of excessive polish I go for allows engagement with the moment, responsiveness to passionate exchange that is the here-and-now.

Q: Instead of the Late “Show” it’s the Late “Now.”

A: Yes! There’s a lot of resonance in that title that I like to let people dig into for themselves. The preparation for and presentation of the show is what I’m passionate about. I get excited researching, learning about, pursuing guests. It’s one of my creative efforts. It’s one of my crafts. I get to be in the here-and-now with exciting people. And I get to share that with an audience of excited people. I get to collaborate with intriguing people to make a space for creativity to happen. That’s exciting.

Q: Second statement, like the first: from your imagination tell us what the-guy-in-the-know comes away with from TLN#19…

A: Like most shows, our guests this time are very different from each other. I don’t think they would have ever met otherwise. I don’t think their respective audiences have much, if any, overlap. Our imaginary cognoscenti will find themselves entertained and informed. They will have met in an engaging way with ideas that stretched them a bit more. Ideas that fulfilled them in ways they may not have known they hungered for. Also I like to think they will have been a part of the collaboration, part of the creative process. They will have been entertained, sure, but hopefully altered and educated by the ideas, the artfulness. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told audiences have experienced.

Q: Third question, in a completely different direction: Is there an overlap between the myth of Daedalus and your event?

A: (laughs, is hesitant for the first time in the interview) yes, yes I think there is….funny enough, maybe 90% of people see my name and freeze because they don’t know how to pronounce it. For another small percentage it tickles a memory about Ancient Greece….another few know the myth or the James Joyce connection from Ulysses and can interpret something….tell me why you ask….

Q: Well, when I saw your name I immediately thought of the myth and its ‘moral.’ For me, Daedalus, being the inventor of the wings him and his son Icarus used to fly away from their prison, for me Daedalus was the one who succeeded. We think of Icarus falling. Daedalus succeeded, he flew out. For me the moral of Daedalus’ humility, his hard won, suffered for humility is personal and informs my creativity regularly. His success in escaping his prison of arrogance, his prison of hubris, his ‘middle pathway’ of the humble use of creative genius, is a moral I try to live by. I wondered at the intersection, the overlap of that moral and your creative expression, The Late Now…

A: I definitely like the play of ideas in the myth.  Daedalus suffered the consequences of his pride, his hubris. He found a way out of that prison through humility, as you say. For me the overlap is that space, that middle path. I see that space as the engaging, lively exploration of creativity. That looseness that I strive for as a host is on that middle pathway of humility. I’m not trying to strike it rich or sell commercials for movies or cars. I’m trying to allow a space to be made for passionate engagement to happen, for passionate engagement to inform, fill up people, and excite them. I’d like to think that that’s a humble middle way. Perhaps the overlap is this: using my creative talent for bringing people together while staying in the moment. The here-and-now, that is a kind of middle way…it’s really exciting there, full of potential…

The Late Now… hosted by Leo Daedalus



Thursday February 6, 8:30pm. Din Din Supper Club 920 NE Glisan, Portland OR