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
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.
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.
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 Vegetables Gallineta (Quinea Fowl 3 Ways)
Horchata Ice Cream Fresh Vegetable Tamales w/ Mole