What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in one of your kitchens?
Attitude. I usually say speed and attitude. I’m looking for upbeat people, because Mendo is really about this concept of “EAT HAPPY,” and that’s definitely something we look for, for back of the house, too. I know that it might turn some people off, that Mendo has such perky people, but it’s important to us that you eat happy. They’re just sandwiches. Have a nice lunch, and I believe that people who like what they’re doing produce better food. Even if we hire somebody who’s naturally quiet or shy, we try to bring out the happy in them as they’re working. We pay a lot of attention to the work environment, to make sure it’s a place people want to come work. Things like that are very important to us.
Was it a given that you’d become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
Oh no, no, no, I’m a career changer. I went to law school, hated it, quit law, came out to Los Angeles from Chicago, and started finding my way. I went from a pretty good salary to minimum wage, which was a really big leap to do in your mid 20s. I just took the leap of faith. The restaurant industry is meant for a specific personality type, and I for sure am that type. It’s the right business for me, but it’s insane. You’ve got to be a little bit insane to be in this business.
What’s the most recent sandwich you developed, and what was your inspiration and approach?
I think about the shrimp po’ boy. I’ve done the shrimp po’ boy in various, different ways throughout the years, and it sold pretty well. This season though, I came up with an idea, because we had just come up with these candied jalapenos that I was turned on to by chef Josh Smith, who’s the chef at Blue Cow now.
That goes on the deviled eggs, doesn’t it?
Yeah, it goes on the deviled eggs. It also goes on the turkey club. He found this recipe for candied jalapenos, and we tasted it, and I was like, “Oh, my god.” Loved it. So I brought it on to our menu at Mendo, and I paired it with our barbecue seitan torta. I was thinking, “How great would it be to pair with our shrimp po’ boy?” So then I made this Cajun garlic marinated shrimp, which I always knew was a really good shrimp dish. And we have it on a soft roll, and I make a Meyer lemon aioli, which has always been a really great aioli, which I love. So you have your citrus, and your acid, and your creaminess, and then I pair it with our Mendo crispies, to make it feel like it’s kind of fried, but not, and then we put candied jalapenos in there, with tomatoes and romaine. And bacon, so it’s kind of rich and citrusy and spicy, and crunchy, and light. It just invoked all of these sensations. I came up with the idea, and then we tried it, myself and the commissary manager tried it, and we both kind of looked at each other, and were like, “Yeah, that’s it. It’s done.” And I then I brought it over to our R&D meeting, and we all tasted it as a core group, and all of us were like, “That’s it. This is a Mendo sandwich.”
Who’s in these meetings?
Harold is my commissary manager. He produces all the food with me. He’s usually in there. My corporate sous chef, Jenny, is in there. Isabelle, who’s Director of Everything, and then Mario. It was exciting. What’s more exciting is when we feel inside we’ve found a Mendo sandwich. We really feel something represents the brand, and represents all these things that we like in a sandwich, put together, between bread. And we special’d it, and I only special’d it for a week, and I had to actually stop it as a special because we were selling more than 50 a day. It was crazy. It outsold the pork belly banh mi, which has been our #1 sandwich for four years. It’s crazy, but we’re bringing it on for our summer menu, so we’re excited about that.
Do you make your own bread at this point?
No, we have a partner, Dolce Forno Bakery. They develop all the bread for us, and produce it for us.
What’s the symbiosis been like with Blue Cow? How do the concepts help each other?
The idea is that the Blue Cow is just a place where Mario and I can think with another chef and sort of collaborate on ideas together. Blue Cow is kind of an offset of Mendocino Farms. The ideas that we come up with together at Blue Cow, I’ll take those ideas and try to apply it. For example, Chef Josh came up with a chicken tartine that we currently have on the menu at Blue Cow, and I converted it into the Spanish Chicken, which we can mass produce at our stores, but still using similar components. He uses a Romesco vinaigrette and charred leeks and cherry tomatoes, and garnishes very beautifully with shaved Manchego and grilled chicken with marinated, roast paprika vinaigrette. So I took that idea and used our roasted chicken and made a paprika vinegar that we toss with the chicken, and I made a Pimento cheese to put on the bottom, and Romesco, which we already carried anyway, so my version of a Romesco. And we’re putting marinated peppers and roasted tomatoes on it, with arugula. So it’s kind of his idea, but I put it into sandwich form. That particular idea, he came up with on his own, and I sort of tweaked it for the Mendocino concept.
Then things like the pork belly banh mi, for example, we came up with together this banh xeo style crepe batter that we worked on together, and then we made the pork belly “mini banh xeo tacos” that we sell at Blue Cow. It’s for sure a collaboration a lot of times, and we do meet about food ideas fairly regularly, to go over ideas to apply it in a more sit-down setting at Blue Cow, and apply it in a more fast casual setting at Mendo. It’s sort of a think tank. We just add another member to our culinary think tank.