- Michael Gebert
- Liz and Mark Mendez before the opening of Vera in 2011
We’ve shot a number of Key Ingredient episodes in restaurants that weren’t really ready to serve yet and a few with chefs of restaurants that didn’t exist in any form at all yet, but no shoot has ever been quite so minimal as hanging with Mark Mendez, former chef of Carnivale, as he tried to figure out what he could make with no working equipment whatsoever at his upcoming Spanish wine bar Uva. In the end he basically made us . . . tomato water with a strainer and some Spanish olive oil. OK, it was called gazpacho, but still. Basically it was seasoned tomato water. And it was simple, and it was great.
A couple of lawyers later Uva was called Vera, and for two years the collaboration of Mendez and his sommelier wife, Liz, has been one of my favorite restaurants, a tribute to the cooking principle originally articulated by Coco Chanel about fashion: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”
Today is Vera’s second anniversary of being in business, and there are some changes in the works, like a tasting-menu option, though in keeping with the reigning principles, they’re pretty minimalist too. I spoke with Mark and Liz about life after two years in operation on Lake Street, a quiet stretch in between two flashy restaurant rows (Randolph and Fulton Market).
Michael Gebert: Congratulations on your second anniversary.
Liz Mendez: We’re still alive. And married!
That might be the bigger miracle than your business still being around. So what have you learned in two years?
Mark Mendez: That running a kitchen and running a business are two totally different things. Some things I had certainly been exposed to, and knew. But there was a lot that I didn’t know and had to learn. Running a kitchen and making good food is something we know how to do. But running a business and making it profitable is something we had to learn. I think we do a much better job of that—from where we were a year ago, we’re in a much better place.
But learning to be an accountant, to be a marketing and PR person, when you work at a restaurant this small—which is another thing, we come from a restaurant where you had a staff. Well, this is our staff, and we do everything. I quickly learned that you can’t just do anything you want. I thought that’s what opening a restaurant was about, that sort of freedom to do whatever you want. I can change the menu whenever I want, but there are lot of things you just can’t do.
So what’s something you would like to be able to do, but reality intervened?
Mark: I don’t know, I would like to spend some more money in the restaurant, in the things we have, equipment or decor, or God forbid pay ourselves more. And sometimes you just can’t do that—if you have a good week, you think, we should do this or do that, and then maybe you don’t have a good week and we’re like, forget that. The business is up-and-down, and you just have to roll with that.
Really, it’s not that big a deal. Mainly it’s just things we might want, but we do pretty well with what we have. My partner is always shocked at what we do with what we have. He says, “I can’t imagine what kind of food you’d make if you had a real kitchen.”
I don’t want to talk—I feel if you’re too honest—
Liz: You don’t want to be Negative Nelson?
Mark: I don’t want people to think it’s painful, because it’s not. I love this restaurant. I love this place, I love my wife. But there are things that bother you, that at times can be soul crushing. But with any business—
Liz: Any small business, I think that’s the key word there.
Mark: You can’t give up, you have to keep going. You have such high highs and low lows sometimes. That’s the thing that I didn’t really expect. I thought it would be more even-keeled. But now that I’m used to it, it’s not that big a deal. Things that stressed me out a year ago I’ve learned to laugh at.
How has the menu changed over time—especially, anything that’s been a business decision?
Mark: We made it smaller. Because I felt we were trying to do too much. We didn’t necessarily need ten cheeses and three kinds of ham. I think we were overcompensating a bit.
I didn’t want to talk about the ingredients too much, because that phrase “farm to table” is so tired. I just wanted to use good ingredients, the best I could. And when we first opened, I changed the menu a lot, every week. And I stopped doing that—
Liz: Thank you!
Mark: Well, at Carnivale I couldn’t change the menu at all. So it was kind of exorcising that demon.
Liz: We were trying to be the anti-Carnivale, not because we didn’t like Carnivale, but we were like the kids whose parents never let them go out and then they go off to college and are whooping it up. And then we were like, we don’t have to be anti-Carnivale. We learned a lot from that restaurant. We’re still learning from Carnivale.
Mark: I think we were kind of hyperseasonal.
Liz: To the point where someone could come in ten days later and the item they loved wouldn’t be on the menu any more.
Mark: I kind of tweaked the menu to—we’re always going to have some seasonal items on the menu. But when asparagus is in season, I don’t put it on the menu for six weeks, I just make it a special. Because it’s better for the cooks and the servers to know the menu really well. And it’s good for business for people to come in and be able to say, “Get the octopus. I always get the octopus.”
I think I also I tried to . . . as a chef I always look at what other chefs do and I think wow, I wouldn’t have thought of that. So I think I tried really hard to do things that weren’t really me or my style. And now I’ve become a lot more comfortable with my style. So now I think, if I just grill some asparagus and put salt and pepper and some olive oil on it, and that’s enough. Like one of the things I’ve got on the menu now is mushrooms, and I tried all these kinds of mushroom dishes, and they were good, but now I just do sauteed mushrooms with some garlic and sherry, and it tastes good and it’s fine.
Liz: And people love it.
Mark: And people love it, and that’s the most important thing. People are happy.
OK, you’re sticking with simplicity, but then you’re doing the tasting-menu thing. Like fancy chefs do.
Liz: It started with requests for it. More so at the bar, where people can have interaction. So it’s only a station. We call it a chef’s tasting menu, but it’s really highlighting the wine and pairing food with that. Where before one of the things Mark and I have always been good at is creating the food and then pairing the wines with it.
Not that the wine and beverage program hasn’t been a focal point—we’ve gotten a lot of press attention for our sherry and so on, but this is an opportunity to really let some fantastic classic wines showcase and for people to have that tasting menu to enjoy as well.
I was wondering how it would work, because it’s small plates anyway, so what’s a tasting menu, you just come out and say, ‘You’re gonna have this, this, and this, pal’?
Mark: We would probably incorporate some special things that are only on the tasting menu onto it. Because we always have some extra things around. One of the things we wanted to do, though, was make it more about the wine than the food. The wine is always secondary when you do a tasting menu. So let’s have fun with the wine, first, and have the food that goes with it.
Liz: One of the things I hear from our regulars who have dined all over the world, know wine really well, I hear from them a lot that they feel like wine pairings are kind of mediocre or not that exciting. And that’s the kind of thing we want to do, like, oh wow, we have this amazing Sicilian wine that we only have like three bottles of and you don’t see. This is the kind of thing where we can let those bottles shine for people who will appreciate it, be really into it.
Mark: You know, people do that sometimes, they come here to eat and they don’t drink. And I don’t understand that. Not that I don’t want you to come here at all, but it’s like, we have this wine, why don’t you drink it? Which makes me think that we should just have drinks now, too.
Liz: Which we do. We had a group come over before Next, and one of the guys asked if we had any kind of alcoholic beverages. And we’ve actually started doing that and people are appreciative of it.
OK. Two years. You’re veterans now. Final thoughts.
Mark: You know, I talked to Matthias Merges a while back when I was going through changes here. I was so down, and in such a negative wave and having a bad time with the business, and he said, ‘I feel exactly the same way.’
And I was like, ‘You do? About everything?’ ‘Yeah, everything,’ he said. And I said, ‘You don’t even know what you did for me, that you’re going through the same struggles about everything. It just seems like sometimes you can’t figure out why. Why are you busy? Why are you not busy? Why this or why that, and you just want to pull your hair out. And he says, ‘I feel the same way.’ And here’s a guy who’s been everywhere! So I’m not an idiot, maybe.
Liz: Maybe we do know what we’re doing.
Uva, now Vera, in August 2011