Pump Room’s new executive chef, Ross Mendoza, comes to Chicago by way of New York, where he worked for seven years at Danny Meyer’s Indian restaurant, Tabla. From there, he helped open ABC Kitchen in 2010 with Jean-Georges followed by ABC Cocina in 2013. He consulted with Forty North in 2014, before rejoining Jean-Georges Restaurants to take over the Pump Room in Chicago. Since Pump Room is based off the same core concept as ABC Kitchen, several items, like the killer kale lemon salad, carrot avocado salad and fresh pasta with pistachio pesto, are familiar.
Here’s a little intro to our New York transplant – let’s give him a warm welcome and pay him a visit at Pump Room soon.
Best meal in Chicago thus far?
The Girl & The Goat – I’ve already been there three times in a month and a half. And I haven’t been out that much. We ordered totally different items each time, but everything was delicious. That’s food I could eat every day. That’s the style I want to do [at Pump Room].
What are your goals for Pump Room?
This restaurant isn’t labeled as farm-to-table but I’d like to take the next step here and go back to our roots. I don’t want to make this like ABC [Kitchen] necessarily, but just the approach to farmers and produce. How far are we really supporting our local economy and farmers? Things like organic seeds and grains, flours and sugars, vinegars and soy sauce even. That’s a big part of what we do here. Quality local sourcing is going to be one of the biggest things I can contribute here to get back on the right direction.
How will the menu change?
New vegetarian dishes. I don’t have anything specific yet but I’d love to increase the amount of vegetarian dishes and create items we can apply to vegans as well. I found that to be a big thing at ABC [Kitchen]. People would thank us for having so many salads and vegetarian entrées. We don’t want to limit any guests and want to give everybody options with that kind of food. When winter slows down and becomes warmer, we’ll have a lot more ingredients to play with to put specials on the menu.
What’s your food philosophy?
Upholding the integrity of the food. That’s one of the biggest things that Jean-Georges instills in you, no matter what style of food, from Jean-Georges to Spice Market to JoJo, it’s the same. If we can’t be consistent for lunch, dinner, breakfast and room service, what are we dong? We need to care all the time. Every guest should have the same experience just maybe in a slightly different setting. That’s a key for me to instill in my sous chefs and cooks.
Biggest difference between Chicago and New York?
You feel a little bit more relaxed and there’s not as much pressure here. You’re able to be more of yourself here. Using The Girl & The Goat as an example, it’s very homey food, things you could eat every day.
You can do that and be relaxed as far as running a business and providing food that you, the chef, love yourself. In New York, you have limitations in that there is so much competition and your comp set is 10 [restaurants] that are similar to you, so you have to really fight really hard for your guests. Maybe you have to compromise what you really want to do.
What are your hobbies?
I take pleasure in visiting flea markets and antique shows. I’m a big collector of old food books – I have more than 350. Not necessarily just recipe books, some are more story-like. Some are quirky, some more serious. I read them all. My oldest food book is from 1922, a second edition Good Housekeeping’s Book of Menus, Recipes, and Household Discoveries. This book I found under in a box stuffed under a table at one of NYC’s now defunct flea markets about 8 years ago. A great find for $2, I must say. I also have the first printing from 1965 of A Treasury of Great Recipes. And I have a 1971 first Borzoi edition of Brillat Savarin: The Physiology of Taste by Knopf, translated by MFK Fisher. I wish I had the 1825 edition, but this is good enough for now.
If you won a free trip tomorrow, where would you go?
Southeast Asia – Vietnam, Laos. I’d love to see and taste the street food first hand from a cart in the alley. I haven’t really seen that before and would love to experience that. I ‘m not afraid to taste new things and I’ll try anything at least once.
Anything you miss from New York?
All the things I can get in New York, I can get here. Maybe it’s more compact in New York. I miss my friends but I’ll make new ones here. I had a comfort level in New York, a daily routine, restaurants and bars I would go to. Here I’m put out of my comfort zone a little bit but it makes you want to learn a little bit more and experience it.