Paolo Garcia Mendoza, chef and owner of Filipino restaurant Karenderya in Nyack, New York opened the year 2023 on a celebratory note. Last week, he received the wonderful news that he’s one of the chef semifinalists for the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Awards.
The Manila-born chef was still on a high when ANCX spoke to him early this week. He should be—the award is considered as the Oscars of the culinary world. And for his work at Karenderya to be recognized only five years after opening is a feat. Although in 2018, Esquire already named it one of America’s Best New Restaurants, calling it “excellent,” and an “exciting evidence that the #filipinofoodmovement is making inroads in suburbia.”
According to the foundation website, nominees for the James Beard awards “exemplify excellence in their craft and represent the vast diversity of cuisines, foodways, beverages, and styles that make up the culinary landscape of America.” The voting body is comprised of food and beverage writers, critics, editors, book authors, media producers, food studies scholars, and culinary instructors.
The official announcement of the nominees will be on March 29 and the winners will be recognized at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards Ceremony on June 5 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Paolo Garcia Mendoza, 51, never even dreamed of becoming a chef. But he developed an interest in food very early on in life, thanks to his mother who is a great cook. The Zambales-born Mrs. Mendoza was fond of collecting cookbooks and was her clan’s go-to for recipes.
Paolo remembers the aroma of his mother’s cooking filling their home in the Philippines. “I would ask her what she’s making and she would show me how to sauté,” he recalls. Mother and son also liked watching cooking shows together.
Like in many Pinoy households, pork sinigang is a staple on the Mendoza dinner table. His mother would use fresh sampalok as souring agent, and often, too, the sinigang had pork neck “kasi mura, maraming buto, masarap.” She’s also fond of using different kinds of fish to make everyone’s favorite dish.
At fifth grade, Paolo, the youngest of four kids, started cooking typical Filipino-Spanish fare like adobo, picadillo, and afritada. When the whole family moved to the United States in 1987, that’s when Paolo, then already 15, was able to put his culinary chops to practice more often.
Back in high school, when his mother had to work in a separate state, and his father and siblings were out for most of the day, kitchen responsibilities fell on Paolo’s hands “since ako ang unang nakakauwi ng bahay,” the chef offers.
It was 10 years later when Paolo would meet his future wife, Cheryl, who recognized his potential to become a culinary pro. “Nagluto ako for Cheryl on two separate occasions and she was like, ‘This is so good.’” She was so impressed she encouraged Paolo to attend cooking school to enhance his kitchen know-how.
Since he was already working as a graphic designer then, Paolo attended evening classes at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York (formerly known as Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School). He later had his internship and first professional kitchen experience at Top Chef Master winner Floyd Cardoz’s Tabla restaurant, which was when he realized he wanted to pursue cooking as a full-time career.
“I love the craziness and excitement [in the kitchen],” he says. “The speed, the skills on hot fire. Everything.”
Mendoza honed his cooking skills working in different restaurants including Geoffrey Zakarian’s high-end joint called Town in New York, Café Barcel in Nyack, and Roost in Sparkill. He also learned a lot working at the premiere catering company of well-known American chef Abigail Kirsch.
Paolo and Cheryl admit they’ve always thought of putting up their own restaurant. “We were thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if we have our own place? But it seemed kinda far-off,” shares Cheryl. However, the turn of events in 2016 steered them towards that direction.
Paolo started to feel unhappy about his job, and deep inside he knew what he really wanted—break free and open his own place. “If we’re really serious about this, I’ll keep working. You can quit your job and work full time on making this [restaurant dream] a reality,” Cheryl told her husband. Paolo quit the summer of 2016. But in an unexpected turn of events, Cheryl got laid off that fall.
“What happened should have been probably extremely scary but in a weird way, it was like liberating,” Cheryl says, looking back. “Literally every sign was pointing to the fact that this restaurant needs to happen.”
By July of 2017, they opened Karenderya in Nyack, a nice, artsy little village.
After working in many high-end restaurants, the chef wanted to lean towards a casual dining joint offering affordable but delicious Filipino food. He says he often gets asked to describe the kind of food he’s offering—something Paolo seems to not quite understand. “Food is an important part of culture, and culture is always evolving,” he says. “I don’t think Filipino chefs should have to explain their cuisine as ‘authentic’ or ‘fusion’ or anything in between.”
Karenderya is best known for its Shrimp Coconut Adobo and Pork Belly Adobo, but Paolo also highly recommends his favorite Pork Ribs Sinigang. Cheryl, on the other hand, is very proud if her husband’s Tamarind Chicken Wings. “It tastes like the sampalok candy—sweet, tart. It’s really good,” she offers. They also have Bicol Express, Lumpiang Shanghai, Crispy Tofu with Peanut Sauce, Beef Tapa Sandwich, Halo-Halo and Leche Flan with Cashew Brittle.
Some might deem his menu limited but he says he’d rather focus on quality than quantity. Only about a year after its opening, Karenderya became the pride of Nyack locals, especially after it got the Esquire notice, and got featured on ABS-CBN News’ Balitang America.
While being included on the list of James Beard semifinalists is an affirmation he’s doing a good job, Paolo says he refuses to let the recognition get to his head. He’s just happy to see that many restaurant businesses are back on their feet after the pandemic, and that he gets to cook the food he has the closest affinity with and share it in his Karenderya.
Photos courtesy of Karenderya