“In Puerto Rico, everything is about love, and so it is with the art of making food. It’s about nurturing it.” So says Javier Mendez, of Javier’s Bistro in South Bend Indiana. His burgers are exceptional, as well as his varied menu, partly because he doesn’t believe in just tossing something in a pan to cook it. His burgers are rubbed with herbs and spices before cooking, and entrees are seasoned and balanced across the food groups. Puerto Rican flavors begin with fresh vegetables and spices, blended to impart that layered flavor that is much more satisfying than adding more salt and sugar. The taste buds reawaken to remember flavor when tasting Javier’s food, like a long forgotten childhood memory.
For Javier, it started with his own childhood in Chicago. Growing up in a Puerto Rican family involved a hard life in many ways and necessity required meals prepared from food grown in their own gardens. That in itself helped develop his palate and his cooking style. Then the Washburn Culinary Arts School in Chicago took it further with blindfolding him and the other students, as part of an exercise in identifying ingredients to select to prepare for a dish. Using all the senses is indispensable for a chef, measuring by touch for instance, also provides information about ingredients beyond sight. Running a kitchen with 150 cooks and serving 7000 people a day at the Marriott Convention Center in Texas, also sharpened his skills. There with his Italian mentor, Joseph Durante, the fresh ingredients helped round out his skill. From then on he empowered his own sense of flavor and style. Upon arriving at a new kitchen, he would typically speed through using up all the canned goods in soups, to begin sourcing a fresh food menu.
As it turns out, healthy food is also healthy for the environment and the economy. By basing his flavors and cooking around fresh ingredients, he not only improves flavor and nutrition, but also helps the local organic growers by sourcing from Unity Gardens, Kankakee Wetlands Gardens and carefully sourcing from various other local growers, and meats from DC Meats. This also allows him to reduce that pesky carbon footprint by cutting down on fossil fuel used for shipping, storage and processing, and strengthens the local market for other citizen’s access to healthy food. He returns the food waste to Unity Gardens to compost, rather than sending to the landfill, and uses a garbage company, Republic, that separates and recycles the many products that are necessary for public food preparation, such as plastics, cans and cardboard, rather than dumping.
So how does Javier justify going the extra mile, even when it challenges the bottom line? His professional choices are an extension of his personal values. At 54, having lost 55 pounds in the last couple of years, he knows he must eat healthy for the energy to meet his standards. Having been the chef for Memorial Hospital for 6-1/2 years, he learned some specifics about how what we eat affects our health. He tried various styles of eating; as vegetarian for a year, and also having tried the no carb diet for a while and found that isolating foods eventually led to cravings. Now he works at balancing his eating, which shows up in the Bistro entrees. For example, Bistro Breakfast is priced very low and provides eggs, toast, potatoes and bacon with portion control for total calories and balanced nutrients, so that a balanced meal is available at a low price rather than the quantity of starch often consumed when on a budget. Recently, as part of a special occasion, he went a little extravagant and had a large bowl of pasta and felt ill for three days. In contrast, on a balanced diet, made up of fresh foods, he feels better, sleeps better and has the energy to keep his finger on the pulse of every aspect of his restaurant, not just the bottom line. “Inspect what you expect” is an example of quality control in the kitchen. As the customer is a perfectionist, Javier inspects the plates and frequently serves the customer himself. Gluten free and vegetarian requests are prepared with faithful consideration in the kitchen, by cleaning and separating cooking surfaces and tools.
As a family man, with 7 children between ages 30-14 years and married for going on 25 years, he is used to juggling and accomplishing a lot. The habit of writing everything down, “putting 5 cents into what he is thinking” was established when he and his wife purchased their first home, in Texas, which needed a lot of work, while he also worked 80-90 hour weeks. They were able to sell their home 7 years later, completed. Javier’s Bistro was opened in 2-1/2 months.
All this activity needs a balance too, and Javier is a spiritual man, with a practice of 20-30 minutes of solitude morning and evening. A proponent of change, his practice contributes stability to his business that responds to a pace of movement society demands. This fuels and feeds his passion and creativity, and he finds fulfillment in making food that creates reputation, food that gets discussed at the table. So while Javier continues to meet the ever present challenges of offering good food at a reasonable price, keeping staff that can execute customers concerns, making his building exterior reflect the interior, drawing customers to the off-the beaten track spot in Miami Village, and providing for parking in a neighborhood location, he continues to look ahead to other ventures. His suggestions for the green-minded community include adding bike racks to Miami Street, as well as noting sustainable foods and restaurants on a Sustainabiity Map. As recent recipient of an Earth Basket, from Earth Charter, Sustainable Indiana 2016, he hopes local growers and producers will continue to reach out and provide resources for businesses, to help spur change in a healthy direction for all.
There is something very different about Javier’s Bistro, that becomes evident almost upon walking in the door. As a newcomer, you may catch the chef smiling and waving. Waiters are non-scripted and take the time to listen and share with customers. Saltshakers aren’t needed on the tables. The flavors and the food are created with love. That might be as good as it gets, but Javier Mendez continues to create with a healthy dose of passion for all life.
Submitted by Debra DuRall