"It was just normal kitchen drama," says Tommy Lee, the owner of Uncle, who fired his longtime chef, Jon Mendoza, earlier today. "I have to do what's best for my team, and there was some tension [between Mendoza] and the staff," he adds. However, Mendoza -- who started at Uncle as the sous and was promoted to chef after Travis Masar, who formerly commanded the line, became a contestant of Bravo's Top Chef -- suggests that it was more of a vendetta.
Mendoza, who also founded Bad Apple, a series of pop-ups that he hosts twice a month at Uncle, held a pop-up dinner there over the weekend, and according to him, it went off without a hitch. After the dinner was over, he and his team cleaned the restaurant, leaving it spotless, he insists. And, he adds, he even took photos.
Nonetheless, when he came to work on Monday, the restaurant was in a shambles, claims Mendoza. "I had a pop-up dinner last Sunday, cleaned it up completely, and the next morning, one of the a.m. cooks destroyed one of the stations by throwing Szechuan powder everywhere," he says, adding that the same cook "hid products and said I didn't clean the restaurant, plus he stole my knives, and I still have no idea where they are."
Mendoza, who also cooked at ChoLon and the original Opus, concurs with Lee that there was tension in the kitchen -- tension, he says, that's been building for more than a year with the same cook that Mendoza alleges sabotaged the kitchen. "That same cook, who shall remain nameless, has been weaning me out of the kitchen, slowly but surely, for more than a year, and Tommy basically said that all five cooks can't get along with me, and while he can't replace the five cooks, he can replace me," says Mendoza. "I'm pretty frustrated," he admits. "I was fired for some stupid-ass reason that I'm totally confused about, but if I had to guess, I'd say it was because of Tommy's favoritism for his friends. It definitely wasn't because I wasn't doing my job."
And, he adds, "everyone acts so cool with each other, but when the curtain closes, everyone talks mad shit about each other. There's so much drama there, and while Tommy is a great person and we worked really well together, I kind of feel like they were pissed because I wanted to elevate the cuisine. They all ride the line, and I'm not into mediocrity."
Now that Mendoza is gone from Uncle, he says he can concentrate more on his pop-ups, which he introduced in January. "The food we do at the pop-ups is really rebellious and unique, which is how we came up with the name," he notes. "Among all the good apples is always one apple that's different and stands out -- and we're striving to do food and presentations that people aren't familiar with," he explains, citing past dinners, where he and his cohorts did a play on chicharrones, serving them with vinegar powder and herbed salt and plating the dish on Colorado deer moss, a presentation that's anything but pedestrian. "We even did a beet dish buried in chocolate soil, so, yeah, we're doing some very cool stuff," says Mendoza.
He hosts the pop-ups with a formidable team of chefs and food producers, including Nick Martinez, the owner of Hunt and Gather; Jamey Freeman, a former line cook at Old Major; and Daniel Brady, who owns Tastecraft, a catering and personal-chef company. Stuart Jensen, one of the bartenders at Green Russell, creates the cocktail and wine pairings. And Marczyk Fine Foods donates product.
And while Lee extended an offer to continue to host the pop-ups at Uncle, Mendoza turned down the invitation. Instead, he's looking for other venues for his dinners, the next of which he'd like to put on later this month. "I'm working on finding a new venue as we speak," says Mendoza, who already has a portion of the five-course menu nailed down. "The next one will be an end-of-winter theme, and I'm doing a duck dish with cryovac'd fermented pears and squash with a duck crumble and seed-and-grain porridge, as well as a root vegetable dish with malted honeycomb and buttermilk foam," he reveals.
If he can find a location, the dinner will be $55 per person, inclusive of wine and cocktail pairings, and he'll announce the date on the Bad Apple Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.
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Lee, in the meantime, wishes him luck. "I wish Jon the best with his Bad Apple pop-up," he says.