Charles in charge
Charles Montañez shuns the rock star treatment and toxicity trend among celebrity chefs and focuses on innovative concepts
BY FRANCES MAE RAMOS
The Manila Times
THE rock and roll mythology that worked in the image of some notorious global chefs does not apply to Charles Montañez. While the executive chef and chief operating officer (COO) of Grupo Alegria works in unseen rooms behind his open kitchen, he insists this is just par for the course. Tempers and toxicity do not make his kitchen and his dining concepts. “Chefs nowadays, parang masyado silang nabibigyan ng unnecessary exposure and voice rather than focusing on what really matters,” he said. “I’ve built the company and the place not to be like that. I came from experience from the ground up, so whatever negative I went through, I make sure it doesn’t happen again. With my career, sa company kasi wala [toxicity] eh. We’re all friends. The people I work with in the kitchen are my friends,” he said, throwing no bone to our disappointment at a missed Pinoyversion of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Chef Charles strolled in for the interview while doing his usual rounds at Alegria Manila with an equable stride, just as the open kitchen was breaking into the hum of scheduled service. Alegria is dimly lit. The wash of purple ambience is languid elegance. But in the parlors of its best tables, one could knock back beers, sangrias, cocktails blowing bubbles and settle into a convivial Latin American tableau. The kitchen bedlam that has become a Hollywood and reality TV trope is nowhere to be heard. Just a suspicion of cultures — of Chef Charles’ French training in the culinary arts and his Latin American flavor swatches — colliding in peace. “We’re very unorganized right now,” he confided, not so much with a fear of fallout at that kind of privileged peek of the business side. The statement even smacks of pride because it signals the aggressiveness that brought his Alegria concepts up to this point. At prime strip Uptown Parade in the Taguig central business district, the fine dining Alegria iteration would be Chef Charles’ crown jewel. This Alegria, the flagship, is his favorite, the high note of a symphony of concepts he calls: “Alegria for everyone [joy for everyone].” “This concept has been boiling for the past five years,” he said. “This has always been the goal. The other restaurants are sustaining this cause.” The “others” can hardly be consigned to the peripheries of dining. They’re crawling, from Manila to Alabang to Boracay. So far, there is a cantina (Cantina Alegria in Molito, Alabang), a warm and fuzzy brunch place (Café Alegria in Burgos Circle, Bonifacio Global City) and Buena Vida, its boutique club on the fourth floor of the Uniqlo building. “I’ve always wanted it to be a tasting menu restaurant,” he continued, flicking off the five-year backstory. “But then, when we were starting the company, we had to prioritize sustainability. We didn’t have exposure yet. So we had to make sure it’s going to work.” Playing it safe meant marrying the five-, seven-, 10-course formalities with a bar. Chef Charles could not dive into the deep end of fine dining despite having bought out previous restaurants approaching closure and flipping them into the group’s concepts. He did this with partners who also happen to be close friends and kitchen mates in past gigs. Chef Charles oversees operations while another partner is in charge of marketing and another mans the business front. “We’ve been with each other for so long. We followed each other around. When I opened Alegria five years ago, I had the same pioneering team. Most of them are head chefs already,” he said. Sous chef Gilbert Borja and pastry chef Chico Orcine are with him in Alegria Manila. “We had to be safe with our first approach; we needed something to lean on to. If the food doesn’t work, the bar might,” he said. Chef Charles commutes to Singapore, where last year they opened Alegria. There isn’t a logical calculation of how sleep fits into his system, but who needs downtime? He claims, however, that it whacks up his creative ideas. “Downtime makes you think about other things [other than your best ideas]; you get disorganized.” Yet again, the composure. Thinking of food 80 percent a day, per his approximation, is all part of a lifetime dream sequence. That’s his simple one-step process —- “the things I dream about doing.” It’s the same handle on things that has him lining up the group’s back offices into the efficient and more disciplined drill. Order also preoccupies them these days. This isn’t anarchy either. It all started when he dipped his little fingers as a young boy into his mom’s cooking. Not for a cheeky cop of a sauce, but to actually tweak it. He was always “messing with his mom’s cooking,” so to speak. Then followed years of kitchen indoctrination which could have held down the exploratory habits of tinkering with tradition. He was, naturally, trained the French way, what he concedes as “the foundation of all things culinary.” He earned his chops at the International School for Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management and at the Global Culinary and Hospitality Academy in the Philippines. He did the rounds of kitchens such as Ibiza in Bonifacio Global City and the Movenpick Hotel in Cebu. He worked in various restaurants in Singapore. That was all of his 20s, and he is donning the executive chef’s hat quite early. At 30, he is already anointed by referees such as Tatler Dining. He finds Latin American cuisine a nice equilibrium between the discipline and quality-driven techniques of Western culinary traditions and “the punches of Asian flavors.” He has previously worked with Spanish cuisine, but he gets a twinkle on his eye testing culinary borders. “Latin American (LA) cuisine is nothing I haven’t done. And then I asked myself — I wanted to do something that I didn’t have any experience on just so it’s going to keep me very excited when it comes to exploring. I realized how deep and similar LA cuisine is to Filipino. We share a very identical palate,” he said. Still, he keeps a level head at the influence his group might have on the Philippine food scene. “I don’t think we’re going to get to influence what Filipino cuisine should be, but I think the best thing about what we’re doing right now is that we’re influencing people by not being willing to be limited by the rules. Modern times are supposed to be utilized for creations, so we just keep on creating. So, if there is anything that I would want to influence the young generation on is that ... they can just do whatever,” he broadly let on about the individualism of taste, as Alegria’s interiors would have it. Paintings by Filipino artists accentuate choice tables, and the ceiling’s silvery overhangs bet on another plane of adventure. Adventure is what they will get in the tasting menu, although there are familiar and comforting fallbacks on local ingredients. Chef Charles personally loves the okoy tostada which crusts up some kalkag (dried baby shrimp from Iloilo) into a sort of taco shell and tops up with pumpkin, flax seeds and local crab meat in mussel crème. Courses such as baby corn from La Trinidad, Benguet with a rollover of crunchy quinoa, Aklan oysters in Yakult leche tigre, mango and cilantro oil, rove local farmers’ produce. That wasfrom the first quarter lineup; it’s anyone’s guess how and where Chef Charles might move in the next tasting menus. Accolades have to be purely incidental, and that’s how he’d love to play it. He has thought of the highest ones (hello, Michelin stars), in all honesty. “But I don’t want to be confined by it.” He openly declares a structured defiance of culinary canon and the glamorization of the fine dining industry. He stresses its rough edges. Plating by deft and delicate fingers over the open kitchen “is only 2U percent of the job.” “Tradition should always be respected, but it should never be afraid of innovation.” This sounded more from an elder statesman rather than the clichéd bad boy of the kitchen or a guy who just knows the hard work of it.