Chef Chris Montero
At age 40, Chris Montero realized he was tired of what he was doing. For years, the New Orleans native had been amassing a vast amount of experience within and around the hospitality industry—from working at a friend’s music club, to owning a bar, to being a maitre d’, to liquor sales—until a gradual epiphany made him see that his heart was in the kitchen.
It wasn’t such a huge leap. He had found his way to the kitchen once before, professionally speaking, when, as a journalism major at LSU, he’d been hired as a bartender at the city’s premier French restaurant, Louis XVI. It didn’t take him long to drift into the kitchen, learning the ropes under classical chef Daniel Bonnot. He considers local chefs like Warren Leruth and Paul Prudhomme mentors, and if you ask him where he went to culinary school, he’ll laughingly reply “the French Quarter!” In the 1980s, he explains, “the heavy-hitters of the restaurant world were the old guys—classic, continental European chefs. That’s where I learned technique, discipline, and service style.”
But his deep-down love of food goes deeper than that—much deeper. The Spanish Monteros arrived in New Orleans 200 years ago. His grandmother, a classic Creole New Orleans housewife, was a great cook from a long line of great cooks; so was his father. In the family home on Canal Street in Mid-City (where Montero now lives) he was always the kid drawn to the kitchen. His earliest memories are of learning the making of a perfect roux, brown butters, meunières and étouffées. “There’s still nothing that can touch my grandmother’s seafood stuffed bell peppers, or her daube glacée,” he muses. But what really impressed him was his grandmother’s creativity. “I’d bring home fresh perch I’d just caught in City Park,” he remembers, “and she’d prepare it three ways. Now, that’s a pretty trendy showpiece of top chefs these days. But she would just whip it up for the sheer love of it.”
So when he made the conscious decision to return to cooking in 1999, Montero had not only the genetic predisposition, but a solid classical background and a mature determination to keep on cooking as well. He approached Ralph Brennan, was hired on at BACCO, and moved up fast. Within three years, he was promoted to executive sous chef, and in the course of his 11 years there, the restaurant enjoyed the devoted patronage of locals and visitors, and acclaim from national critics, as well. After Katrina, Montero was a key part of the Ralph Brennan culinary team that led the charge to reopen his restaurants, the city’s first to receive FDA licenses, despite the absence of gas and potable running water. “It was an unprecedented challenge,” he recalls, “but we had the great advantage of a wood-burning grill and oven. We were serving a full menu on disposable plates, with lines out the door. A few weeks after the storm, we managed a formal dinner for President and Mrs. Bush.”
Montero is now the executive chef of café b, one of the latest ventures of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, opened in Metairie in May 2011. His excitement over the new concept is palpable, as he develops the menu of “elevated neighborhood cuisine, a new American bistro crossed with a gastro pub.” Refining the most beloved comfort foods, he is bringing the familiar to a whole new level of goodness. His Chicken Pot Pie is made with organic pastured chicken, specialty vegetables, and “the most amazing puff pastry;” and the Macaroni and Cheese features four specialty artisan cheeses. The menu will also be infused, naturally, with New Orleans favorites, from crawfish to catfish.
Montero also oversees Ralph Brennan’s café NOMA in the New Orleans Museum of Art, which is has been expanded to include a lounge and bar. “The museum is in the heart of City Park, which is enjoying a big renaissance these days. It’s really the darling of the city, in an iconic 100-year-old building,” he points out, “and the current food and beverage focus in museums is a great trend, making the whole visitor experience that much more meaningful and pleasant.” When the French Quarter’s historic Hermann-Grima House approached Ralph Brennan to be its exclusive caterer, Montero, who’s fascinated by history, took on the challenge of creating a modern catering service for elegant events in the nearly 200-year-old facility. Eventually, this effort developed into Ralph Brennan Events, the catering arm of the restaurant group.
Outside the kitchen, Montero’s real passion is still closely linked to his work: long-distance running. “In my 40s, I figured out the formula that allowed me to eat what I wanted to eat, because I have very little self-discipline where food is concerned. That’s obviously a big occupational hazard….” So he runs 25 miles a week, minimum—preferably 30. And his work is not just in the blood, it’s in the family: Montero’s wife was also a professional chef, and two of his three daughters are in the restaurant industry. He is quick to point out that the work is hard, the hours are long, and you’re always on your feet—cooking, the way his grandmother taught him and as a professional, is a labor of love. “You’ve just gotta love it!”