Chef Armando Monterroso

by Mari on July 30, 2014

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Armando Monterroso is the executive chef of Gaylord Hotel in Opryland Tennessee. His first taste of the New York restaurant experience began over 10 years ago, when he worked under top New York City chefs, including Laurent Gras, Marcus Samuelsson, and Rocco DiSpirito.

What made you want to be a chef?
It’s funny, I always thought of being a ‘cook,’ I don’t think I ever thought of being a chef. I really just enjoyed the idea of cooking for pleasure and giving that same satisfaction to other people. There was always something very exciting for me about cooking and having everyone enjoy it. As my time as a cook grew, the idea of becoming a chef became more interesting to me. Now that I’m a chef, it is a bit different. I also get to design menus and do different things to create a great experience.

Do you have a mentor or a chef who particularly inspired you?
I was somebody who jumped around a little bit. I was very fortunate to work with some great chefs, but I wouldn’t say that there was one in particular since I learned a lot from each one. I also think we learn a lot from our cooks. It’s very interesting to watch the people who do the same task over and over again, because they always find creative ways to do their job.

What is the most important aspect of cooking to you?
For me it’s the basics- perfect execution, great well-seasoned ingredients, and finding the right dish for the right moment. You can easily become a chef that goes through the motions, but if you truly love what you do, you’re continually looking to inspire and reinvent. To create an experience and to really find that right dish, you need an understanding of who you’re cooking for and why you’re cooking. I always say it’s like music- finding the right song for the right moment, finding the right dish for that right occasion.

What do you think of the importance of having cooking experience in foreign countries?
Being in foreign countries is important, but I think it’s more about the exposure. We are very fortunate because we live in the United States. You can work with great Japanese chefs, French chefs, and American chefs all in one city. I was fortunate enough to work with a French chef, an American chef, and Marcus Samuelsson who has a Swedish Ethiopian background, all who taught very different techniques. I also think it’s important to leave the country because you’re exposed to different things- products that you will never see here. You are also exposed to other people, styles, and techniques. I think being a good chef today is about managing people. We are very lucky because we have a lot different ethnicities in our kitchen, but to be successful you need to understand how to manage different types of people.

What do you think of the Japanese food and knives?
Japanese food brings together a whole lot of different elements. If you think of things like umami and how it works, you see that the Japanese bring out different elements in food. As much as there are a lot of big flavors, there is a lot of restraint and subtlety in the food, which a lot of people can learn from. It’s not just about these big flavors, there are a lot of beautiful subtleties in Japanese cuisine.

Japanese knives for me, they’re just great knives. There is phenomenal craftsmanship- a strong cultural and traditional background. Assuming you know how to maintain them, they are the best knives you can buy by far. But they are only as good as the time you dedicate to them. If you want something easy and simple, it might not be for you. As much passion and care someone took to make it, is what you have to do to maintain and manage it. If you are committed to the process, you will understand why we enjoy them so much.

One of the things that Japanese culture and knives bring that others do not is specificity- there is a knife for every task. And a mistake that a lot of chefs make is not using the correct knife depending on the function of the task you are about to do.

What is your goal for your profession?
When I left high school, I was going to be an engineer, but I discovered that it didn’t motivate or excite me. So I started in the kitchen at the bottom, as I think most people should, and I continued to grow. I want to continue to put myself in areas that push me to grow. I want to be in in an environment where I am pushed and I can work with people to affect, teach, and learn from them. If you’re inspired and you do all of these things, the financial pieces will fall into place.

What is your advice for aspiring chefs?
Learn the basics. They are so often overlooked. We interview chefs all of the time and they are doing foam and they are doing all of these neat things with their tweezers, which I think is fantastic… but you still need to serve hot food hot and cold food cold. All of that work and how beautiful the dish is means nothing to me if it is served cold. If you do the basic things perfectly, then you can start to add technique and elements to your cuisine.

As an aspiring chef it is also important to be very disciplined. You have to be the example. Everybody is watching how you work, how organized you are, and how meticulous you are being.

What is your philosophy towards hospitality?
It is about giving great service and anticipating people’s needs. So many times we are so self-consumed, I think it’s about really looking at what is happening and understanding what our customers are looking for. We are a hospitality industry. At the end of the day we want to create concepts and dishes that people want. It is not necessarily what I want to cook. But, if there is a dish that I want to make and no one wants to eat it, then there is a gap and no hospitality aspect. It’s about the whole experience and the basic hospitality concept that so many people to forget, but we want to strive for everyday.

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