Food Forethought: An interview with Chef Juan Montier

This month we interview Chef Juan Montier, co-owner and Executive Chef of the Chez Montier catering company. His client list includes the likes of Diana Ross, Usher, Bloomingdale’s, Calvin Klein, and The Morehouse School of Medicine. You may have seen him on television shows like ABC’s The View or heard him on the Atlanta Eats radio program. Chef Juan also gives a lot back to the community, serving as a mentor for 100 Black Men of Atlanta and on the board of directors for The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

You’re known for visually sketching out your dishes before you cook them—a habit from your time working in architecture and interior design. How else has this prior work experience helped you develop as a chef?
My food philosophy is grounded in my belief that food should be as beautiful as it is delicious. Remember that “Your eyes eat before your mouth does!” As an architect my design skills have made me sensitive to proportion, texture, color and shape.  For instance, an odd number of dots of balsamic reduction is more appealing than an even number.  Something dark, like a chocolate bonbon, is more dramatically perceived adjacent to a lighter element like a pool of crème anglaise.  A smooth surface is more striking against a crumbly texture, like a poached egg on a bed of toasted ground pistachios. The proper use of my design tools helps me to develop platings that are visually appealing and dynamic. As importantly, these tools enable me to provide my team with detailed sketches that in turn help them create our signature appetizers, which are mini works of food art. The placement of a sliver of red pepper or a strike of a green chive can visually elevate our food from ordinary to extraordinary.

What are some of your favorite venues for holding catered events around Atlanta?
The Westside Warehouse is a blank canvas on which to create your heart’s desire.  Anne Flaire, the owner and inspiration for the concept of combining an antique salon with an event space, was easy to work with and very insightful. We held two of our, now famous, annual Valentine’s Day Pop-Up Dinners there.  The first year, we took a culinary trip to Brazil and we themed the space so that it transported our patrons to a tropical world of lavish and exotic food, complete with Brazilian dancers in gorgeous feathered costumes. I also like 433 Bishop Street because it’s the perfect size, not too big and not too small. It also has great kitchen and prep space. The “Chef’s Table” style open kitchen allows us to do onsite preparations not normally available, like a large pan of fresh bubbling paella! Nelson Mullins’ roof top venue allows for great panoramic views of the city from its outdoor terraces.  A relatively new and unique venue is Pietra Luxury in Stone, a marble showroom. We backlight the quartz panels to create a luminous glow that make for a special place to attend events situated amongst a forest of stones with exotic textures and colors.

Bland chicken and pasta are everywhere at big dinners. A lot of guests assume that the plates will look great but not offer too much boldness of flavor. How do you inject creativity and personality into your offerings without giving in to the lowest common denominator of what most people will eat?
At Chez Montier, are firm believers that “It is about the FOOD!” All of our fabulous presentations and beautiful platings are pointless unless the food is delicious. Once we conquer the deliciousness factor, then we use our design acumen to take the ordinary things and make them special. An airline chicken breast, for instance, becomes Chicken Rondelet Stuffed with Quinoa. Mashed Potatoes transform into Cauliflower and Parsnip Whip, healthier with the same mouthfeel and an over the top flavor that is always a delightful surprise for our diners. We also harness the essential power of fresh herbs to enhance flavors. It is not that hard.  It just takes a little love. We know that our flavors are not for the palates of all people, so we settle for just thrilling most people!

Most catering gigs are for dinner but tell us your thoughts on breakfast. Do you think breakfast for dinner can be just as elegant and interesting?
Make breakfast sexy and you can serve it all day. How do we make it sexy, you ask?  By layering the quantity of selections and the variety of flavors. Take the time to make it sumptuous and don’t skimp on ingredients. An authentic Hollandaise sauce will be well received for breakfast, lunch and dinner, too! Create fun items that are rarely found on a standard buffet like, pasta carbonara (bacon, eggs, and cheese with pasta) or fresh beignets and crepes.  Non-traditional fare includes prime rib, lobster and caviar. And oh yeah, eggs! You can poach them, pickle them, sous vide them – the options are endless. When you scramble eggs, using a little heavy cream and cooking them fresh to order will make them special. Remember, if you infuse a little “sexy,” you can serve breakfast anytime.

Chez Montier is a family operation. Your wife, Judith, is the Chief Operating Officer, and your son, Austin, is the Sous Chef. How to the three of you manage your work-life balance?
It is not always easy to manage our work-life balance and we don’t have it all worked out yet. With Judith working the business full time, it’s been more even challenging. As entrepreneurs and business owners, it seems like we’re always working. Our son, Austin, who has been cooking with me since he was three years old, is now an active teenager and still loves to cook. One of my greatest joys is that we still enjoy cooking together and learning from each other.  We work hard to set priorities: our family, ourselves, business, and then everything else.  We understand the importance of taking time away from the business to recharge and refresh.  As a mature man, on his second career, I have clarity about what makes me happy. Success is awesome, but it means nothing unless you have someone that you love to share it with. And without the power of my family team, success would not be attainable.

What’s the difference between how you cook at home versus at work? Do you use your own kitchen as a lab, or save experiments for the professional kitchens?
I love to experiment in the kitchen, to try new ingredients and flavor compounds. When we are developing new dishes, it is easier to start at my home kitchen.  But I need my team and their collective talents and palates at the work kitchen to bring a recipe to fruition. Cooking at home is by far more relaxing for me, especially when it’s for my family and friends. In a less pressured environment, I like to get folks engaged and cooking with me. My son says, “When dad cooks, everybody cooks!”  I like to educate and share tips with my guests while unwittingly putting them to work.  But when I’m in our commercial kitchen, I’m managing a team and focused on executing a client’s vision. There is always an element of experimentation as we are consistently striving to improve our recipes, but there is a great degree of focus, because the stakes are higher. Whether at home or at work, flavor and presentation are always the priority.

You’re on television sometimes. You also craft events for famous celebrities sometimes. Which of those activities is more challenging?
Both are equally demanding in distinctly different ways and to be clear, I love them both. Each requires a great deal of planning, preparation and execution. But I think the most demanding and ultimately satisfying are the events. I love the personal interaction. I love meeting with clients and extracting their vision, building menus and developing the “look” of the event. I love working to bring that vision to life. The only thing that is more rewarding than walking through the space just before an event starts and seeing all of our hard work come to life is hearing the roar of laughter and the clinking of glasses all of the way in the back of house. With that said, I’d still love to have a TV show!

Any tips for people hosting at home on how to revive a lackluster dinner party?
When you have a party the first thing is to never forget that “It is about the FOOD.”  Then relax, even in a formal setting. Remember, it is supposed to be fun! You are the leader; show them how to enjoy your home and your food. Set the stage, dim the lights, pull out all of the candles and make your environment twinkle and sparkle. Also, great music is key. Be sensitive to the temperament of your guests. If the dining room is not the most comfortable place to be, then you pick up your party and waltz them to the living room. You set the rules; blow their minds and serve dessert first. If all else fails, get them to stand up and “Do the Hokey Pokey!” And remember: design the stress out of the evening and hire support staff! I believe that my clients should be able to be guests at their parties.

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