A chat with Ria Montes, Chef de Cuisine of Estuary, about her culinary style and exciting new projects.
We recently interviewed Ria Montes, Chef de Cuisine of Estuary, the Conrad Hotel’s elegant Mid-Atlantic restaurant, and learned about her culinary style, what she likes to eat when she’s not cooking, and exciting new projects she is involved in – including an innovative female chef empowerment project called Miss-en-Place.
District Fray: Tell us about yourself! When and why did you decide to become a chef?
Ria Montes: I grew up in a large Filipino family, where food and cooking grounds us and keeps us connected as a family. I started cooking at home, but being from an immigrant family my family really encouraged me to go to college. I always had a desire to be a chef though, and in the early 2000s, I quit my job and decided to follow my passion. I started out in New York, and then later came over to D.C. for a position at Blue Duck Tavern. From there, I went on to work as a chef at A Rake’s Progress, Albi, and eventually here at Estuary.
What is the vision behind the many menus (breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, happy hour) at Estuary?
I really love that I am given a lot of culinary freedom at Estuary and am empowered to devise the menus on my own. My first emphasis is that the menus at Estuary be local and hyper-seasonal. I work with local farms to ensure we have the best ingredients and produce of the season and hire staff who share the same principles of local and seasonal. In some ways, there are 52 seasons of the year, each week there are changes in what grows best, and we want to honor that. The changes in produce also allow us as chefs to be super creative and to create without parameters. I try and pull from different cultures and global influences at large, and I also use influences from my upbringing to cook in a way where I am flexible, with the changes dictated by what we get from the farms rather than by one cooking style or type of cuisine.
How do you accommodate diners with dietary restrictions?
We have a menu that is diverse enough to cater to different dietary needs and to accommodate allergies, and our wait staff is educated on the ingredients of the different dishes daily. We work really hard to ensure we can serve anyone who comes to dine at Estuary.
What are some of your favorite things you make?
I really love to cook with seafood and vegetables. One of my favorite dishes to make is an eggplant dish where the eggplant is scored, garlic is stuffed in the crevices, and then it is cooked with spices like za-atar, sumac, and cumin and then topped with whipped labne and sprinkled with almonds.
What are your favorite things to eat, and where are your favorite spots to dine?
I love Queen’s English and Bar Spero, and I really, really love cheese. I tend to gravitate towards really authentic food that highlights different culinary traditions, like you get in Queens where I grew up. At home, we ate Filipino food, and I had neighbors from Kashmir who made delicious Indian food. I don’t cook at home a lot, because I am at the restaurant most days, but I do enjoy a good comfort food dish like buttered pasta.
Do you feel like it is becoming more commonplace for women to be leaders in professional culinary settings?
I do yes, although not everyone recognizes the woman as being in charge. Delivery men still go to the men in the kitchen when they show up to drop off items. But, I do feel personally I have gained confidence and I allow myself to take up more space and be comfortable as myself. It helps now that there is more of a community of women in the industry, and I hope that community grows to provide even more day to day support, mentorship, coaching and guidance to female chefs.
What are some exciting things are you working on right now?
I founded the Miss-en-Place, a quarterly dinner series hosted at Estuary, to highlight women in the culinary industry. It’s a great opportunity to showcase local female talent and to contribute to the establishment of a community of diverse chefs in D.C. while also giving back to local charities that support women. Tickets for the next Miss-en-Place dinner can be found here.