Teresa Montaño is a Mexico-born, Los Angeles-based chef known for her new takes on classic Spanish dishes. She is passionate about sustainability and how travel has crafted her restaurant, Otoño.
Can you give our readers a quick overview of how you started out in the culinary industry, and what got you passionate about what you’re doing?
I’ve always cooked–I’m from a big Hispanic family so that’s kind of a thing. But I didn’t start cooking until after undergrad. I was a soccer player my whole life and I went to Pepperdine University to play soccer and that was really my focus: my whole life.
I played Division One and it didn’t end up being anything after college. I was in Malibu and I was living with some friends and not really sure what the next steps were. I started working on an organic farm and my job was to harvest vegetables and set up the produce stand. I was paid $7 USD an hour plus vegetables.
From there, I started working for a catering company in Malibu. It was very romantic introduction to the food industry, because [we were catering to these] big elaborate weddings and in these gorgeous homes. I was into it. I loved it.
From there it was just what I wanted to do. I loved the intensity of it. The intensity and the physicality was also like athletics and I really liked that–I took to it really well. [I enjoyed] thinking on my toes and also troubleshooting and working on a team, as a team, with a team. All that just felt natural to me.
I worked for the Border Grill company for about five years and that was awesome. I moved up to sous chef and helped open some projects. I was a lot of learning there. Shortly after that, I went to New York for a year and worked for Jean-Georges briefly, but then I got scooped into another project and came home.
My partner and I moved to New York and we had been working together. We decided to start working on our own project. That was my first restaurant that I opened in Pasadena, called Ración. And I was just a baby–I was 30 and it was an incredible experience. I left in 2016 and she kept it going for another year and then it closed at the beginning of 2017.
It’s funny how sometimes those things happen and then it leads to something else.
You know this whole experience has just come full circle at Otoño. I took a year off, I traveled, I went back to Spain, and then I opened Otoño.
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This and every Sunday we will be dreaming up new ways to present paella! The possibilities are endless when considering the building blocks of paella #sofrito, #broth to name a few. This is last week’s paella special; Arroz with a rich carabinero prawn broth, hamachi crudo with pickled mushrooms, cherry tomato and crispy mushrooms! Come by Sunday to see where our imagination takes us! #otoñola
Where have you been in Spain and what were the places that you connected with and found inspiration from?
While I was with the Border Grill group, I worked at a restaurant called Ciudad. It was pan-Latin, but it also had a lot of Spanish influence, as well. I got really turned on to those flavors. My best friend and I decided to go to Barcelona and after that I was like, “Okay, this is it.” I loved it. I loved it, loved it. I love the food. I connected with the culture and everything about it. I kept going back. I’ve been to Barcelona six times and I’ve also been to San Sebastian. Valencia was my most recent trip–Valencia and Barcelona. I stopped in Copenhagen and spent about six weeks in Puglia in Italy. It was pretty magical.
It just took one time going to Spain and eating and being there and I was hooked. That’s what my food has been based off. It’s really like my two [different] restaurants are travel journals. Those travels were so profound that it fuels me every day. I don’t think you have to go and cook somewhere to learn about food in order to allow the food to influence you. You can eat it and involved in the culture of it. I still get that same experience.
It surpasses language and it surpasses all of these things. It’s where we can connect and speak the same language. It’s a beautiful thing.
Has your experience identifying as LGBTQ has changed your career?
Early in my career, it did not really seem to come into play. It was a great experience to be out with my partner when we opened Ración and I think that was important. I’m so lucky to be in a city where female chefs are prominent. And I was very fortunate to work with some of them and see how they operated.
Susan Feniger of Border Grill is a lesbian and she’s a legend–she’s amazing. I saw her operating and I saw the way that she was in front of the guests in public and I admired that she was just purely herself. She didn’t hold back from who she was, part of that being gay.
It’s nothing that I wear on my forehead and I don’t think that it is wholly who I am. It just happens to be my preference, but I think it’s important to be out and I think it’s becoming more a part of the conversation of who I am and what I bring to the landscape as a chef. It’s just being who you are and being confident in that. And I think that that’s the most important thing–doesn’t matter what that is.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your current restaurant? Where did the concept come from?
Last year when I went back to Spain, I went to Valencia for the first time. Valencia is a beautiful city. Everyday I would just walk around and eat and just get lost. That’s my favorite way to explore a city is just get lost on foot with my backpack and my headphones and see where it takes me.
What I thought I was so profound about Valencia was its street art. I was just blown away–every corner I turned there was just an amazing piece. There’s this neighborhood called Barrio del Carmen, and it’s the old part of the city. Old, old architecture with these gorgeous cathedrals and cobblestone, little winding ways. Very, very old Europe.
This gorgeous street art is everywhere. It’s this cool juxtaposition of old and new–that was what struck me so much. It’s such a special little neighborhood. I hung out there a lot, and I was just kind of like, this is what I want to base Otoño on.
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The tapas tradition is an old thing and there’s just some things that must be on the menu. But how do I make it new? How do I make it edgy? That grit, who I am and what I bring to the restaurant and to the culinary scene here. That kind of urban, modern idea of tapas.
I wanted it to be who I am in contrast to my last restaurant, which was more buttoned up and upscale–a lot of that influence came from my partner. I wanted it to be lively and [have] a big bar. Another thing that struck me when I was in Valencia was the bar scene and the gin tonics. Gin and tonic is a big thing in Spain, but they do it differently. They make them in a big, burgundy glass with lots of aromatics. They’ll put in peppercorn and star anise and citrus, and it’s this big, beautiful, refreshing beverage.
I had several of those and like, “Wow, what is this? What’s going on here?” That’s what our bar is based off of at Otoño: it’s a gin and tonic bar. It’s really beautiful to see all of these big glasses on the bar with ice and all of these botanicals sticking out every which way.
Valencia is also the city where paella comes from. Going back to my last restaurant, we were more Basque-focused in the northern part of Spain, which is more of a bread region. Valencia is a rice region. Every day at Ración people were like,
“Oh, this is Spanish! Do you have paella?” And I was like, “No, I do not.” I heard that enough to be like, okay, people want paella.
That was actually my mission, to go out to Valencia to learn paella, and to eat paella, and to understand truly what authentic paella was all about. We do paella at Otoño: three different types, sometimes four, and we do specials all day on Sunday. It’s really struck a chord and people enjoy it. And there’s not a lot of places in LA to get a Spanish paella.
Our restaurant is an old building from the 1920s in the old part of LA in Highland Park. I thought it was perfect. It reminded me of the feeling of the Barrio del Carmen. We commissioned some street artists from Valencia to come in and do a mural.
Another layer of our concept too is classic art covered with graffiti–the juxtaposition of old and new. It’s very vibrant. It’s all in the bar area, so it just kind of hits you right when you come in. That’s Otoño. It’s its own thing. It’s unique. There’s so much potential and it’s exciting.
Header photo by Mariah Tauger (Los Angeles Times).