When Tara Monsod took over the kitchen at San Diego’s ANIMAE, she put the Filipino flavors she grew up eating smack at the center of the menu, transforming the restaurant beyond a Japanese steakhouse. Ever since, the restaurant’s garnered plenty of attention, not only from publications like Food and Wine, but also from Filipino families who sometimes drive hours for the experience.
“Filipino food is starting to gain traction in the U.S. as a whole, and not just as food you get out of a styrofoam box for $8,” says Monsod. “When I decided I wanted to do it here, I was the third chef [at ANIMAE], and I thought I was going to get yelled at, but word got around that everything was really good, and now I have people from my generation who are so proud to show people like our parents that they can get Filipino food served in a nice dining room with a glass of wine.”
Monsod grew up in a traditional Filipino household in the Los Angeles suburbs with parents who loved cooking and dining. This led Monsod to take an interest in food from a very young age. As she recalls, she mastered how to use chopsticks at Chinese restaurants by age four and spent notable hours of her youth watching cooking shows on TV. It wasn’t until she hit her mid-20s, however, that Monsod realized she wanted to pursue cooking as a career. She left nursing school for culinary school, and immediately took a job at Tender Greens in San Diego, moving on to work at some of the city’s most prominent restaurants, including Richard Blais’ Juniper and Ivy.
Monsod joined ANIMAE in 2020 as a sous chef – but it wouldn’t take long for her to move up. ANIMAE closed shortly after Monsod joined the team due to the pandemic. When it reopened, Monsod was back, this time helming the kitchen, rebuilding much of the menu, and also shaking up how the kitchen’s run.
Stepping into her first executive chef position, Monsod has set out to create the kind of environment she longed for as a young chef. She wants people to be able to ask questions without hesitation. She encourages staff to test out their own ideas. And she’s coaching her team so that one day, they can step into the very role she’s just taken on.
“I enjoy mentorship. It comes naturally to me,” says Monsod. “And I get more satisfaction out of seeing other people do well and knowing that I had a part to play in it, rather than just teaching them how to make one sauce.”
We chatted with Monsod to learn more about her mentorship-forward approach and how she’s giving chefs a platform to step up and lead.
How did it feel upon stepping into your first role as an executive chef, and did the offer come as a surprise?
I was totally surprised. I remember joking around with Chef Carlos [Anthony] of Herb and Wood, their sister restaurant. He said, “I think the next chef is you.” And I thought he was joking. I said, “Do you know how big this restaurant is? To be almost the face, and create the entire menu, and guide a whole team? No, no, not me.”
I presented my first menu to the bosses, and I think they were quite surprised. I'm a small Filipino girl who always gets underestimated. I've kind of dealt with that my whole career, and I think surprising them was a little validating, but also very unexpected. They gave [the position] to me, and they set me up for success. They said, “We’ve got everything else, just worry about the food.”
Since taking over the kitchen, you’ve voiced that you want to be a mentor for all chefs that work with you, and I’d love to hear what that looks like for you.
I’ve been trying to build my team the way I’ve always wanted it to be built while I was at a restaurant. Other than just clocking in and clocking out, I always wanted to know more. I wanted to be able to ask more. Why do you do it this way? What do you do in the front of house? I think cooks worry so much about the kitchen, which they should because they’re cooks, but there’s this whole front of house, back of house separation. It never made sense to me. So my goal is to try to break that. We’re one team, and everyone’s dependent on each other, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t ask questions, and I encourage my chefs to ask, “Why?”.
If they want to be creative, I give them a platform. It’s their job to conceptualize the dish. I’m not going to tell or force you to do it. But I encourage them, and three or four of my cooks have had something on the menu for a good amount of time, not just as a special. I wish I had that opportunity as a cook.
I give them credit. I let the front of house know, “Cheyenne made this dish. We collaborated on it with one of the other chefs.” I always tell them, collaboration is key. Even when I make something, I ask them to taste it. “Does it need more acid?” “Do you think you could eat a whole bowl of this?” I’m doing anything I can to educate them on what I’m thinking and how I process. And at the same time, I’m getting their feedback and having them engaged in a way that they feel like they’re contributing.
Do you have specific mentoring strategies you take when working with staff to create a new menu item?
They need to understand how much work it takes if you want to properly run a restaurant. In the end you have to make money. So I talk them through it. “If you do a dish, how are you going to replicate it 300 or 400 times?” “How do I make it an easy execution for you, as a cook on this line?” And then we streamline it. We build the dish together, and then I say, “Now you have to cost it.” I don’t expect them to do the paperwork that I do because they’re line cooks, and they’re very busy. But I’ll literally show them, this is what I’m doing. They see the line build and say, “That’s a lot of steps.” And yes, it’s a lot of steps, but you need to do it so you know what to sell for. It’s not just putting stuff on the menu.
It gets to the point when you’re a line cook and you see your chef not running around, not physically on the line, and you ask yourself, “What do they do?”. I thought that myself when I was younger. So I like to show them, this is what I’m doing, and if you want to get to a position like mine, this is what to expect. You’re in charge of everything under this roof.
Letting staff design their own dishes involves a degree of being able to let go of some of the control. What does that feel like for you?
There’s letting go of control, but in a sense that they might come up with something that I may not, and that’s the beauty in collaborating. They have a vision, but it just needs to be wrangled in to make it a little more ANIMAE.
I’m not going to put something on the menu that doesn’t taste good. So we go back and forth, and by the time it gets to the menu, it could be the 10th version. You see it evolve, and sometimes it ends up being something completely different than when it started.
I’ll use an example with Cheyenne. She started off with a sausage skewer, and we ended up with this rice-cake-esque kind of dish that sold all summer. It was our pork and clam dish. We had a really good sauce [at the start] but it just wasn't hitting. This is the first Asian American restaurant most of my staff have worked in. So I said, “How do we use sausage? I like sausage and clams – it’s delicious in Italian [cuisine]. But instead of using pasta, let's use your sauce on Korean rice cakes.” And there you go. Cheyenne got a dish on the menu all summer.
They see the build. They see the work. They see it on the menu. And then they get to share it with their families. They have something they’re proud of.
What kind of feedback have you received from staff?
My turnover is very low. I feel like my team is very loyal to me. I put a love into my team. If you’re working your butt off in a heat wave of 110 [degrees], we buy them cases and cases of Gatorade and a crapload of fans. It’s taking those extra steps to show they’re not just sweating away their value. I felt that way sometimes as a cook. I try to do little things to show appreciation and build culture.
I think I've built a culture where we’re a family and everyone takes care of each other. That’s why we have things like my snack drawer. The rule of the snack drawer is, if you eat some, you bring some, and that shows you want to take care of other people in this kitchen, not just yourself. I started posting about it on Instagram, and it became a thing where people are like, “What’s in your snack drawer today?” It led to guests bringing us snacks – “We just want to say thank you.” People don’t have to do that. But they feel like they’re part of something. And now when my staff eats at other restaurants, they bring those kitchens snacks.
My goal is to influence people not just in food but in the importance of taking care of your people. I know it sounds kind of cliche, but it’s really important. A lot of people fell out of our industry because it’s so hard. The industry needs to change as far as the abusiveness. Don’t get me wrong, I have grit in me. Some of it is military style discipline. People need structure. But at the same time, it’s more progressive. There's no sense in the front of house coming up to me and asking a question, and me answering as an asshole.
Do you have any advice for other operators or executive chefs who are looking to initiate more mentoring of their own staff?
It takes a lot of time out of the daily. It could start with something as simple as asking your crew, “How are you?”. You generally have to care. I think that goes a long way. You can’t fake it. People know when you’re being fake.
My old chef always said, “My success is contingent on yours.” That always stuck with me. Whatever cooks that are coming out of my kitchen, it’s an extension of me. If they go to another kitchen, I want people to think, “They’re a great cook”. That means I did well.
If I don’t set you up for success, it’s on me. And I feel like a lot of chefs think it’s the reverse. For me, it’s always about, what did I do wrong? Was I not present enough? I think my team generally sees that, and they just want to do me a solid and do good work.
How do you juggle the extra time that mentoring takes?
It takes sacrifice, I’m not going to lie. I’m away from my wife for 12 or 14 hours of the day. But she also doesn’t know any different. It takes a special breed of people to understand what it’s like to work like this. It gets to the point where my team is like, “Chef go home.” I’m the type of person that feels like I need to be present for you to see that I’m trying to be a leader and be there for you. So the last two years, I’ve worked my ass off to get things going, and hopefully bring ANIMAE to a light where it’s more than just about the food. When you speak about us, it’s about, “The servers, the cooks, they say they’re really happy working there”.
I’ve learned a lot just talking to guests. My cooks see me roaming the room, and they know not all chefs do that, but I’m trying to be different. There’s no reason why there’s one way of doing things anymore. So they see that and the importance of talking to people. You can’t be in a cave the entire time. And that leads to people saying, “Your staff seems really happy”. Happy chefs lead to good food.
Where do you see yourself continuing as a chef and a mentor in the future?
Who knows, maybe I’ll open my own Filipino restaurant. Or maybe I’m worrying about multiple chefs and creating a sense of culture in a company, and providing a mentorship where all the kitchens are running the same way as mine. And people are talking – “I want to work for that restaurant group.”
If people speak of my name, it’s either I’m a “nice person” or a “hard worker”, and that's kind of been my goal. Five years from now, a number of my cooks might have their own restaurant. And if they can say, “I worked for Chef Tara, and I was really proud to work there, and these are things I do in my kitchen because this is what she’s taught me.”...I want to make an impact in a long-lasting way.
Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Photo courtesy James Tran]