Talk to any chef that has worked with Oscar Montejano and they'll mention his great work ethic. Montejano, the executive chef at Queen City Grill, has cooked for over 20 years, but his modest and soft spoken nature does not reveal the fact that he is tough in the kitchen. His keep-head-down and just-do-it attitude has won him great respect in the industry but as he explains, you won't soon find him doing food television. Even on his days off, Montejano stays close to the kitchen at Queen City, grabbing the occasional meal next door at Ohana and hanging out with his crew. Last month, the indefatigable Montejano and friend Lex Petras opened Mexican taco stand Tacos de la Noche, serving authentic tacos at Belltown Billards until 3 a.m.
Photo by Tiffany Ran
I started cooking right out of high school in San Francisco. I was supposed to be a dishwasher but then the pastry chef quit that day so the chef put me on baking. I started baking for six years.
I kind of fell into it. I started liking it a lot. When I was doing baking, that was in the morning. I would end up coming back into work after I got off just to hang out because that was the fun thing to do. I knew I wanted to be a cook. It was good money and a good apprenticeship. Then, the chef quit and they offered for me to be a sous chef. In the meantime, when I was doing the baking, I was learning all the stations. I would fill in if someone couldn't show up. We had several stations there. In the time of six years, I learned everything. I was kind of that guy where if the chef wanted to take a day off, he would rely on me.
How did you get started at Queen City?
I started at Queen City about 12 years ago. I moved from California to Seattle. My friend's brother used to work here. I came in here and it looked exactly like one of the places that I used to work for in San Francisco. It's a funny story. I helped open a restaurant called Luna Park in San Francisco. When I started working here years later, I went back to visit the chef there and when I told him I worked at Queen City, he was like, "You're kidding!" Basically when he was starting the restaurant, he visited different restaurants in Seattle and took pictures. He took pictures of Queen City Grill and opened [the restaurant] based on [its interior].
When I first came to Seattle, I wanted to work here but I couldn't. I was a sous chef for Il Bistro for a year and then there was an opportunity here so I was like, "Ah, I'll take it." So that's how it started.
Tell us a little bit about Tacos de la Noche.
We opened last month at Belltown Billards. We're open from Thursday through Saturday from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. I really just help Lex [Petras] out with it.
Some people have come and they ask for cheese on the tacos and it's just kind of like, eh. ... We try to do it authentic[ally]. So it should be just meat, cilantro, and onions on the taco, and we offer different chili sauces.
You've cooked for quite some time before becoming an Executive Chef. How do you view the famous chefs or the ones that are on T.V.?
I worked with so many chefs and there are some that are really bad and well, those are the ones you see on TV. They got that charisma to talk to people, they know how to make plates but they don't know how to work. When you see people like that, it kind of upsets me because they're not really chefs.
When you're busy on the line, you [have to be able to] produce the same thing, to not burn the steaks and put really good markings on your fish. I've worked with some chefs [where] they'll step off of the line and put us to work, which is great because that's how we learn, but those people are the ones you see on TV. They cannot really work.
And what about younger chefs or aspiring chefs?
We have students from the Cordon Bleu come in all the time and they want to do a few days of training. This place can sometimes be really slow but when it hits, it hits really hard. When it does, you have to be on pace and that's when they're really like, "Oh god, this is really a lot of work." So they sometimes second guess about it. I just encourage them and say, "Well, if you really like food, you just got to work hard and get past that.
I have friends. They have a degree, they work in companies, and all of a sudden, they want to be chefs. I don't know if they're just tired of their work or they just want to be trendy because they come to see us and we have a lot of fun and meet a lot of people. At the end of the night, we go out with a lot of industry people which gets you to a lot of places. If you know a night club personnel and they know you, then you don't have to wait in line, they let you in.
The thing is, they want that, but once they start working, they know it's really hard. When it comes down to really working, it's the one hour that you're really busy that really matters. The seven hours that you worked before that doesn't matter. It's when you're really busy that's the hardest. That's when it's most important. You want people to get their dishes on time and you want people to leave with really high expectations. If you miss that half an hour or one hour window, then you know. People who say that they want to be a chef, when they hit that window, they'll know to really step it up or this is not for [them].
Queen City's location in Belltown seems like a pretty happening corner at night. Have you seen strange things or behaviors having worked in the area for so long?
Even on my days off, I come into work just to hang out. People get out of control and I guess when they're out there, they just do their thing and it's so funny. You see a lot of people doing things that they shouldn't be doing or things that they've never done, and they're just doing it out there in front of us on the street corner.
Since this restaurant has been here for so long, does it have a relationship with some of the bums or wanderers in the area?
We used to have a few regulars and those are the ones that help us sometimes. If they want something from us, they'll sweep the floors or they'll take care of the garbage for us. Lately, the past three or four years, that has increased, which is not good for business. People will come to the restaurant and they would be begging from them and they're like, "Dude we just want to come in." Sometimes we try to tell them, you need to step aside, if you want some money, you can take a broom and clean over here but they won't do it. The regulars, they do it for us.