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Q&A With Del Mar Wine + Food Fest’s Chef Tara Monsod

The DMWFF participating executive chef dishes on her culinary inspirations and favorite places in SD ahead of the inaugural event
Tara Monsod, executive chef at Animae, San Diego

Tara Monsod, executive chef at Animae, San Diego

There’s something happening at Animae, something you notice before you take your first bite of food. It’s in the server’s voice as they greet you, in the way the bussers reset the tables and how the staff talks to each-other in passing: these people are proud to work here. It’s rare that an entire staff can click together with such enthusiasm, and we’re hardly the first to notice that it all started right around when Tara Monsod was promoted to executive chef.In a world of planetary egos and volcanic tempers, chef Tara is a welcome reprieve. She’s a huge talent achieving great things, but barely able to get a sentence out without crediting her mentors, or a member of her staff. She has slowly infused Animae with Filipino flavors and dishes, integrating them into the downtown Asian steakhouse.Chef Tara and her team will be among the more than 80 food and drink makers participating in this year’s inaugural Del Mar Wine + Food Festival (Sept. 6-11). But before the two-day Grand Tasting event where attendees can try her fare firsthand, we caught up with her to talk about leadership, San Diego food, and why it’s hard to recommend just one Filipino spot.

How do you think about being a leader, and do you do anything specifically to unite front of house and back of house?

I think naturally, I’ve always been kind of a leader, because I work beside my people. I don’t walk in like, “I’m the chef and you have to do these things,” you know what I mean?When it comes down to it, me and some of the other chefs I grew up with at Tender Greens have a saying, “It’s never above, never below, but always beside each other.” I think if you lead with that kind of mentality, and you show that you are willing to put in the work with them, I think people respect that.I learned a lot of leadership skills through different jobs. I learned how to motivate people from chef [Anthony] Sinsay. He was my mentor. I learned vulnerability as a chef through him. And I learned other things from other chefs that I’ve been around. I learned at Tender Greens how to talk to your people, how to motivate somebody who isn’t a cook.And then Anthony Wells at Juniper & Ivy, I learned a lot about cooking from him, and learned how he talks to his people, and how humble he is. If you’re smart, you pay attention to the people that you’ve worked for, and you just pick up what you like.

Like most chefs, you talked about being inspired by the dishes from your upbringing. I won’t ask you what the best Filipino food in town is, but is there one where the dishes kind of feel like home?

I go to certain places for certain things. Tita’s Kitchenette has become a staple. But I think there’s a lot of smaller places, they call them “point point” places, that deserve a lot of love. A lot of them are kind of the same in the dishes they serve, but everybody has their own little touches on it.Some do one of their dishes better than others. Like if I want Babingka, which is like a mochi bread, I go to Manilla Sunset. But for me, I don’t have one specific one. There’s nothing like your mom or dad’s home cooking, you know?

Does San Diego have a style of food? Is San Diego cuisine a coherent idea?

That’s a loaded question. Do we have a certain kind of style? I’m not really sure, to be honest with you. Every chef has their own style. But still… I think yeah? I think here we really, really get to focus a lot on our fruits and vegetables. I feel like it’s a luxury a lot of other places don’t get. The access to local seafood is wonderful. The access to local produce is wonderful. I think San Diego chefs who are doing things right now are very good at featuring local ingredients, and really showing local [purveyors] a lot of love. The chefs that I admire, like Anthony [Wells], are great at this.What’s the last meal or dish you had in town that just knocked you over, that you thought was amazing?I call them “fuck me up” moments. I’d say… The porchetta and broccoli rabe sandwich that the guys from Bica did for a pop up. I worked with Charlie [Knowles] and Manny [da Luz] at Tender Greens. They’re family. And they make an awesome porchetta sandwich. It’s going to be on the menu in their next project coming soon, at Butcher’s Plate, in National City Food Hall.

Ok, a few rapid fires:

Do you have a favorite pizza place in San Diego?

Tribute Pizza.

Taco Shop?

Tacos El Gordo.

Do you have a favorite date-night spot?

Wolf in the Woods.

Favorite place to split a bottle of wine?

Can I say Wolf in the Woods again? They’re a wine bar, right? Okay, if not: Mabel’s Gone Fishing.

Favorite cocktail bar?

It’s hard. So many have just opened up too. I’ll say The Lion’s Share.

Plus it’s close to work.

Yeah, It’s always a go-to place.

What are you doing for the Del Mar Wine + Food Festival?

I’m doing the afterparty at the Pendry. Richard Blais’ party. I’m doing a Hamachi Crudo my sous chef and I collaborated on. I like featuring her stuff because I think she deserves the credit. Her name is Chianne Mallari. I like to let them express themselves and I challenge them to try to create things, even if it’s a simple crudo, and she did a really good job on this one. I’m really proud of her. I’ve been trying to feature her dish while the melons are in season, so it’s hamachi crudo with a yuzu mint vinaigrette, with yuzu kosho and local melon. Fresh and juicy.

Is there anything else that you’re excited for for the festival?

I’m just excited to see what it’s like! It’s the first one. I’m honored to be invited. It’s always nice for you to see your peers, everybody’s just so busy doing their own thing individually, so whenever people of this caliber gather in one place, it’s really nice to see everybody. I like the San Diego camaraderie. It’s what I look forward to, and just to see what people are excited about, and have good conversations about food and, you know, what we love. It’s the people. It’s the people I’m most excited about.

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