Behind The Apron: Carlos Montobbio (Esquina)

Aside from the upbeat music playing in the background, Executive Chef Carlos Montobbio’s team in the open kitchen of ESQUINA is in quiet concentration of their individual tasks at hand.

The 28-year old newly appointed Executive Chef from Spain shares, “During service, you are likely to be inspired. If there are too many distractions, you will lose the concentration. I think it’s very important to stay focused.”

The way Chef Carlos runs his kitchen is not surprising. The Barcelona-born chef has learned from the best, having worked in a slew of prolific restaurants alongside a number of celebrated chefs including the Roca brothers from the 3 Michelin-starred and recurring #1 on the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Celler de Can Roca (Spain), and Chef Hilario Arbelaitz from 2 Michelin-starred restaurant, Zuberoa (Spain).

His style of working has certainly paid off for him. During his first overseas stint at Anti:dote bar in Fairmont, his Asian-inspired tapas menu quickly earned him the reputation for having a creative flair, as well as a finalist nomination for the Rising Chef of the Year award by WGS Awards of Excellence.

Chef Carlos sits down for a quick chat with us before his kitchen swings into action.

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How did your love for cooking start?

I started appreciating good produce since I was very young. I was very curious as well. I love to taste new dishes and ingredients and was very exposed to good produce. When I was five, I often helped my mother in the kitchen. I started cooking by myself when I was around six to seven years old, especially during celebrations at home with family and friends. But I never thought that I was going to work as a professional chef. It was more like a hobby. My passion for cooking started when I joined a culinary school when I was 16 and I started to work at the school’s restaurant. That was when I really started to love the profession. I will never forget the day I sent my first dish to a customer. It was very special after four months of training. My first dish was a turbot with lemon puree and some veggies.

Who was your mentor and what was the best piece of advice you’ve received from him?

I’ve learned from all the chefs I worked with. But there were two chefs in particular. The
first one was Hilario Arbelaitz. He is the chef of Zuberoa in Spain. From him, l learned respect for the guest. He was in the kitchen every day making sure that everything was perfect for every service, every guest and every single dish. The second person was Joan Roca. He is the chef of El Celler de Can Roca in Spain. From him, I learned how to run a kitchen – with silence and respect. I’ve never heard him shouting during my time there. He runs the kitchen like an orchestra where everyone knows what to do. Everything is very organised. He just has to say a few words.

What is Chef Carlos Montobbio’s style of food?

I always look for quality ingredients. I think this is basic for any chef. Without quality ingredients, you cannot do much. I also like to mix traditional and modern techniques. My cuisine is always based on Catalan and Spanish with some Japanese touch because I feel very close to that cuisine as well.

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Eating is a favourite pastime of many Singaporeans. How does the food scene in Singapore compare to Spain’s?

Just like Singapore, food is very important in Spain. There are two big differences. In Spain, people are more seasonal. They tend to eat out during Summer or weekends. It is quieter at the restaurants during weekdays and Winter. In Singapore, the weather is always good sopeople tend to eat out anytime of the year so restaurants are always full. In Spain, the chefs are also closer to produce. When I was working in Barcelona, we used to visit farmers and vegetable producers once a week. Everything we served was produced within 50km of the restaurant. This is good for chefs because we can learn from the farmers how to use the produce better.

Why did you decide to come to Singapore?

I’ve been in Singapore for over two years and this is my first overseas stint. I discovered Singapore when I was backpacking in Thailand. I stopped over in Singapore for a day but I really liked the city. I felt very at home here. By then, I had already decided to work overseas. I had some savings so I came back to Singapore. It took me about a week to find a job at Anti:dote bar, Fairmont.

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What is your favourite food in Singapore?

When my friends visit Singapore, I like to bring them to Maxwell Market for Tian Tian Chicken Rice and New Ubin Seafood. New Ubin does chilli crab very well. These are my two favourite places for local food. Herbal style Bak Kut Teh is another favourite of mine. I also quite enjoy eating durians. I don’t like the smell but I like the taste.

What do you enjoy doing outside of the kitchen?

I like to spend time outdoors. I usually walk my dog at Botanic Gardens or read a cook book at the beach in Sentosa with a beer on hand when there is no haze. I also like to roller blade at East Coast Park. I’m indoors for so many hours so I like to be outdoors to enjoy the sun.

Interview, Singapore

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