by Sylvana Smith
If you watch television cooking shows—particularly the high intensity cooking competitions—it seems chefs are all self-appointed emperors, differentiated only by the severity of their rule.
Not at Standard Foods in Raleigh, North Carolina. Executive Chef Eric Montagne is a welcoming, down-to-earth Southerner who has built a kitchen culture that is kind to the earth, kind to local farmers, kind among staff, and, of course, kind to the guests who come to enjoy inventive locavore food and drink.
He’s quick to give credit to Chef de Cuisine Will Cisa and the rest of the staff. In fact, he wouldn’t do a solo interview. “This place—we have a market, butcher shop, restaurant, farm, and an outdoor event space—is much bigger than any one person,” said Montagne. “It wouldn’t be fair; I wouldn’t feel comfortable about it.”
His modus operandi is truly collaborative. Everybody is encouraged to contribute ideas. “When we R&D new dishes, we’ll put them up to each other to taste two, three, four, or five times. We may need to change one thing, or the plating of it, or the garnish, or technique. Maybe I thought this was my concept, and Will gave me some insight that completely changed the dish for the better. Now it’s our dish, and it’s better because it’s not mine. It’s ours.”
Creativity is paramount, because Standard Foods’ farm-to-table mission invites substantial weekly changes and daily harvest-driven tweaks.
Ingredients come first. You won’t see Montagne and Cisa poring over cookbooks or solo experiments. Their work is driven by the products that come from the garden out back, Raleigh City Farm next door, and relationships with 180 small farmers that meet a rigorous sourcing ethos. That could be produce from nearby Under the Oaks Farm, or buttery goat meat and cheeses from Prodigal Farm, or coveted, farm-raised oysters from North Carolina’s outer banks. The day’s wellspring of ingenuity is always changing.
The process from fresh ingredients to the plate happens very organically and naturally. “Sometimes I have a vision for a dish, but it always changes; it always ebbs and flows, and everybody has input into it,” Montagne said.
Often, it starts as simply as knowing a farmer will be delivering a particular ingredient to the restaurant and turns into an exploration of the many ways to use the ingredient. Then, “Our cooks may come in from the garden with something new,” said Montagne. So begins the process of experimentation, tasting, and refinement. All are expected to participate.
A successful dish may start as a creative free-for-all but soon becomes an optimization exercise. “We try to be cognizant of all the senses,” said Montagne. “We want you to smell something. We want you to hear something on the plate, to hear the snap when you eat something. Texture is very important on a dish. We think of all those things, but first and foremost is the flavor. If something doesn’t taste good in a dish, then it doesn’t need to be there.”
A complicating factor is that ingredients will change in character from one day to the next. “Some days the tomatoes are riper than others, and you have to treat them differently,” said Cisa. “You have to manipulate them a little differently when they’re not quite as ripe.”
“We’ll come out to our garden and taste something, and the next day it will taste completely different,” said Montagne. “For example, it got really hot out today, so the cilantro has a bitter note it didn’t have yesterday, and we can’t use it in the same application.”
Supporting Local Growers
Allegiance to local farmers means some commodities may be scarce—or overabundant. Montagne and Cisa delight in telling “the persimmon story,” especially since it worked out so well. On a bit of a dare, Montagne told a supplier he wanted all his persimmons. “Our farmer took that to heart and showed up with 600 pounds of persimmons. We had them stacked floor to ceiling, six rows deep. We were like, ‘What are we going to do?’” Montagne said.
What follows is a Forrest Gump-style list of the many uses for persimmons. Fresh persimmons, dried persimmons, persimmon salads, persimmon vinaigrette, persimmon ice cream, persimmon sauces, even persimmon syrup on the French toast at Sunday brunch. “It became a joke among the staff that there was persimmon on every single plate,” said Montagne.
“I don’t think we wasted one,” said Cisa.
Montagne views it as a service to help farmers who have chosen earth-friendly methods that are more difficult. They’re not spraying their crops with pesticides. They’re not using genetically modified seeds. They don’t have distribution networks. “They send me a text message and hope that the six months’ planning, raising that 600 pounds of persimmons pays off, and someone actually buys them,” he said. “So we very much like to take that on as a challenge: buy as much of it as we can and support them when we can.”
Attention to Every Detail
That sense of empathy is also evident in the creation of menu items, the day’s offerings, and even the menu itself. “Where possible, we like to encourage guests to be inclusive and communal,” said Montagne. “That has been challenging, because people are not used to eating this way in a public setting. In an elevated dining setting, they can look at the waiter like, ‘Am I actually supposed to use my hands now? Should I dig into the cheek of that fish?’ Absolutely. That’s why it’s there.”
Then there are the nuances to the journey of eating a dish; for instance, the appearance. “We have a very specifically vague plating style,” said Montagne, laughing. “It’s definitely very organic; it should look like it fell and just happened to land that way, but it’s very specific and very intentional.”
The same is true of taste—very intentional at an intimate level, down to the anatomy of a bite. “You don’t want things to be the same flavor all the way through,” said C to have some kind of contrast, or it gets cloying.”
Montagne shared an example: “If a plate has spice on it, we’ll talk about whether there needs to be spice on every bite, or should it have spice every third bite and have that carryover until you hit it again. You don’t necessarily need to have something hot in every single bite.”
“We also talk about where on your palate the taste lands. When you taste things, you’ll get an initial flavor profile right up front, then something will hit the middle of your palate, and then it will finish in a certain way,” said Montagne. “That’s very important. What flavor did that leave when you were done with it?”
“We bring our cooks and everyone into these conversations,” said Montagne. “Sometimes a plate is linear; there’s not enough depth to it, and it needs something else. Sometimes it needs a different flavor or texture, a crunch. Sometimes it’s brightness or acidity. At what point are you going to get to the sauce? Does the sauce need to be everywhere or does it need to be on the bottom? We’re always playing with those elements in developing a plate and an aesthetic.”
Montagne’s favorite? That might be the mushroom fritti—partially dehydrated shiitake and oyster mushrooms (or whatever else Fox Farm & Forage has delivered), battered in tapioca flower, fried, tossed in a Carolina gold rice vinaigrette infused with house-fermented and aged black garlic, and garnished with peppers, benne seed from Henson Mills, and radish."
“Our menu changes constantly, but this mushroom dish is one of two or three things that have never left the menu, because people would probably riot if it did,” said Montagne. “I would; it’s one of my favorite things to eat.”
The son of a commercial fisherman, Montagne also brings a passion for seafood—sometimes with a theatrical twist. The whole fried fish is served upright on the platter as if swimming off the plate. Dig into the cross-hatched skin with your fingers, and pile moist chunks of the catch of the day into cornmeal crepes with hot honey, pickles, and spicy greens.
“Some guests get startled by the presentation and the fact that it’s a whole fish; the head is there,” said Montagne. “They’ll say, ‘It’s looking back at me.’ Yes, it’s supposed to be that way, and yes, you’re supposed to eat all of it.”
“We really like what we do,” said Montagne, who thrives on the camaraderie of the kitchen. “It’s pretty difficult but always interesting. We like the challenge, and we also like being around each other. We’re very selective about who w like everybody here. It’s a lot of fun.”