Jinan Montecristo of Les Amis, Part One
Photo by Todd Barnes
Les Amis is the little Lebanese restaurant in Fullerton we reviewed a few weeks ago. Though owner Jinan Montecristo credits her mom for all the wonderful food (as you'll read in the interview) it is Jinan who is the driving force.
Here's Part One of out On The Line interview with her. Stay tuned for Part Two tomorrow and if things work out right, a recipe later in the week:
What are six words to describe your food?
Flavorful, healthy, colorful, satisfying, delicious, and garlic.
What are ten words to describe you?
That is a difficult question to answer as I am so many things, depending on the time of day. I would say that in general, I'd like to think that I am kind, generous, definitely passionate about things, perfectionist to my own standard, a tiny bit hot-tempered; maybe! Versatile, clever, direct, influential, and to sum up, perfectly imperfect.
Your best recent food find:
One of our patrons brought in smoked paprika for me. It is actually quite tasty especially when I sprinkle it over baba ganouje. I know, it's a small ingredient and not really a food find but I was excited.
Most undervalued ingredient:
:) Paprika. Just kidding, not sure. I will need more experience in the culinary world to answer that.
Rules of conduct in your kitchens:
Oh boy, there are very many rules in my kitchen, most important is I must have a taste of every batch of all foods before I serve it to my patrons. All our salads are made from scratch for every order (I just can't stand a salad to sit for more than five minutes), and so, every salad order has to get approval before it goes out. I am learning to use my sense of smell to substitute for my sense of taste. My mother is excellent at that and I am slowly but surely getting there. Another rule, no one is allowed to make the pickled turnips except my father. He is the best at it, he is the best at making foul too. Our baked pita chips must have a certain look and color, if they are a bit overdone, that batch is not served. Culture specials are prepared by my mom and no one else can make the specials. No matter how hard I try, they will never taste like hers. Lot's more but I am sure you would be glad I spared you.
One food you detest:
Pickled pig's feet, pickled chicken's feet. I don't really know if I detest them or not but I will never try them because I detest the idea of them. We eat things in our culture that are considered weird, strange and/or gross by Western standards, but I know they are delicious, for that reason, I am always open to trying new foods no matter what my initial thought is. Except for the two things up top! Maybe there are other things, but they don't come to mind right now.
One food you can't live without:
Tabouleh, baba ganouje & chocolate. I eat those three things every day. EVERY DAY!
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
I believe that we in Orange County finally understand the importance of quality food and have, for some time, been working towards providing excellent foods to our communities. We have very good restaurants in our County with very talented chefs, to name one best would be contrary to what I think. We have great gelato, California cuisine, French cuisine, American cuisine, Vietnamese, Japanese, Lebanese :), etc...
What fast food do you admit to eating?
I love In-N-Out burger and Taco Bell. Not very sophisticated, I know, but you can't be sophisticated all the time. I eat the burgers maybe once every two months and Taco Bell the same... my sinful pleasure is eating tacos and hot dogs from the street vendors in downtown LA. I eat that a bit more than I care to admit to, so I won't.
Best culinary tip for the home cook.
Before I opened Les Amis, I worked out of my home and took care of my son. Every Monday, I would go to the market and buy all I needed for the week as I had my weekly menu ready. While doing laundry, I would wash, cut, portion, and bag the spices for all the meals I planned to cook. Every morning there after, I would cook my meal with ease and efficiency. OK, I didn't really do it every week, actually, not most weeks but the weeks I did do it, it was very helpful and I would definitely recommend that all home cooks plan their meal calendar for the entire week and take one day for the weekly prep. I promise, your life will be so much easier. It's like laying out your clothes the night before; makes it so much easier and quicker to get dressed the next morning. Now that, I do every day, for me and my son.
What's that? :(, Les Amis is only four months old and so, you cannot leave an infant alone for one second. We are at the restaurant at least fourteen hours a day every day but Sunday. There is not really any time left for "hanging out". On Sundays though, my boys (husband and son) and I just relax, go out for breakfast to different diners around town, go to church, sometime we go looking for hidden treasures at garage sales or thrift shops. Sometimes I drag the two of them with me to my favorite home stores. They don't really like that very much.
Favorite celebrity chef.
Chef Gordon Ramsay by far. Love him, so direct, blunt and rude; all for the betterment and professional growth of the person he is insulting.
Celebrity chef who should shut up:
Very many of them should, however, my opinion does not supersede my belief that everyone should have the freedom to share their view. I actually came to believe because my mother would, and still does insist that Her way is better than mine and is the right way and that is how I and the rest of the world should do it. She is right, her way is the best way but I still want to be able to share my view. Get it?
Proudest moment as a chef/restaurant owner:
You know, my mother is the chef, not I. I just learn and follow in footsteps and recipes. I think her proudest moments were when us (her children) would tell her that she needs to share her food with the rest of the world. Lately, it's when patrons personally thank her and give her a hug for making such delicious meals.
Favorite music to cook by:
Music and I are best friends, I love most music, often without even understanding a word being sung. Buddha Bar series offers beautiful music from an international aspect often I am listening to them more than any other music. I need a speaker in my kitchen!
Best food city in America:
For me, food is an experience, it's not just about what's going down your throat. Company, ambiance, service etc., all add to a meal. In that sense, I will have to admit, New York.
Favorite restaurant in America:
Wow! America? I am not sure, that's a tough one. Not sure if I can even answer this question. Maybe at the next interview.
What you'd like to see more of in Orange County from a culinary standpoint:
You know, I would love to see restaurants trying to grow their own veggie and herb gardens. I would like to see us serving food by their season because that is when they are best. I would like to see menus change more often based on the fruit and vegetables of that season. I would love to see a formal, fine dining Russian restaurant open up with live entertainment and dancing. What do you think about that?
What you'd like to see less of in Orange County from a culinary standpoint:
Fast food and restaurants with bad quality food, looking only to make a living as opposed to being proud of what they have to offer the community.
I have piles and piles of cookbooks that I have purchased over the years but my favorite cookbook is not out yet. My mother has not had the time to write her cookbook yet.
When you're not in the kitchen cooking, what are you doing?
Any moment I have right now I spend it with my son Oliver. It has been a tough transition for the both of them, from being a work at home mom to sharing minutes a day. Somehow, we are managing. Juan Carlos (my husband) has been amazing in helping me accomplish my dream and even sitting in for me so I have more time with Oliver. He is amazing at many things.
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