“Be happy when you cook. I usually dance and sing in the kitchen.”
Jason Montelibano has been at Chapter One: The Modern Local since the beginning two and a half years ago, yet he only moved up to the executive chef position earlier this year. He has an impossible-to-ignore nickname and an appetite to excel in the kitchen. We converse over a dish of sisig fries and live jazz.
Your earliest food memory:
Pan de Sal (Filipino bread). I still loved watching cartoons, but every Saturday, I looked forward to helping a local bakery in the Philippines knead dough and bake bread.
Most undervalued ingredient:
Vegetables. Taking a vegetable you see every day and making it unique is how I get passionate with my food.
Which responsibility did you enjoy doing most during your time at Irvine Fish Market?
Fishmongering. I learned a lot when I mongered different kinds of fish. The worst part was coming home and smelling like fish guts, but it was a good skill to have.
Your strategy of working your way up at Chapter One is similar that at Irvine Fish Market. Many chefs would rather bounce between multiple restaurants to gain a greater breadth of knowledge. Why did you choose this route?
At Chapter One, it's basically like a big family. It's home away from home. I love the people here, and it makes long days go by.
Where was your most recent meal?
Chef Ryan Velilla's BBQ brisket sandwich at C4 Deli: The Cure for the Common. It's really amazing. Your mind would be blown if you ate it.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Young and hungry/talented chefs.
What is your most popular item?
There's a buzz going around about the sisig fries — pork jowl, pig ears and pulled pork on some fries, with pickled red onions and a fried egg.
What is your beverage of choice?
Freshly squeezed calamansi (a kumquat hybrid) juice. I usually get it from family friends who have a tree. Some Asian markets carry it.
Are there ideas or lessons that you might not have learned as quickly if you didn't attend culinary school?
Eventually, you will learn things as you go in a restaurant, but butchering meats — like a whole side of beef and pork — would be it. I was lucky enough that one of my instructors in school also owned a farm in Chino Hills.
What are your favorites on Chapter One's menu?
Fried chicken, lamb and gnocchi, and the Kurobuta pork chop.
One food you can't live without:
Jollibee's spaghetti and three-piece chicken meal with gravy, with a side of rice. What can I say? I'm a true F.O.B.
Sheldon Simeon of Top Chef: Seattle. A proud moment of being Filipino was when he had a great restauranteur like Danny Meyer raving about his sinigang.
How old were you when you killed your first chicken, and what was the experience like?
I believe I was 7. I'll never forget it. I had to hold the chicken steady while my grandma slit its throat to save the blood. The chicken went into shock and eventually pooped on me.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
I haven't had one yet at Chapter One, mainly because the servers know the limits when it comes to special requests. But once I had to make a salad for Mr. Heinz, as in the ketchup, at the Island Hotel, and he requested the salad to be chopped super-fine.
Tell us about working under David Man at the Island Hotel.
Working at the Island Hotel was the start of my culinary career. I worked with ingredients I didn't know about as a young cook, so it expanded my vision for flavor profiles and plated dishes.
Favorite meal growing up:
Arroz Valenciana, otherwise known as a poor man's paella. My grandma made it the best! It was really sticky, with seafood and vegetables.
Your best recent food find:
The buffalo duck leg from Lola Gaspar. [The staff] had me try it. It was crispy, but it was still tender inside. I think I had two that day. It was that good.
Strangest thing you've ever eaten:
I ate a lot of strange things when I was growing up. From chicken head to chicken intestine and dog — just kidding. Balut would probably top it; nothing is more strange than biting into an unfertilized duck fetus. But it's still amazing.
Favorite places to eat (besides your own):
Magic Wok in Artesia has this dish called crispy pata (deep fried pork knuckle). It's well worth the heart attack.
You're making breakfast. What are you having?
Corned beef with garlic fried rice and scrambled eggs.
Is there a dish that you'd like to learn how to make?
The art of cheese making. I'm lactose intolerant when it comes to soft cheese, but that doesn't stop me from gorging myself with some good cheese.