Chef Ted Montoya Reminds Us You Have To Fight Your Way Up From The Bottom

Sometimes you have to work your way up from the bottom. And, sometimes you have a fight even to get in at the bottom. Chef Ted Montoya’s story starts with his pursuit of a humble dishwasher’s gig in his local neighborhood hangout when he was still in high school. He was unsure of his path at the time. But, once he scored a spot in a kitchen, he never looked back. Montoya cut his teeth in the food truck world and now his take on remixed-Mexican cuisine has positioned him to take the brick and mortar food world by storm.

A teenaged Ted Montoya knew he needed a get out in the great wide world and he saw his opportunity for autonomy in washing dishes. He applied at a restaurant near his house but then didn’t hear anything for almost a month. Finally, while walking back home from school one day, Montoya decided he’d had enough. So, he grabbed the help wanted sign out of the grass in front of the restaurant and took it to the restaurant’s owner.

“Listen man,” he said, “you don’t need this sign anymore … I told you: I’ll help you!”

He was hired on the spot.

Cooking school was too expensive for the native Angelino. Montoya instead relied on mentors to shepherd his skills from the dishwasher to the grill top. His first mentor was Los Angeles wunderkid Calvin Cailin, of Eggslut and kitchen incubator Unit 120 fame.

Montoya met his mentor when he ate at his food truck for the first time. He was blown away by the food and offered to do anything from washing the truck to working for free just to be around Chef Cailin and absorb all he could. Cailin had parked his truck in Montoya’s neighborhood because he was from there and wanted his local neighborhood to have good food. This love of community is something that still drives Montoya to use local and fresh ingredients to make food for his community.

The mentorship bloomed into friendship. They started with how to correctly crack and cook an egg. Then they moved on to the proper set up of a cooking station for efficiency and ease. The final prong was a deep dive into the different farmer’s and Asian markets L.A. has to offer. Montoya was learning new ingredients and how to professionally cook them simultaneously, from a chef he revered. It was better than cooking school (and allowed the young upstart to move ahead without student-loan debt).

Montoya is working hard to be where he is. When he goes to work in the morning, his kids are still asleep and likely already in bed when he gets home. His passion was and is the cuisine that he grew up with. This drive led to Zagats honoring Montoya with the 30 Under 30 award for the most innovative young chefs last year. The honor highlighted Montoya’s new endeavor Caló Provisions. The restaurant aims to serve “market driven dishes rooted in Alta California cuisine.”

Montoya already has a standout hit too, with his take on a classic dish — elevated with modern multicultural flavors from around L.A. — a spectacular bowl of pozole.

LA Weekly said Montoya’s pozole “will make your abuelita jealous.”

Montoya says that the world of Chicano cuisine is grabbing people’s attention because it “doesn’t belong to Mexico but doesn’t entirely belong to America.” It’s rooted in Mexican food with a very Californian flare.

Point being: Chef Montoya is celebrating his heritage and sharing it with a wider audience. He does this by updating classic dishes for modern palates through the lens of his culture history. It’s a sort of modernist remix of grandma’s kitchen that’s every bit as new and exciting as it is traditionally soulful and satisfying.