One of the things I love about Bali is the variety of people you find. People from all around the world not only come and visit but also set up businesses here.
Alejandro Montaño is one of them. A Mexican Chef with 20 years of experience working in four different continents has set up shop in Ubud with La Pacha Mama. Here we talk to Alejandro about his life, love for food and his Bali creation.
Tell us about your life growing up in Mexico and how your love for food begin?
It was at a very early age when I realized that I enjoyed spending my time in the restaurant of my grandparents. I was always very curious to see, taste, smell … Very curious to know and to understand. Food always meant “celebration” for me because it was the perfect excuse to get together with our loved ones, to share and to host others with the signature Mexican hospitality.
Looking back in time, being raised up around my grandfather there was always an excuse for a gathering and the delicious food was always present along with good people. I also traveled a lot around México and then I realized how diverse my country was not only from a “touristic” point of view but also from a culinary perspective and that inspired me to continue searching.
You starting cooking at a really young age. Can you tell us about how you became at Chef at the age of 18?
I was brought up in a family where food played a very important part, my grandparents owned restaurants in my hometown y my mom was also involved in the food business with a catering company and traditional Mexican kitchens known as “fonditas”. All this influenced my career choice but I also decided that it was not going to be a profession that I was going to live from but rather a profession that I was going to live with (if it makes any sense).
Aged 16 I had my first formal job as the helper of the chef in a restaurant that was in the shoreline of a town in the Mexican pacific. It as was a very simple place but it allowed me to grow in my fascination with the whole process of creating a dish, from knowing where it came from to finally presenting it to the dinners. I was also able to realize that each kitchen has its own character and essence, like different versions of the same song.
Tell us about your move to Dubai. What took you there and what did you do there?
Aged 19 and driven by the passion that this business generates on me I opened my first restaurant where I learned the lessons that took me to where I am now. A restaurant is not only about the food you serve, but it involves also other things that play a very important part on the road to success such as the ambiance, having an impeccable service, it is about making sure that you talk the talk and walk the walk because without all these little details even the most perfect and delicious dish wouldn’t make sense. After realizing that a restaurant involves many things I decided to continue with my professional path both with formal studies and in a self-taught way.
Some years after that, I was in invited to a master class in the university of Yucatan and little did I know that this was going to be my one- way ticket to Dubai as I was offered an opportunity to work there as Executive Chef of one of the most important chains of Mexican restaurants at that time, I was also appointed as the General Manager giving me full control of both the operation and kitchen of 3 restaurants and external catering. After 3 years I was offered the opportunity of a partnership to open my own Mexican restaurant but as funny as life is this project just headed to a dead end and in a way, I now realize that the say of “every time you think you are being rejected you are just being redirected to something better” is actually true! I started offering consultancy services and I took part in the creation of menus for different restaurants in the middle east such as Salsa and La Taqueria DXB in Dubai or Big Wig in Saudi Arabia. At about the same time Etihad Airways, the national airline of the UAE, introduced the concept of In-Flight chefs for their fist class cabin and I was fortunate enough of taking part in that amazing project which at the moment is one of the most innovative in the airline industry. This was an excellent opportunity because it allowed me to travel the world and expand my horizons by getting to not only know but experience the cuisine from other parts of the world, I focused not only on fine dining food but also on the street food and the culture that was behind each dish. I also had the opportunity to collaborate in some renowned restaurants like Marco Pierre White (Fairmont Hotel, Abu Dhabi) as part of our specialized training as In-Flight Chefs.
How many international restaurants do you have? What types of food do they serve?
Looking back in time I can say that I am very proud of were I am standing as I have succeeded in doing what I love and what I am passionate about and I have learned a lot throughout these years.
I am the co-founder of a Mexican restaurant in Spain called “La hacienda” which just opened this year and it is looking very good as we offer authentic Mexican cuisine, the food that we eat daily and the recipes of “la abuelita” (grandma) but I have given them my personal touch.
In Bali, I have the most challenging and magical project as this is a very new concept as we have gone one step forward and brought those traditional Mexican flavors to life but with the twist of being a plant-based restaurant. La Pacha Mama is definitely a unique project that has pushed me to be more creative and open my mind in order to be able to bring to life the essence of the Mexican cuisine but without using any meat or fish and with the difficulty of finding the right staples to substitute this ingredient and staying true to the flavors.
There are other projects that I am “cooking” and that will keep me busy and I can foresee very exciting times coming.
What are the main challenges when opening a restaurant in Bali? And what are the benefits?
Bali has many challenges and rewards, from a business perspective there is a lot of red tape and complicated rules and regulations. Nothing is ever crystal clear…
From a staffing perspective, the Balinese have incredible natural hospitality that means they make great waiters.
What brought you to Bali?
Bali was really not at all in my plans, but like everything in life, it came unexpectedly and is the materialization of the dream of a group of visionary and crazy friends. The project was specifically created for Ubud but with the idea of making this project grow as far as we can; why Ubud? Because it is a place where people is open to trying new things, new flavors, it is a place where even if you are not a vegetarian and you thought that you could never give up on meat you decide to give it a try, I see Ubud as a place where everyone’s senses are opened to new experiences.
Pacha Mama is a very innovative concept not only in terms of the cuisine but also in terms of the general ambiance, it is not your typical Mexican restaurant but whoever has had the chance to visit Mexico will immediately feel transported there by our flavors, the quality of our products, the friendliness and professionalism of our staff and the concept as a whole.
I feel extremely lucky of being able to share the magical journey that it has been the creation and day to day of La Pacha Mama with partners that have turned into friends and with colleagues that have turned into my little family in the Island of Gods.
How long ago did you open La Pacha Mama?
We have only been opened 10 months but we have had an amazing response from our dinners. Our best reward is when they recognize the hard work behind each and every one of our dishes and when we see them leaving the restaurant with “panza llena y corazón contento” (A full stomach makes a happy heart)
The concept of La Pacha Mama is a vegetarian Mexican Restaurant. What made you choose to go all vego?
I took it as a personal challenge. Plant-based restaurants are a very new concept and especially if we talk about Mexican food.
Cooking a steak is at the end of the day something very “mechanical” from my pint of view. But when you are able to bring to life flavors (based on your childhood memories) of a very complex cuisine like Mexican and you do so without using meat, fish, or seafood cooking becomes incredibly interesting and the satisfaction that you get when your dinners appreciate this is very rewarding.
Any other projects on the pipeline?
As I mentioned before we have other exciting projects coming up and we would love to collaborate again with Bali Interiors. We are honored to be featured in this project where you certainly visit Bali’s most beautiful places through images. Stay tuned!
I got the pleasure of watching you cook. You are very calm and collected. How do you stay so chilled in a work environment that is full of alpha males and high stress?
Working in a kitchen is very hard work, the stress is always present and for an outsider, it might seem sometimes as an aggressive environment. I believe in perfection and that every little thing we do has to be done in a consistent and correct way.
Restaurants have always been a very competitive market as there are so many options out there that you have to find what is the added value that you are offering, but for me, it is not only about inspiring our guests, it is also about inspiring my co-workers, is being there for them, treating them as my family because family sticks together and take care of each other. I have learned that if you are able to inspire others then you have done a great job because when people feel valued and they love what they do they are always more productive than when they are humiliated or doing something just out of necessity. And unfortunately nowadays with many TV programs people is forgetting that we are here to inspire, mentor and not to demean others.
Cooking is an act of love, of creating, of sharing and we should never lose sight of this; as Octavio Paz said “Erotism is the most intense passion and gastronomy is the most extensive”
What do you love about Bali?
The people, it would be very difficult to express with words the quality of the people that live on this island. They have certainly given me many lessons at a personal level and I am grateful for the opportunity of being here, doing what I love and sharing and creating memories with amazing individuals. This island is pure magic.
Alejandro’s favorite places in Bali
Favorite restaurant – it will sound funny but I would definitely go for Pacha Mama
Favorite bar – room for dessert
Favorite weekend gateway – weekend gateways are not very common when you are working in hospitality but, I love the north of Bali and I like to get lost on its endless roads leading to farms, rice paddies, getting mixed with the locals, knowing the “real Bali”
Favorite things to do – Race dirt bikes
LA PACHA MAMA