F&BFeatures

Sometimes, it takes 6 years to open your first restaurant

Charles Montanez was always in the shadow of his doubters—until he racked up the biggest result of his career

Photos by JP Talapian | Art Direction by Edric dela Rosa

It’s so good to see hard work rewarded—even if it did take almost an eternity to finally realize it.

But while 27-year-old Charles Montanez’s search for answers in the kitchen wasn’t actually completed in perpetuity, the six long years he took to get to where he and his strategically located sangria bar and restaurant Alegria on the top floor of the Uniqlo building in Bonifacio Global City is a ravenous display of devotion.

That there was a singular focus in his vision despite his detractors made the modern fusion restaurant all the more easy to wrap around the heads—and palates—of Manila’s dining community.

“My mentor and teacher doubted me,” he says. “I always felt that no matter how hard I tried, people always have a way of telling me that I don’t belong in the kitchen.” Before he connected with the F&B industry, Montanez initially swept his way across different trajectories—studying interior design in College of St. Benilde, learning from ISCAHM instructors only after 10 months, joining a hiphop group to play drums, finishing his culinary education but foregoing the required internship—then eventually settling back into a culinary track that found him working alongside Rob Pengson of Global Academy and Cargofish’s Matthew Hornsby-Bates.

Alegria first opened in October 2017

Though he doesn’t regret or undervalue the time he spent in culinary schools, there was still a lot of unrest in him. Montanez sometimes calls himself “not a good son” to his parents but eventually found his way back into the kitchen after realizing that he “needed to be more responsible about his future.”

It’s a career path that isn’t for the faint of heart with its afflicting rock bottoms. “I went through a lot of work for the past six years. I worked for chef [Matthew Hornsby-Bates and that’s when my career picked up because he really trained me,” he says.

MARKETING AS A NECESSARY SKILL
The sangria bar aims to break the stereotype that sangrias are women’s drinks

Montanez’s sacrifices and tenacity finally paid off, throwing in the punches whenever necessary, plugging through difficulties, and banishing personal demons. Here is a chef who, like everyone else, can lose his bearings and grapple with everyday struggles. Yet he also had the ability to turn things around when the situation calls for it.

Alegria then is a reminder not to dismiss the value of extreme ups and downs and putting yourself out there. He started the concept with a menu in his laptop when he was thinking about launching a restaurant when he hit 30. And he did it with a little help from social media.

“When I started working, I was barely earning minimum wage.”

“Social media became my way of marketing myself. It came to a point when some people told me that I was posting too much instead of actually working. But it became my edge,” he says. “When I wanted to open this, people were ready to invest because they know what I’ve been doing.” People were also ready to have him consult. Singapore’s Asian and Mediterranean restaurant Spize scouted Montanez through social media to consult and help with the opening of their fourth branch. 

FIRST SANGRIA BAR
Elote con Chicharones
Fajita Moderna

What would strike any unassuming customer is that Alegria isn’t just a contemporary or innovative take on the usual after-hours bar or Latin restaurant—it also nods to a strategy that might shape what it takes to topple the rules of starting a restaurant. In some ways, most entrepreneurs and chefs are either too calculating or intuitive. Frequently successful, yes but also linear in their paths. Up so soon, gone in a few years. Montanez’s Alegria isn’t just following one or the other to penetrate the market; it bounces off into different directions—with workers from surrounding offices as the main demographic but also quietly disclosing its take on Latin food to various age groups.

“It’s a modern Latin restaurant serving up sangria,” he says. “There are bars in Manila that serve sangria but it’s more the traditional red and white ones. Right now we have nine varieties using different kinds of wine like cava and rose in contrast with the traditional red and white.”

Alma Koreana and Cochinita Pibil (10-Hour Boston Butt, chipotles, peppers, berinjela ensalada, dehydrated raw corn tostada)
Cava sangria, lychee sangria, and gin tonic

The food meanwhile brandishes an idea that’s partly deconstructed, partly non-traditional but still accommodating. “We’re not even going to try doing traditional Latin food because you can’t get the same ingredients they use. What we’re doing here is get the soul of the dishes and present them using my own style of cooking that fits the Filipino palate.”

It’s a playful expression, too. The Elote con Chicharones (corn on the cob, torched cilantel lime cream, kesong puti, adobo pork crackling crust) and Alma Koreana (prawn, cervesa batter, napcha kimchi, ssamjang aioli, raw corn tortilla) do a literally beautiful job of pulling in diners, but it’s the new items that leap out. The Fajita Moderna insists that you sit down to appreciate the flirty fusion of steak fajita, avocado mashed potato, red onion petal, chimichurri, mango salsa, and baby elote with a glass of lychee sangria. While its Falso Moqueca, one of the few “light” options on the menu sees a cod fish exulting in coconut and shrimp bouillabaise, tapioca squid cracker, cilantro, turmeric, and raw corn tortilla.

EMBRACING THE LONG ROUTE
When they opened, Montanez and his partners only had P70,000 in the bank

It’s also fitting that Montanez took the long route to open Alegria. Longevity has long been an issue in Manila’s restaurant scene and in a highly competitive market, one of the only ways to ensure longevity is to keep improving. In his younger days, Montanez allowed his idea to simmer long enough for him to fully flesh out the direction he wanted to go to. And now, even when launching new items, it’s all worked to his advantage. He is also cautiously optimistic about his next two concepts—a modern Singaporean set to open later in the year and a Filipino restaurant in the pipeline.

“You have to be true to your vision, you have to trust your struggle. You can’t really let people tell you differently. In my experience, people have been telling me I can’t do it and now they’re surprised that I’m here.”

In business, it’s not always about being the first to open a new concept or winning accolades; it’s about the struggle, the emphasis on adversity, the charging abandon that chefs like Montanez have thrown themselves into to refuse hitting a plateau.

“You have to be true to your vision, you have to trust your struggle. You can’t really let people tell you differently. In my experience, people have been telling me I can’t do it and now they’re surprised that I’m here.”

Six years is a long time to reach the peak but when he did, this young chef showed that he’s hardwearing and patient enough to make it through anything. And it’s a display that Filipinos should wrap their heads around with a cold glass of cava sangria.

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