Passionate, ambitious, and energetic are three adjectives that best describe Charles Montañez, the much talked about executive chef and COO of Grupo Alegria Inc. His distinct Latin American-Asian restaurant concepts have captured the attention of gourmands both in Manila and Singapore, and he was the talk of the food community when he opened Alegria Manila back in October.
Five years after opening the first iteration of Alegria Manila—initially a sangria bar—the chef went on to launch a fine dining, a casual cantina, a café, and a resto-bar—the culmination of the maverick chef’s years of training and exploration in the culinary world.
“The kitchen is a gift for misfits,” Montañez tells ANCX, a description that may or may not apply to him. It is more an observation, really. What he realized in his years of experience is that the kitchen is a level playing field for everyone. In Singapore, he worked with people from different backgrounds, including former inmates. “In the kitchen, [where you come from] doesn’t really matter,” he says. Everyone can be a great chef, if he’s willing to put in the work. Everyone can dare to dream big.
Which Montañez continues to do. He is a graduate of the International School for Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management (ISCAHM) and Global Culinary and Hospitality Academy in the Philippines. He realized early on that he’s not the type to simply go with the flow or do something against his will. “That was my struggle,” he admits. He values the freedom to exercise his own creativity and the space to apply his out-of-the-box ideas.
Which is why after working in various establishments here and in Singapore, he knew the right thing to do was open his own restaurant. Since he was deeply fascinated with Latin American and Asian cuisine, a merger of the two was the concept he went for. “It showcases the discipline in preparing European cuisine and the explosive flavors of Asian cuisine, so you get the best of both worlds,” he offers.
This is what he offers at Alegria Manila where he makes sophisticated flavors and visual curiosities out of, say, laying grilled Aklan oysters on a bath of leche de tigre, Yakult and cornik; combining dinuguan and sinuglaw in a starter; molding a chicken pyanggang in a Brazilian croquette; or creating an okoy and tostada crossover which Montañez tops with blue crab dressed in smoked mussel cream.
Trivia: Montañez has a soft spot for Latin-American food and tacos was a favorite growing up. “Store-bought tacos were a comfort food at home,” he shares.
Going the non-traditional route proved to be a wise decision for the helplessly creative chef. It helped him and his team create a more distinct identity for the company and its brands. “It’s cross-cultural,” he says about their menu offerings. “I’d like our food to be an intersection between Latin American and Filipino because we're both influenced by the Spanish. Many of our dishes may have a different name but are very similar in terms of taste notes and flavors. That's why it also makes sense to put them together on a plate.”
As for the name Alegria, Montañez got it from a football shoe endorsed by Brazilian pro footballer, Neymar. “I had compiled all my ideas for the menu, interiors etc. but I haven’t thought of a name yet,” he recalls. Then he looked at his shoe and saw the Portuguese, Spanish words “ousadia” and “alegria.” He found out the words mean 'courage' and 'joy.' They perfectly described how he was feeling at the time: happy to take a leap of faith, leave a stable employment, and start something on his own. However, the name Ousadia Alegria sounded too long so he ditched ‘courage’ and kept the ‘joy.’
Grupo Alegria is running five Latin American themed restaurants at the moment. Alegria Manila located at Uptown Parade, BGC, is the flagship brand. From initially being a sangria bar at the Uniqlo Building along 7th venue, it is now a degustation spot. “I’ve always wanted Alegria to be a food-focused restaurant, where I would put my passion in. That's why I decided to offer a tasting menu here,” Montañez offers, adding that he and his sous chef Gilbert Borja and pastry chef Chico Orcine take pride in showcasing regional Filipino dishes here (don’t forget to end your meal with their mind-blowing halo-halo). “We want to focus on Filipino so we can represent, because we’re a homegrown concept. I built it from scratch.” Diners can choose among Alegria Manila’s five course (P2,600), seven course (P3,595), and full course (P5,400) options.
Meanwhile, Café Alegria at Forbestown Road is their brunch restaurant. If Alegria Manila’s interior is bold, luxurious and artistic, the mood here is lighter and more easygoing, as can be gleaned from its white and beige motif. Among their breakfast staples include savory huevos rancheros and Puerto Rican empanadas spiced with chimichurri.
Alegria Cantina at Molito Lifestyle Center, Madrigal Avenue, Ayala Alabang, on the other hand, is their rustic Latin American restaurant. They cook meats the traditional asado way—over an open-flame woodfire parrilla grill, after which they are carved and then served straight to your table. “Since it’s a living room dining concept, it has carpet, pillows, and sofa meant to mimic the feel of being at home and then just walking into the kitchen and seeing what's happening,” says the chef.
Buena Vida by Alegria is their Mexican-Japanese boutique club at the Uniqlo Building in Bonifacio High Street. The chef describes it as both a music and art space, where people can party, hang out, and enjoy drinks.
To cater to the overseas market, they opened Alegria Singapore along Teck Lim Road in 2021. “Singapore is very close to me, it’s one of my favorite countries. I owe a lot of my progression, what I've been doing the past few years, to Singapore. So it has always been my dream to open a restaurant there,” Montañez offers.
As for how he divides his time between the five concepts, the chef/COO says he’s often at Alegria Manila but since Cafe Alegria and Buena Vida are also in BGC, he gets to check the latter two frequently. He goes to Cantina twice a week and to Alegria Singapore twice a month since he’s already hired a Singaporean chef to be on top of the restaurant goings-on.
Despite it sounding like he already has a lot on his plate, the 30-something chef says expansion plans for the resto group are currently underway. This includes opening a joint in Bali, Indonesia come June 2023 and a chain of Alegria concepts in Tagaytay, which they had started to build middle of last year. “It's going to be three floors down the cliff. There's a fine dining restaurant at the ground floor, a bar on the second floor, and an events place at the top,” describes Montañez.
“I want to offer a Latin-American themed wedding reception there. Like instead of putting food in a chafing dish, we’ll put everything on woodfire like lechon, skewers of whole chicken. We're going to carve it in front of you. That’s going to be its selling point,” he says. Incidentally, part of his retirement goals is to live in Tagaytay.
But at the moment, does he have the time to rest and relax? “I don’t have any other hobbies. I really enjoy handling the restaurant, working in the kitchen, cooking. It's my hobby,” says the hardworking chef. “I consider myself lucky. It's a win-win situation for me that I really get to enjoy what I do. Physically, mentally, it's tiring of course. But I’m not complaining.”
Montañez says he has learned to work smart, rather than hard. He continues to hire and train people so that all their restaurants would operate on autopilot. This way, he doesn’t spread himself too thin and he gives his people room to grow. “I've learned how to utilize the people around me, because if I babysit them, if they can only work with me being around, we wouldn't be able to expand and they won't be able to grow on their careers as well. So pinapabayaan ko din talaga sila.”
Remember what he said about the kitchen being a level playing field for everyone? The Alegria COO proudly shares that they have dishwashers who are chefs now. “I have a dishwasher who's a sous chef already. I have a guy there who started as a line cook with us back in 2017, he's going to be the head chef in Bali,” he says. “I find a sense fulfillment having this platform.”