By Chris Mohney
Tara Monsod is executive chef at Animae restaurant in San Diego, part of the Puffer Malarkey Collective hospitality group. She was especially influenced by her friend and mentor Anthony Sinsay, a beloved San Diego chef and advocate for Filipino cuisine who passed away in 2021.
I started at Animae as a sous chef at the end of 2020. The head chef moved on right before I came, and then before the next COVID closure, I had been running the restaurant by myself for about a month. I became the leader of this restaurant after arriving here in a short period of time. I guess the owners saw a lot of potential from that short period, and I became executive chef in the summer of 2021.
Anybody who’s known me in the industry—they know who I am. I have always kind of been in the background, but they’ve always known me as a hard worker and somebody who had talent. Chef Carlos Anthony had mentioned they were looking for an executive chef. And I was like, “No, no, no, no, no, I’m not ready yet.” He was like, “You’re ready. You have so many good ideas. Just try it.” It went from me trying it, to creating a full menu, to executing the menu. When I finally did say yes to this job, everybody around me was like, “Well, it’s about time!” I’m like, “I wish somebody else told me!” Sometimes it takes other people to tell you before you even know yourself that you’re ready for something.
I did a month and a half of menu planning and testing, and then they were like, “Okay, we’re going to open two weeks.” And in that two-week period, we got a whole team back and trained them and all that stuff. We bounced right back. Then we opened the restaurant with me as the new face.
I think ever since then, the restaurant has a whole new identity, especially for the Filipino community or the Asian community, period. The representation for them, and having Asian food done well in an environment like this—I hate to say it, but a lot of Asian fusion restaurants sometimes miss the mark. There’s just something missing. And you don’t see Filipino food like this, in a dining room like this. It’s not even just a Filipino menu. It’s an all-Asian menu, an Asian-American menu.
But the fact that there is Filipino food on the menu, and it actually does taste good, means they’ll stand behind that dish. The Filipinos are the hardest critics because they want it done right. The aunts and uncles that come here let me know that they can make all this at home. I’m like, “Look, I know you can make it at home. But just try it out. It’s different. It’s not at home, but that’s the whole point. It’s an ode to the original, but elevated in a way that it’s still delicious but different. You can’t make that at home, but you’ll like it. Otherwise I might as well just go to your house and eat.” They just laugh.
When I took over, Animae didn’t have a true identity in terms of what exactly the food was. Is it a steakhouse? Is it an Asian fusion restaurant? Should I go more steakhouse-y? Should I go food that I like to eat? Is it too casual? Should we go family style? Should we go tiny plates? I thought of all sorts of things. But in the end I was like, I just want to make food that people can gather around. It’s very eye-appealing, but also not too pretentious where you almost feel uncomfortable being in here. Something a little more warm, a little more welcoming, but fun, all at the same time.
For Asian folks or people of color, sometimes places like this can be intimidating. I know for my parents it was. I can’t speak for everybody, but a lot of people don’t come in here because they feel like it’s made for a certain type of people, or you need to have money, or you don’t look like the person next to you. My goal was to make it so that all people, whoever they are, feel welcome to eat here.
And for Asians or for Filipinos especially, some of whom are really surprised that our food is in a place like this, I’m like, “Why not, dude?” You see Japanese food done this way. You see Chinese food done this way. Why can’t we be on the map? And some say, “Well, our food is meant to be cheap.” I’m like, “Yes, it is cheap. But that’s because a lot of food is meant to be cheap. It’s out of sustenance, it’s out of survival. It’s making your dollar worth it.” I get it, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t elevate it.
It took a second to figure all this out, but I trusted what I like to do and what I’ve been doing. I think that works better than trying to recreate something, because it’s me. It’s me on the plate, and it’s the most honest thing on the plate. That’s what people respond to the most, because there’s a story behind it. Those stories I can tell to the servers, and the servers understand that, and they relate that to the guests. People want to connect to something.
I was working for Anthony Sinsay 10 years ago at Burlap, which was another Brian Malarkey restaurant. To come back to the Malarkey restaurant group with Animae, I’ve come full circle. Anthony was very passionate about trying to put Filipino food on the map. That’s why I went to work for him. I knew I wanted to do something with Filipino food, but I didn’t know exactly what I could do.
Anthony had a great respect for what it is to be a leader. He was definitely one to put his heart on a plate, for sure. That’s something that any of us who worked for him learned the most. When someone puts their heart into something, other people want to work hard for them. The biggest thing I took for him—and it’s not necessarily just cooking—was how to lead a team.
You’ve got to work for people who you want to be like. That was my goal with Anthony. He was proud of me that I was working with our food, especially here in San Diego, where we have one of the biggest Filipino communities in California. It’s nice to see that his efforts weren’t wasted on me. I’m trying to continue the same message.
And it’s going well, because Filipino food is going through a renaissance. Kasama in Chicago just got their first Michelin star, and it’s the first Filipino restaurant in America to get a star. I think that’s amazing. What’s cool about the Filipino community is that we’re uplifting each other versus trying to compete. We’re like, “You got it! Fuck, yeah, you got it! Let’s go!” People like that will pave the way for the rest of us.
It’s crazy, but I’m more proud of our culture in the kitchen than of our food. Of course I’m proud of our food, but what I’m proudest of is what we’re building here. When people leave here, I want them to be as good as me, if not better. Planting those seeds around San Diego, hopefully this is a future culinary scene where people will push the envelope even more.
I’m trying to be a mentor tool to all my cooks. I’m not just telling them what to do in the kitchen. I’m trying to teach them that there’s more to being a chef. You need to know how to manage money. You need to know how to cost your recipes. It’s not all about creating something and putting it on a menu blindly. You have to have an idea of how much it costs you. How did you figure out that cost? How much are you going to sell it for? Where are you going to source from? I show them all the steps because then they know how much work it really does take.
I’m doing this stuff that’s behind the scenes that they don’t see, but is required so the ship runs smoothly. Because I’m giving that extra effort, that’s why they want to be here. They’re getting more out of it than just learning about ingredients. They’re learning about how to be a proper leader, how to take care of each other, and how to handle things as a team.
I have three dishes coming on the menu created made by my line cooks—dishes we collaborated on. One thing Anthony Sinsay said, and I say the same thing, is that the three Cs —communication, collaboration, and consistency—make a successful kitchen. I breathe it down these guys’ necks that consistency is what gets people coming back. I use a reference to McDonald’s. “How many years have you guys been eating McDonald’s? Since you were born you’ve been eating freaking Chicken McNuggets. And why do you keep going back? Because it tastes the same, right?” They’re like, “Yeah, it tastes the same.” I’m like, “Because it’s consistent. This is the reason McDonald’s has been around forever. Getting people through the door is one thing, but getting them to come back is the hard part.”
You build consistency with really good service. No matter what time you come here, you get great service. And the same thing with the kitchen. If you get a ragu now, when you come back tomorrow or next week or months from now, it’s meant to be the exact same way no matter who actually made it. And collaborating is what’s key. When I make something, I go around and I’m like, “Taste this, taste this. Does it taste good? What do you think? What do you think? And what do you think?” It’s not for my ego. I hate to say it, but what drives a lot of chefs is their ego. They’re like, “I made that. Nobody else made that. It’s my idea.” It might be my idea, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better. It can be collaborative, like, “”Chef, I think it needs more acid.” I think you’re right! And then we taste it, and we’re both like, “Yeah!”
One of my line cooks, Chianne Mallari, created this dish that’s going on the menu today. It started as a pork sausage, then it ended up being the sausage inside of a dish with pork and clams. It’s almost a classic take on pork, clams, and pasta, but we’re doing it with Korean rice cakes in a tamarind sauce with basil and mint. And the tamarind sauce has fish sauce and garlic in it, so it’s got this sweet, salty, savory vibe going on. It’s reminiscent of pasta, but not really pasta.
So what Chianne’s going to do today is communicate to the prep team what exactly she wants, and how to make it. You also have to think about how you’re going to execute it on the line. Who’s going to execute it? How are you going to streamline it so that every single time it’s consistent? This is what I’m thinking about when they catch me spacing out, off in my corner over here.
When pre-shift comes, Chianne’s going to present it. Everything that I would do, she’s going to do, because she needs to learn how to do it. I could do it for her, but it’s better for her to do it because it’s her dish.
I told all the cooks, “If you guys want to put stuff on the summer menu, start thinking now.” I had one cook who was like, “Chef, what do you want?” I’m like, “What do you mean, what do I want? I want a dish.” He’s like, “Well, what exactly do you want?” So I said, “That’s up to you to think about it. That’s why I’m asking you guys.” It could start as one thing and evolve to something else, but it has to start with an idea. Let’s work on your idea. If it’s good, I’ll put it on the menu. That’s what I’m trying to build with them.