As the assistant purchasing manager for the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, Melissa Montero is responsible for the meat and produce offered to diners. She tracks prices and coordinates with chefs, fishmongers, farmers and meat purveyors. Montero spoke with Gambit about her job.
How did you get your current job?
Montero: So many different parts of my background play into what I do. I have a degree in genetics and I worked in cancer research for several years. We moved to Miami, and after having children, when it was time to go back to work, I found I wasn't excited about going back to science. I'd always cooked at home and studied cookbooks a lot, so I decided to jump into the world of cooking. I worked for a catering company in Miami, and then we moved to New Orleans several years ago and I managed to get a job at Commander's Palace as a cook. ... I'd never worked in a restaurant. ... But I didn't get fired. I was hooked from my first day.
I worked my way up to a few sous chef positions (at Luke and Angeline). About a year ago, I had hip surgery and I really wasn't going to be able to cook full time anymore. This job seemed like a great fit. It involved a lot of the analytics that I used in science in crunching data and numbers, but I'm still so involved in the restaurant. I don't think I could do my job now had I not spent all that time cooking.
I buy all the food for Brennan's and Ralph's on the Park. I'm in the walk-in cooler. I'm talking to the chefs. I'm costing out new recipes, talking to corporate (personnel) about what direction we're going at different restaurants. So it's a little bit of everything. ...
The average diner might not understand that the chef does not go to a farmers' market — that's just not what we do. ... And I think a lot of people don't understand the volume of the food served in a restaurant like Brennan's — that's going to serve easily 300 people a day, probably more. Breakfast at Brennan's is a big deal. We go through a lot of eggs — in a week, we're probably going through more than 5,000 eggs.
Do you miss working on the line?
M: I miss the camaraderie of line cooks and sweating it out in a tough service and looking at each other at the end of a day (knowing) that we served great food and did the best that we could. I don't miss working till midnight on Saturday and then coming back for brunch (Sunday) and being exhausted and not seeing my family. ... But I miss the creativity, and I miss the cooking.
What's the state of women in the industry right now?
M: I think the average person probably doesn't want to know how bad it can be to be a female in this industry. It is in most industries, but the kitchen industry is its own special breed, because it's still 95 percent men. Because there are so many men in the industry and so few women, there's going to be a gender bias. Especially as a sous chef, I often felt that a lot of the men I worked with thought that once I became a sous, I wouldn't be able to work as hard as them. Sure enough, I did. I was shucking oysters and lifting 50-pound sacks of flour just like anybody else, because that's what the job required.
It takes a while to win people over — but there are people that you're just never going to win over. ... Each place that I've worked at has a really different atmosphere. At the Ralph Brennan Group, two of the top three executives are women, and the majority of the corporate team is female. We're not treated differently because we're women ... but some other places I've worked I really don't have a lot of nice things to say about how I was treated as a woman. ... The biggest thing is that people always assume that a woman in the white coat is a pastry chef. I can't stand that.