Luis Montesinos is still trying to learn his way around Richmond. The chef and D.C.-native relocated to Richmond in December fresh off of working for 15 years for Jose Andres, the celebrity chef best known for his humanitarian work.
Montesinos has come to Richmond to take on the executive chef role at Rappahannock restaurant, the award-winning seafood restaurant cousins Travis and Ryan Croxton of Rappahannock River Oyster Co. fame opened in 2012 at 320 E. Grace St. in downtown Richmond. But for the past 13 years, Montesinos hasn’t called D.C. home, but Las Vegas where he had back-to-back stints running the kitchens of two of Andres’ and his restaurant group, ThinkFoodGroup, most celebrated concepts.
“I’ve been trying to get back to the East Coast for some time,” Montesinos said. “I gave myself three years in Vegas, but at the three year mark, I got Jaleo, so…”
Jaleo is Andres’ award-winning, Spanish and tapas-style restaurant with four locations, including Las Vegas, inside the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas along with another Andres concept, China Poblano, which was the job Montesinos initially went to Las Vegas for. For any chef, an opportunity to run the kitchen at Jaleo would be hard to pass up, but Montesinos had reservations.
“I was like, chef, I don’t know anything about Spanish food. He said, you know how to cook. You can learn the rest,” Montesinos said. “And it changed my life. I traveled to Spain. I ate. I learned.”
The influences Montesinos learned in Spain, and at Jaleo, have stayed with him – and now he’s brought them to Richmond.
“It’s hard for me to step out of Spanish food and before that, Mexican and Asian. For me, less is more. I let the product speak for itself – that’s seeing food through Spanish eyes,” Montesinos said. “Something I learned from Jose is being a storyteller. To let the food tell the story.”
Montesinos used the example of paella, a Spanish dish some people think of as simply a bowl crammed with seafood and served over rice.
“But paella is about rice. Paella [the word] just means pan. The meat and the broth is helping the rice on its journey,” Montesinos said.
It’s this technique – this thoughtfulness about ingredients, method and story that – that Montesinos has brought to Richmond and is using to create the reopening menu for Rappahannock, which has been closed for dine-in since the beginning of the pandemic, but offering a small takeout menu. The restaurant hopes to reopen for dine-in – and unveil Montesinos’s opening menu – in early April.
“That’s what I love about Rappahannock and their oysters – [they] let the food tell the story of the Rappahannock River with their oysters,” Montesinos said.
Montesinos said he’s mindful of Rappahannock’s seafood mission and intends to keep the menu seafood-heavy, but now that he’s back on the East Coast, he’s excited about the local food opportunities that were harder to find near The Strip in Vegas. So he’s been busy sampling his way through Virginia farms.
“I love the West Coast, I love the desert, but I missed farmers, I missed that relationship, I missed that learning from them,” Montesinos said.
Those relationships and local products will be evident on Montesinos’ opening menu, which will include entrees such as Atlantic swordfish chop with escalivada; rice and oxtail; Virginia scallops with Benton bacon; a half chicken and a Tomahawk steak, all priced around $18-$36 – and some of which have been or will be on the to-go menu prior to dine-in opening.
And of course there will be oysters. In fact, it was oysters that brought Montesinos to Richmond in the first place.
“Jose and Rappahannock have a great relationship. It was the only oysters I used in Vegas – whether it was Rappahannock or an Olde Salt, it was theirs,” he said.
So when the pandemic shuttered dining in Vegas and Montesinos saw an opportunity to move closer to home, he emailed Travis Croxton and asked if he knew anyone looking for a chef.
Croxton said that email from Montesinos was one of the few silver linings of the past year. Rappahannock had been on the hunt for a new executive chef since its opening one, Dylan Fultineer, left about two years ago to move back to Chicago. Fultineer helped the restaurant earn its award-winning status, including Rappahannock being named one of the Best New Restaurants in the country by Esquire magazine in 2014.
“Jose [Andres] is almost getting more known as a humanitarian than a chef, but his restaurants are always packed and they’re all top-notch culinary-wise. As are his people,,” Croxton said. “Montesinos is a great person. That’s the main thing. He’s truly inquisitive about what we do. The menu we open with is incredible – I didn’t know swordfish could be that good – but I’m excited to see the evolution over the next few years.”
For Montesinos, that email became his introduction to Richmond.
“I thought I was going to DC because that’s where I wanted to be, and Jess [Opperman, Rappahannock’s director of operations] was like, no Richmond – and I was like, Richmond?” Montesinos said.
Like many people who’ve never been to Richmond, Montesinos wasn’t very familiar with the city. He started reading about Richmond and its food scene and in short time, he was charmed. He rented an apartment in Scott’s Addition and when he’s not at work, he’s out eating, in and around Scott’s Addition or the East Grace Street corridor.
“The buildings here are older than all of Vegas. I live in Scott’s Addition and I’m on the 6th floor and I have a beautiful view of downtown and the Squirrels’ stadium. I’m able to walk around my neighborhood and try all the different breweries. I can walk my dogs around. I love walking around Carytown,” he said. “I’m doing my research. I want to get a feel for the city and what we’re doing.”
Montesinos’ delicious research has included local restaurants like Wood & Iron, Stella’s Grocery (“oh my god, that place was built for a pandemic”), Perch, Peter Chang’s, Lillie Pearl (“I’m working my way through their whole menu. It’s amazing.”), Pop’s Market on Grace (“They’re amazing. They should be called Mom’s.”), Perly’s and Penny Lane.
“I find myself falling more in love with this city,” Montesinos said. And now that he’s here, he’s excited to be apart of it – and its food scene. “I hope people are excited about our food. I want people to come in and sit back and trust that they’re in good hands.”
Rappahannock restaurant is now open for online ordering and takeout Tuesday through Saturday from 1 to 6 p.m. Orders can be placed at rroysters.com. Dine-in should resume in early April.