Author: Emma Lodes|Donovan Dennis
The Pacific glows an azure blue through a wall of windows 18 stories above the California shore. Chic and modern seats, petite chandeliers and a polished, crescent shaped bar overlook the distant, glimmering Santa Monica Pier. Duck leg confit of plum, elderflower, windrose carrots and watercress sit on one platter; another contains a Yellowtail Crudo complete with Ah’s Melon, a sprinkling of Thai chili, garlic and ginger.
The scene takes place at The Penthouse rooftop restaurant in Santa Monica. The chef who mastered the Penthouse’s duck leg confit is cooking up creative, deluxe options behind the scenes at the Marketplace. Michael “Meesh” Montygierd––the former chef at The Penthouse– is the new Executive Chef at Occidental College.
Montygierd came to Occidental this year from the world of fine dining and avant-garde flavors to a world of college students craving their mother’s cooking. As unlikely as the move seems, Montygierd came to a college setting for a purpose.
“I want to teach the students how to eat… They’re kids coming from their homes, so it’s all about chicken tenders and french fries and comfort foods. As the semester has gone on I’ve been pushing new things for them to try,” Montygierd said.
Montygierd hopes to broaden students’ palates with fresh and creative options in the Marketplace. He has only been at Occidental for seven months, but he has been cooking professionally for twenty years. Although Montygierd’s experience in fine dining is a bonus, he was hired primarily for his ability to navigate the logistical, managerial and administrative tasks of a dining operation. The former executive chef, Executive Chef Ahmad Walid Osman, left due to health issues after 12 years of working for Occidental College.
“Meesh’s background includes managing in a union setting, which was a key factor in his selection, as was his commitment to scratch cooking with local and sustainable sourcing and his overall capacity for dealing with the complexities of our operation.” Associate Vice President for Hospitality Services Amy Munoz said via email.
Changes in the Marketplace this year, brought about by Montygierd, were inspired by his passion for local, sustainable options and his love of creative, unique and fine cuisine.
“We’re supposed to be international students going around the world,” Montygierd said. “I’m figuring out how to widen their horizons in terms of cuisine.”
New Marketplace options include the popular “aromatic eggplant” with tofu, spinach and green beans, wild rather than farmed salmon and higher quality pizza crust shipped from New York. Because of Montygierd’s expertise, the Marketplace was able to cater the Hall of Fame and Trustees dinners instead of outsourcing to caterers. Montygierd particularly enjoyed whipping up delicately stacked heirloom tomatoes, watermelon and harissa moroccan spice for the event.
Montygierd enjoys reaching beyond a traditional image of fine dining by incorporating international high cuisine and cultural dishes. For Halloween, Montygierd pushed his students’ limits by offering tongue tacos. He almost brought in crickets from Oaxaca–– fried bugs called chapulines, dipped in chile and lime, but refrained.
“I love the innards of animals that get discarded because people don’t like to eat them–– like the thyroid gland or the kidney,” Montygierd said. “I get a kick out of using things people don’t like and making them delicious. People are like, ‘What is that?’”
When introducing new dishes, Montygierd never knows what to expect. Some dishes are wildly popular, and some don’t sell at all.
“I served a sausage with a poached egg and harissa butter,” Montygierd said. “The students didn’t really go for it, but I thought it was something that was really cool.”
Montygierd also encourages students to approach him with suggestions. He is accommodating to a diversity of requests and attuned to special dietary needs of the student body.
Despite the many culinary innovations Montygierd was able to introduce to Occidental students this year, the new Executive Chef was forced to lose some of his creative freedom in the move to Occidental. At the Penthouse, he worked directly above the best farmers market in Los Angeles. He was able to walk through the stalls, chat with farmers and choose fresh and local ingredients on a daily basis.
Working in the Marketplace kitchen, Montygierd has lost both freedom in changing the menu on the fly and the ability to utilize primarily local and organic sources.
“I’m used to doing things very adlib,” Montygierd said. “I come from a world where literally I used to write the menu every day. Sometimes we’d use the same things; sometimes we’d make something new–– it depends on what’s at the farmers market and what’s about to turn. Customers would call and say, ‘what are we doing today?’”
At the Marketplace, Montygierd still utilizes local sources as much as he can with his strict schedule. It is difficult for producers to utilize farmers markets as a primary source due to their size and capacity to supply a sustainable flow of standardized products. Student demand exceeds what local sources are able to offer.
“We’re doing 4,000 meals a day, and a lot of local and organic farms can’t produce that. I’ll do snippets but they can’t provide that constantly,” Monytgierd said.
In response to Veg Club’s concerns over the Marketplace’s meat sources being traced back to inhumane sources, Montygierd explained the difficulties of finding a meat supplier that is not attached to a large factory farm.
“The beef and dairy industries are huge,” Montygierd said. “It’s hard to get something truly grass-fed and organic that’s not attached to another conglomerate. I try to be as transparent as possible about what we’re serving here.”
Although he misses working two blocks away from the beach and one block away from the best farmers market in Los Angeles, Montygierd is happy to be at Occidental College.
For Montygierd, working at Occidental is like a homecoming – his mother attended Occidental when he was a child. He essentially grew up on campus, spending summers at Taylor Pool and helping out as the “bat boy” for the baseball team.
“If you look at pics from ‘84-’85 season you see pictures of me on the baseball team,” Montygierd said. “When I saw the job at Oxy came up, I thought ‘I have to throw everything I have at it.’”
Working in the restaurant business meant not having weekends, nights or holidays off. Now, Montygierd’s work day correlates with his kids’ school day, allowing him to spend more time with his family.
“I was looking for a change of pace, more time with my kids.” Montygierd said. “This is the first time I get to see my kids open their Christmas presents.”
Montygierd encourages students to approach him with ideas for new cuisine options.
“Have an open mind and trust me,” Montygierd said. “I wouldn’t put anything out there that I wouldn’t feed to my kids or to my pregnant wife. I’m here to expand your horizons and make you bigger and better eaters.”
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