If modern chef culture is rife with elaborations and exaggerations of the elusive soul, passionate personality, or otherwise mythologized character of the chef, Quealy Watson does not belong to it. The chef behind San Antonio’s The Monterey, Watson is insistently—and deeply—straightforward. Where other chefs might (successfully) cultivate intricate PR machinery, Watson keeps quiet and lets his food to do the talking.
Which it does. Loudly.
Originally from Louisiana, Watson migrated to San Antonio as a young man. And while his culinary career started in the kitchen of a small Japanese restaurant, Watson’s budding (borderline maniacal) passion for food culture had already predestined him for a career at the helm of something wildly different.
Fortunately for Watson, his mania found an outlet in The Monterey, the 3-month-old San Antonio watering hole that might have remained a simple well-liked local bar but for Watson, who helped turn it into one of San Antonio’s most creative culinary destinations. From the kitchen of The Monterey comes Watson’s new Southern gastropub fare, a cuisine that incorporates the chef’s obsessions with everything from the blend of old (very old) and new techniques to his love of offal and a strong preference for non-industrial farmers and purveyors—a cuisine that earned him a 2012 StarChefs.com Rising Stars Award. When he’s not avoiding the spotlight or meticulously cutting his green onions, Watson can be found indulging his taste for expensive fish sauce and beer.
Interview with Rising Star Chef Quealy Watson of The Monterey − San Antonio, TX
Katherine Sacks: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Quealy Watson: I kind fell into it like a lot of people do. I never really graduated from high school. I’m a high school drop out, and I was looking for dishwasher work. Then I started doing prep work for the chefs, and I found I really enjoyed it and it interested me a lot, so I threw myself into it wholeheartedly. The rest is history, as they say. A lot of people get into cooking in that manner or at least used to. I never really had the want to go to culinary school—by the time I was learning about the culinary world, I was in a kitchen where I was getting paid to learn about it. I never wanted to pay someone else for something I could get paid to learn, so I just stuck with it and learned as much as I could. It was just one of those lucky things, because if I didn’t get into cooking, I don’t know where I would be right now.
KS: So even though you didn’t go to culinary school, do you recommend it to aspiring chefs?
QW: I think in general culinary school helps, but I would never suggest going into that much debt without knowing for sure that you want to be a chef. You start out as a young kid and then throw yourself into an industry to be $60,000 to $70,000 in debt, and try to pay that off with crappy wages from a kitchen. That’s why a lot of people get a culinary degree, and then wait tables for 10 years. If you are getting into a kitchen to make money, you’ve been misinformed. If someone else is paying for your school then go for it, but if not, you’d be better off to find someone you admire and put yourself in their hands.
KS: Other than training (schooling or no), what kind of traits do you look for in your potential hires?
QW: Actually at this point, most of my cooks have been to culinary school. But it really does come down to the person—if the person doesn’t want to be there, if they don’t want to work hard, then they won’t enjoy themselves. They have to be really interested in what they do, and you can find that in all sorts of people. We even have someone who never worked in a kitchen before but really wanted to work with us; we took them on as an unpaid intern and now they are part of the team because they are that driven. I think that’s what it takes: drive and passion.
KS: And what is your philosophy on food and dining?
QW: I do kind of like my hippie utopian version of everything sustainable and sourced locally. I’ve read plenty of Michael Pollan books, and we do a lot of that here at The Monterey. All of our proteins are from local sources, ranches, and farms. I think it’s important, but at the same time it should come inherently with the job and is not something that should be put on a pedestal. No one should get on a soapbox talking about how they source local; it should just happen because it makes more sense for chefs to be able to talk with the person raising that animal. But in general, we just try to make good food.
KS: And what’s the biggest challenge you face?
QW: I guess it’s always getting back on the horse, so to speak. It’s a hard career path, and there are a lot of low points, when bad things will happen; you’ll have a bad employer, you’ll get kicked around, and you need to realize that you have to keep going in order to make it. A certain amount of drive is needed in the industry because it can be tough. I don’t have a success story they’ll make a movie about, but it’s really about getting over yourself, pushing yourself. At some point in time, everyone wants to give up, but you can’t or you’ll end up just as some line cook. In the end, if you don’t have the drive you’ll end putting yourself there.
KS: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
QW: San Antonio’s small, and the higher-end fine dining community is smaller, so I’m in touch with the different chefs here. I see them a lot at farmers’ markets, and they come here because we are open late—that was part of what we wanted when we opened, when chefs get out of work at 10:30 they have a space to come to. We also stay in touch through Twitter. I enjoy being on Twitter because you can see what other people are posting on a daily basis, and the specials they are running, which is often more of interest than the regular menu.
KS: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
QW: I think you will find me either somewhere in California, or back in San Antonio after living in California. Both my sisters live there, and hopefully I’ll spend some time in San Francisco. Chris CoSentino is one of my culinary heroes, so I’d love to spend some time in his restaurant [InCanto]. In my mind, I still view myself as a young chef; I’m no stranger to a line position. I still have much to learn. I tell my cooks that once you stop swimming you drown.