Michelin-Starred Chef Pepe Moncayo Discusses His Kaiseki Cuisine with a Spanish Twist
Kaiseki cuisine is front and center when you dine at Cranes, in Washington, D.C. But the traditional, multi-course Japanese dinner there is served with a definitive Spanish twist. The unique menu is curated by Chef Pepe Moncayo, also a partner at the restaurant, who has incorporated his Spaniard background with what he learned living and cooking in Singapore for 10 years, as well as what he picked up from his time in Japan.
"Singapore is the most amazing country ever. It's a melting pot of cuisine," he tells People CHICA. "It's a very developed country that has the potential to bring in a lot of celebrity chefs and very strong people in the industry. I feel super attached to Singapore. I married a Singaporean, my children are Singaporeans, so I call it home as well."
The decision to leave Singapore and open up Cranes was not only professionally-driven, it was family-based as well for the chef. "I'm a very lucky chef because for the last nine years I've been cooking what I felt like cooking," he expresses. "When I opened my first restaurant and when it came to deciding what I was going to put on the plate, it was a lot of Spanish [dishes] because I just moved from Spain to Singapore [then]. Living in Asia and as a chef, I got influenced [by] other cultures. I took a trip to Japan and studied Japanese ingredients and that influenced the way I create dishes. That's what I am. It's not something that I've decided to do; it happened to me organically living in Asia."
His current menu at Cranes includes dishes like arroz de conejo, chicken yakitori, unagi paella, patatas bravas, bao buns and coconut passion fruit custard. Despite being shut down by the pandemic five weeks after opening last year, the restaurant earned a Michelin star this year, an accomplishment he cherishes and shares with his hard-working staff. "It's a part of my culture. It's something very precious," shares the chef who has been working in Michelin-starred restaurants since his twenties. "I had the opportunity to earn a Michelin star as a team member in the past and to be able, for the first time as a chef-owner, to earn a Michelin star is a feeling that I thought I could describe but I really cannot find the words to describe the emotion, the pride, and how much I value it. Since the moment it was announced, it really has impacted our operation -and to see the people that I'm working with be filled with pride [because] of what we have achieved, it's really precious."
Chef Pepe opened his first solo restaurant in 2013 in Singapore, which he admits was an easier feat than opening one in the United States; in Asia, it took him between four to five months compared to a year or so here. Even if venturing into the culinary world isn't always easy, it's a very rewarding path, he adds. "If you're really passionate about it, just go and do it," he explains. "I don't have the life that my family and friends have. They all work Monday to Friday. They have vacations during a certain time of the year, and when everyone is on vacation I'm working. You really give away a lot of things -and I will never change what I do for a second. There are a lot of sacrifices but at the same time, it's really rewarding."
Another Spaniard with a D.C.-based restaurant -José Andrés- also was featured in this year's Michelin Guide, with his two-starred tasting room Minibar by José Andrés.