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Spanish Kaiseki: A Michelin Experience

The Story Behind Cranes and Chef Pepe Moncayo

A dining experience that delivers on its promise is one that urges customers to come back again and again. The promise of quality, delicious food and a welcoming atmosphere is what makes a restaurant a quality establishment. At Cranes in Washington D.C. it is the focus to create this experience in such a way that honors Spanish and Japanese cuisine, while respecting the staff who work within its kitchens.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Chef Pepe Moncayo, the Head Chef and Partner at Cranes, in order to better understand his story and why he does this work. We met at Cranes and sat outside at a patio table. I was slightly anxious when arriving, mostly from trying to decipher DC parking and where I had the best chance of not receiving a ticket.

We settled in and I set up my recording equipment, then Chef and I started to chat. He shared how much passion he had working in the DC area and what the area offered to him. His excitement for the city made me excited as well, so when I pushed the record button and started to take notes our conversation flowed naturally.

Spanish Born and Raised

Chef Pepe is from the outskirts of Barcelona, which he describes as a poor region surrounding the city. He grew up and stayed within 30 miles of Barcelona until he was in his early thirties. He worked under mentor Chef Santi Santamaria, considered one of the best chefs to have ever worked in Spanish Cuisine. Chef Santamaria was an expert of Catalan cuisine and Pepe quickly learned a lot under him.

Chef describes the food around Barcelona as an amazing place to eat. He describes it as an influence from the countries around Spain as well as the amazingly fresh ingredients available to you.

Out of necessity for his family, Chef started cooking at a young age. When Chef was 13 years old his mother passed away. “My dad didn't know how to fry an egg,” says Moncayo jokingly. With three other siblings needing to be fed, Chef picked up the mantle of chef of the household.

“My food was nothing, canned tomatoes and pasta.” His early foray into cooking led him to visit markets, look at produce and figure out what exactly combining flavors together meant. He started to grow a fondness on going to the market and connecting with the older ladies there selling their ingredients. He recalls always remembering the fishmongers he used to buy from and the incredible fish they served, especially one fishmonger named Nuria.

When it came time for Moncayo to decide what he wanted to do with his life, cooking became the obvious choice. He worked in kitchens around the Barcelona region, working under Santamaria in three different locations in the area. As his career grew he was offered a position to help open a restaurant in Singapore called Santi. His response: “Yes Chef.”

Cooking In Singapore

Many chefs were moving to Singapore to establish restaurants in 2010. Chefs such as Bouloud and Wolfgang Puck were opening spots in the area. In 2011, Chef Santi died in his own restaurant. It was unexpected and Chef Moncayo speaks highly and fondly of his mentor, who was tough but also taught him so much about cooking and food in general.

After he worked at Santi, Chef Moncayo was offered to go to Japan to do research and help open a new restaurant. On his visit to Japan he was introduced to the pairing of Italian cuisine and Kaiseki. He loved this combination so much that he translated it into Tapas and Kaiseki. He opened Bam! In 2013 in Singapore. The restaurant became highly regarded and popular in the area.

Moving To DC

Chef Pepe was invited a couple years ago to create his own restaurant in the DC area so he visited with his wife. “We came to visit four times and the last time was for my wife. We liked it a lot.”

They reviewed many locations around DC to open Cranes and finally settled on the current building. “The area is fantastic. It is a prime location…. There are a lot of offices around here and foot traffic.” He remembers asking a server in another restaurant near them how many they were serving. The server responded by saying not a lot, only 300. This is when he knew this area was great for his restaurant.

“I don’t believe in competition, in the sense of taking guests from the other restaurants. On the contrary, I believe in Synergy. If you create an area where there are good restaurants then eventually you are going to attract people to come here.”

Chef Moncayo believes that it is the collective good food and service of a restaurant community that is the reason for success. Moncayo shares that he can only control his service, his guests’ experience. There is no point in trying to “beat” another restaurant, it is seen as a pointless endeavor in his eyes.

Spanish Kaiseki In DC

Chef Pepe started to gravitate to Japanese techniques during his time operating BAM! In Singapore. It was an organic melding of his love of Japanese technique and cuisine paired with his Spanish culture that has produced the award winning cuisine he creates today.

The menu is very seasonal and only changes upon seasonality. Dishes will change but a whole new menu does not just go out. It is a constant and natural evolution. Moncayo focuses on building his menus in a very European way. From going light to heavy in flavors and dish makeup is what he prefers and is how he guides his staff.

Moncayo shares that it is fairly easy to source ingredients, but it can be very hard to get high quality yet small inventory ingredients. He explains that certain cuts of meat that not many places in the States use are extremely difficult to find. He explains not being able to find a certain cartilage cut of the chicken which is common in Singapore but cannot really be found here. He is also in love with the domestic fish we have. Moncayo shares how surprised he is that not much of it is used on menus he looks at in the States.

Michelin Rated Team

When Chef Pepe received the Michelin rating for Cranes he said it was a blessing. “It’s the only word I can use. I had been shooting for it for a decade, but you never know.” He shares that every year you think you are on the top of your game and that this is your year. This is when you finally get the star.

“That really put our restaurant on the map and drove a lot of people to come visit us. It helped us.” He shares that the business generated by the Michelin recognition allowed more revenue, which allowed him to hire more staff back that did not have work when Covid started in 2020.

I asked Chef how he balances managing the star rating and also ensuring the staff is motivated and works well. “ I don’t think it is related, that it is like that. Treating the team well, motivating the team, pushing the team should have nothing to do with a rating.” It’s the respect for employees that is always needed, regardless of awards and accolades.

“The blessing of Michelin and focusing on the staff are two different matters. I am one of them, I work with them, they can talk to me and I believe in them.” Chef Moncayo shows a reverence for those who work with him, especially integral employees such as his dishwashers.

He goes off to explain to me that cooks at certain positions can call out and you can still run the service. Chef himself could miss a day and the restaurant would go on. But the dishwashers, if they are not there the whole place is at risk of crumbling. He shares how much of the backbone of a restaurant a dishwasher is, and I totally agree with this.

Chef Moncayo shares that his gratitude for the staff is not just words. Cranes offers their staff health insurance and a 4% 401k match. “In Spain, healthcare is a birthright. I could NOT imagine not providing this for my staff.” Moncayo shares you need to be financially sustainable and that the way you do business matters. You need staff to buy in to be financially stable and you do that by offering what an employer should offer to its workers.

Chef Pepe does not accept free stagiaires, a practice common in some restaurants but one that is not legal. Even if they do not get the job, he pays them because it is the right and legal thing to do. I really admired that, as some restaurants can use their status to exploit free labor. This is not what Chef Moncayo shares he believes in.

Philosophy of Running a Kitchen

“In any team, the leader’s behavior and image definitely affects the rest of the people.” Chef shares that sometimes, at the level of cooking they do, it is more about a Chef’s ego and less about the staff or guests. He never wants it to be this way for him and actively works in a way that he believes is in the best interest of those he serves and those who help him serve.

I asked Chef for advice to anyone looking to follow his path. He shares that it is a tough road to become a Michelin starred chef. Only recently has it gotten somewhat better. While he will not treat others how he was treated coming up in some kitchens, he does recognize it all as lessons he learned along the way. “If a place is not for you, do not suffer it. This is not acceptable….Work hard but do not be abused or mistreated.”

Chef Pepe learned from those old school chefs a lot about food but also ways of leadership he did not want to adopt for his own kitchen. He shares that all of your experiences teach you and it is up to you to recognize what you will leave behind and what you will carry forward.

Final Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed talking to Chef and meeting the team. After our interview, Chef gave me a tour of the beautiful dining room and kitchen they have. Cleanliness and organization were both apparent. The way he had the kitchen configured was also very smart, allowing a smooth flow of communication from each station to expo.

When Chef introduced me to his staff, he did not speak for them. He allowed them to speak, to share their story and what they were working on. I saw some incredible dishes, skilled food professionals and a place where giving a great experience is the priority.

Chef Pepe Moncayo came to DC wanting to bring his Spanish Kaiseki experience to the city’s diners. The awards and accolades he has received shows that it was a good decision. I really enjoyed Chef’s perspective on food and ratings. He puts the importance of care of staff and customers over that. It seems to be a winning formula and one that offers a lot of promise to DC and its diners.

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