Good Taste: Carlos Montoya at home in Sweet Life Cafe kitchen

Chef Carlos Montoya.
Photo by Angelina Godbout

Chef Carlos Montoya.

If you didn’t know any better, you might mistake Carlos Montoya for a line cook or prep cook, or really anyone with a less stressful job than executive chef.

Wearing a white bandana and drinking a coffee, Mr. Montoya is all smiles with his staff, shaking hands, slapping five, and even emptying the trash himself. It’s a Friday morning in August, and even though the restaurant expects to serve more than 100 dinners, starting in just over six hours, Mr. Montoya is relaxed while he answers a barrage of questions about his childhood, work in professional kitchens, fresh food, and his family (which, incidentally, is when he really lights up).

As the executive chef at The Sweet Life Café in Oak Bluffs for the 2012 season, Carlos Montoya is in charge of the kitchen that brought him to Martha’s Vineyard in the first place, just four years ago.

Mr. Montoya was born in Colombia and grew up in New York City. His father was already living and working in the United States when he was born, and when he was a little over one year old, Carlos’ mother left in search of opportunity in New York City, leaving Carlos in the care of his grandmother in Colombia. When Carlos was three, his mom came back for him and despite that young age, he remembers the plane ride to New York City, the toy plane his mom got him for the trip, the denim jacket he wore and then, meeting his father for the first time.

As a teenager in Queens, Mr. Montoya cooked for his family, but the thought of professional cooking hadn’t occurred to him. His post-high-school plan was to study graphic design, but during his senior year Mr. Montoya took a job in the kitchen of a Colombian restaurant owned by a neighbor. He loved it.

He worked in restaurants around the city for a few years then decided he needed a change of scenery. Looking through newspaper want ads, he found one seeking a sous-chef for a restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard. The restaurant was The Sweet Life, and thus began a string of conversations between Mr. Montoya and former Sweet Life chef Scott Ehrlich. As it turned out, the two worked in the same New York City restaurant, Chicama, a few years apart.

When Mr. Montoya came to the Island to meet Mr. Ehrlich, the two set out to visit some farms. Mr. Ehrlich wanted to show Mr. Montoya where he was getting his raw materials. At Bluebird Farm in West Tisbury, Mr. Ehrlich picked a “pencil thin” stick of asparagus and told Mr. Montoya to eat it, right there in the field.

“That’s when I fell in love with the Island,” says Mr. Montoya. “Coming from New York, I wasn’t used to seeing the product out in nature like that.” He decided on the spot to take the job and only returned to New York to pack.

For the summers of 2008 and 2009, Mr. Montoya worked as Scott Ehrilch’s right hand man in the kitchen and spent the winters cooking in New York and St. Thomas. But when summer 2010 rolled around, Mr. Montoya and his girlfriend Fallon Aiello were expecting their first baby. There was a job opening at the Edgartown Yacht Club that came with housing and for his growing family’s sake, Mr. Montoya signed on. He and Mr. Ehrlich stayed friends, and Mr. Montoya still helped get things up and running at the Sweet Life. On September 12, 2010, Mr. Montoya and Ms. Aiello welcomed daughter Everly.

Mr. Montoya worked two seasons at the yacht club and spent the winter after his daughter’s birth working at Détente in Edgartown. “Those guys taught me about professionalism,” says Mr. Montoya of Détente chef/owner Kevin Crowell and sous chef Hal Ryerson. “They don’t work on Island time just because it’s an island, I really felt like I was working with professionals with Kevin and Hal.”

As the 2012 season approached, Mr. Montoya was preparing to take a job as the chef de cuisine at the Beach Plum Inn in Chilmark. But in February he got a phone call from Pierre Guerin, owner of the Sweet Life, with an offer he couldn’t refuse. Mr. Ehrlich decided to stay in Los Angeles where his family lives. Mr. Guerin and his wife and co-owner Susan wanted Mr. Montoya to come back as the head chef.

“It was a no-brainer,” says Mr. Montoya. “I started here, I had to come back.”

The Guerins gave Mr. Montoya free reign in the kitchen, from staffing to menu planning and specials. Mr. Montoya built his solid kitchen staff with a mix of friends and old co-workers. Sous chef Christopher Gianfreda worked with Mr. Montoya in St. Thomas a few winters ago, where he taught his now boss how to roll sushi.

“I’ve got a good crew,” says Mr. Montoya. “I’ve been blessed.”

The menu

Because Mr. Montoya lets the availability of products dictate his menu, it changes often. As of last week, starters included strawberry gazpacho with scallop ceviche, crispy guancale, and strawberry chips; and rock crab fritters and salad in tomato water with heirloom tomatoes and Parmesan oil. The Salade Lyonnais is one of the chef’s favorites, so one hopes it will remain on the menu for a while. Frisee is served with confit chicken leg, chicken liver mousse, and topped with a soft poached egg.

Mr. Montoya has been encouraged to keep Chef Ehrlich’s signature sautéed halibut on the menu, served with sweet pea risotto, pine nuts, snow peas, and marjoram beurre blanc, but everything else is his own creation such as the seared scallops with panzanella salad, roasted heirlooms with tomato-lobster sauce, and sautéed broccolini; and the bone marrow crusted tenderloin filet with pan roasted new potatoes, oyster mushrooms, braised baby leeks, and sauce bordelaise.

Because his girlfriend is a vegetarian, he wanted to be sure to have a good dish for the veg-only set, which is why he started mentally creating his roasted broccoli ravioli as soon as he accepted the job. Homemade ravioli are served with carrot-ginger puree, glazed baby carrots, snap peas, and curry granola.

The Sweet Life Café is open until the end of September. After that, Mr. Montoya looks forward to spending more time with his growing family. He and Ms. Aiello will welcome baby number two in November.

“I’ll definitely be helping Fallon out with Everly more when we wind down,” Mr. Montoya says with a laugh, suggesting that it’s something he is looking forward to.

As for next year, Mr. Montoya doesn’t know where he’ll be. The Sweet Life is for sale, making the future of a restaurant there at 63 Circuit Avenue uncertain.

The Sweet Life Cafe is open every night for dinner at 5:30. Appetizers are $12 to $24 entrees $32 to $42. Call 508-696-0200 for reservations or visit sweetlifemv.com.