"Flora, fauna and brackish": How a chef found fine dining inspiration in Chesapeake Bay's estuary

"I realized it was time to answer the question, 'What am I going to do with the rest of my life?' It was cooking."

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published June 19, 2023 1:30PM (EDT)

Fishing a pound net in the Chesapeake Bay off Tilghman Island (Getty Images/Jay Fleming)
Fishing a pound net in the Chesapeake Bay off Tilghman Island (Getty Images/Jay Fleming)

A few months ago, I was planning a trip to Washington, D.C. and was making a list of potential restaurants to visit. While I eventually ate at Lutèce, one of the top restaurants on my list was Estuary, with its unique, evocative name and its impressive, wide-ranging menu. 

As the website notes, "Estuary offers a seasonal menu that highlights the bounty of the entire watershed [of the Chesapeake Bay region], including not just seafood, but the plants and land animals that bolster the distinct flavor of Mid-Atlantic cuisine.

Helmed by Chef de Cuisine Ria Montes, who was born in the Philippines, "Estuary presents a dynamic approach to our regional cuisine." 

Last month — during Asian American and Pacifier Islander Heritage Month (AAPI) Month — Chef Montes honored her heritage with a traditional Kamayan dinner that donated proceeds to Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Kamayan is a traditional, cherished Filipino style of eating, often characterized by a convivial, joyous meal celebrating the country's cuisine and culture. The communal feast is also often presented without utensils, instead sometimes using banana leaves for serving.

In order to learn more about Estuary, Kamayan and Chef Montes herself, Salon Food spoke with her to get her insight into Estuary's ethos, her upbringing in a Filipino family, the purpose of serving on banana leaves, Filipino cuisine — and much more.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How important to you was a traditional Kamayan growing up in a Filipino family? 

We did Kamayan for big celebratory feasts. Kamayan was usually for special occasions, like my brother's first birthday in America.  His birthday was over the Summer and we invited all of his friends so of course it was a full Filipino party – we had a whole roasted pig, crabs and lobster.  

 Chef Ria MontesChef Ria Montes, chef de cuisine of Estuary Restaurant in the Conrad Hotel in Washington, D.C. (Conrad DC

What is the ethos of Estuary? (It's one of my favorite restaurant names!)

Estuary is inspired by the estuary of the Chesapeake Bay as a result there is an emphasis on the flora, fauna and brackish of that region. Our ethos across the menu focuses on local and sustainable sourcing.  We work with a lot of local farms, Moon Valley, Earth and Eats, Karma Farms to name a few. A newer dish on the menu is Lamb Albondigas which is ground lamb meatballs and it has tomato sauce, harissa and za'atar. The lamb is from a farm in Shenandoah, another example of purveyors that are within our realm of the "Estuary".  We also work with companies who share our ethos. 

Another example is we source bay scallops for our steamed shells and seafood carbonara from Baywater Seafood Company.  They are actively trying to raise more bay scallops in Chesapeake Bay as the population has decreased over the past several years.

What are your favorite dishes to make at home?

After being in the kitchen all day, I like to eat something easy a lot of cheese and buttered pasta. Angel hair pasta, melt some butter into a pan with minced garlic, red chili flakes and tear up some basil  which I grow on my windowsill. 

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I know most Kamayan food is served on banana leaves. Does that act as both a vehicle and a flavor addition?

For Kamayan specifically, the banana leaves are a serving vehicle, but it's not uncommon to use banana leaves in Filipino cooking as a way to import flavor. For example, there's some parts of the Philippines where you steam rice in banana leaves and it imparts the flavor.  There are a few desserts in Filipino cuisine that are cooked in banana leaves as well – it's really great because it's a beautiful presentation and when it comes out, you smell all the aromatics and it's also a really smart way to eat something on-the-go. 

 What are some Filipino foods or ingredients that some may not be familiar with? 

I think that a lot of people associate tamarind with Latin culture but really, tamarind is something that is widely used in Filipino cuisine. One of my favorite dishes is called Sinigangand you can either have it with seafood, vegetables or meat but the broth is made out of tamarind so it's really nice and tangy.  One of my personal favorites is Bagoong, which is fermented shrimp paste; it is super funky, salty and so good.

Tell me about your love of food and cooking — what led you to Estuary? 

Cooking was something I always did with my family and my grandmother specifically, so it really started there. And then just as I got older, I was the friend that knew how to cook.  I would cook for my friends often and I realized it was time to answer the question, 'What am I going to do with the rest of my life?' It was cooking. 

I bounced around different restaurants in New York and eventually made my way to DC. I think for a really long time I was someone else's Sous Chef and I knew that I was more than capable [of being someone else's Sous Chef], so the main drive really was to step out of my comfort zone and really take ahold of a restaurant the way I wanted to run it.  

 The Kamayan dinner at Estuary is going to be donating proceeds to the AAAJ  can you tell me a bit about that cause?

What I really love about Asian Americans Advancing Justice is their efforts to expedite the unification of immigrant families. The reality of a whole family being able to immigrate together is challenging because it is so expensive and time consuming. My dad came to the U.S. right after I was born and he was in New York.

Amazing — thank you!

Read more about Chef Ria Montes and Estuary.

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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Aaaj Aapi Chef Ria Montes Estuary Filipino Filipino Food Food Interview Kamayan Q&a Restaraunt