Monica Dimas is twenty-five years old, and she's already cooked at some of Seattle's most well-known restaurants: Le Pichet, Campagne, and Spinasse (where she works on the weekdays), to name a few. On the weekends, Dimas is in charge of the kitchen at Monsoon, Eric and Sophie Banh's long beloved upscale Vietnamese restaurant on Capitol Hill, where she calls herself the "brunch think tank-er, although Eric would probably just call me the brunch chef." Dimas came to Monsoon and worked under former Executive Chef Johnny Zhu, and when Zhu left, she took over brunch service, overseeing a wide-ranging menu that reflects both traditional Vietnamese flavors and French Colonial influences, including everything from oxtail pho to banh xeo to Belgian waffles.
When you came to Monsoon was it difficult to transition to cooking Vietnamese food?
It wasn't that big of a transition, actually. I tapped into the French influences in Vietnamese food, because French technique was what I could bring. French was what I've been cooking, so I started pulling from that, and pushing it into Vietnamese flavors. I had no experience in Asian cuisine in any sort of way, but the techniques were the same, just with different flavors. I want people to feel that if they went to Vietnam at any time during the years of French influence, they could have had one of these dishes.
Also, at Monsoon they don't just cook traditional Vietnamese cuisine. Eric and Sophie have always used what's best and in season, like, say, halibut or wood ear mushrooms. I don't feel like I'm in a cubby hole, which is one of the things I love most about the restaurant. It's Vietnamese food, yes, but it's of this place, too, made with local ingredients
What are your culinary inspirations?
My mom's food knowledge. Spanish & French colonial influences in Asian and Latin American food.
Also the experience of eating with others regardless of how pedestrian or high-end the food. That's continuously inspiring to me in how to present food and how it translates. I grew up eating with my family regardless of how surly I was feeling, and I was a surly kid, so restaurants and eating out are secondary in how I enjoy food.
Tell me more about your mother's food knowledge.
My mom doesn't have any formal training in food. But I find it interesting the way women were in charge of food in Mexico (Dimas's mother is from Michoacan, Mexico). For her, cooking and learning about food was a way to feel liberated within the role of a housewife and being a woman in the 1960s in Mexico. She learned to do everything--and not just cooking, she sews too--but her food knowledge is so deep and really surprising.
Just the other day, we went to Tsukushinbo, and we're eating these whole prawns with the head on and she just says, "You know in between the eyes there is a sack of fluid that is so good, very flavorful." I mean, who knows that?
Learning from her is an organic process. I don't ask her to teach me. She just drops this knowledge. We cooked a few dinners together together last summer, and we went to Alvarez Farms to pick up tomatillos. The farmer was handing her tomatillos, and she just said, "No, we're going to pick them ourselves." So we went through the whole row, and she picked out and showed me the specific tomatillos that were the best.
Is there an ingredient or dish that you're particularly into these days? If so, what?
Chili varieties, foraged foods, canning and fermentation.
What do you think this says about your cooking style/interests?
It's earthy, with a heavy dose of historical and familial reference.
Check back tomorrow for part two of our interview with Dimas, including plenty more talk of Mexican food.