Executive Chef Tara Monsod of Animae is known for being one of the most prominent chefs in Southern California, commanding the coal-fire, pan-Asian steakhouse kitchen that feeds a sold-out dining room every night. Her resume is impressive, with long stints training under Top Chef alums like Richard Blais, Amanda Baumgarten, and Brian Malarkey, as well as the greats like Nancy Silverton and Anthony Sinsay.
Around the World – In a Car
Despite her heavy-hitting fine dining experience, Monsod’s love for food developed from a very young age through simpler dining experiences.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Monsod jokes that she “grew up in the car because [her family was] always commuting.” As a result, there was a lot of dining out around the city. In the summers, Monsod’s mother would take her to the factory where she worked. Monsod played on her Gameboy and looked forward to visits from the elote truck. On weekends, they dined at Brent’s Deli, a Jewish deli in Receda, as a nod to Monsod’s step-grandfather’s Jewish heritage. Monsod dined across the globe by way of Mediterranean food in Glendale to Little Tokyo and Latino food in downtown LA, while Chinatown held lots of favorites as well.
Home Cooking and Food Network Shaped This Chef
Growing up, Monsod was exposed to lots of Filipino home cooking from both parents. This coincided with watching hours of Food Network, enamored by Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, and Two Hot Tamales. And yet, it took Monsod years after high school before realizing her future was in kitchens.
Her biggest dream was to find a way to bring forth her Filipino upbringing and culture through food in a way that made it as popular as Japanese or Thai or Chinese cuisine in America. Now, In her first role as executive chef, she’s doing just that by presenting a menu that makes you feel as if you’re on a tour of East Asia.
Outside of the kitchen, Monsod stays low-key, spending time with close friends along with her wife and their two pets—–a nine-month-old dachshund named Mya and a seven-year-old pot-bellied pig (last weighing in at 200 pounds) named Biggie Smalls.
A Cod Dish with an Inspired Twist
One of the most memorable meals Monsod has ever had was a spatchcocked grilled chicken from a street vendor in Thailand with her wife just after their wedding. This lemongrass rock cod recipe is an ode to that grilled chicken.
Grilled Lemongrass Cod
For the fish:
- 1 pound rock cod or Alaskan cod
- 6 8-inch-square banana leaves OR pieces of aluminum foil
- 6-12 toothpicks or bamboo skewers soaked
For the marinade:
- 1/2 cup fresh turmeric chopped
- 2 stalks lemongrass chopped fine
- 5 garlic cloves peeled
- 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
- 1 1/2 tablespoons ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 1 tablespoon chili flake plus more to taste
- 3/4 cup lemon juice
- 3 teaspoons fish sauce
- 1 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- kosher salt to taste
For the Nam Jim Jaew (Thai chili dipping sauce)
- ½ cup shallots diced
- ½ bunch cilantro chopped
- ½ cup fish sauce
- ½ cup fresh lime juice from 4-5 limes
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 3 green onion sliced
- 1 ½ tablespoons toasted rice powder
- 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
- ½ cup cilantro leaves
- ½ cup mint leaves
- ½ cup Thai basil
- ½ cup sliced Fresno chilies
- Lime wedges
- Open cod, drain any excess liquid, and pat dry with paper towels. Cut into six portions. Season lightly with salt.
- Combine lemongrass marinade ingredients in a blender until smooth. Pour marinade over the fish and make sure all parts are covered with the marinade. Refrigerate for about an hour.
- Heat your grill to medium heat. Preferably charcoal fire or wood grill if you have them available.
- Lightly heat each piece of banana leaf over grill to make them pliable to fold to prevent ripping. (If using foil paper, skip to step 4).
- Place 1 tablespoon of marinade in the center of each banana leaf, followed by 1 piece of fish. Fold banana leaf/foil paper to enclose the fish inside. Use the skewer to keep the banana leaf closed. Repeat with all portions of fish.
- Place each banana leaf/foil paper-wrapped portion on the grill. Cook for 8-10 min on each side until the fish is steamed and cooked through.
- While fish is resting, make the Nam Jim Jaew (Thai chili dipping sauce). Combine ingredients in a bowl and mix well.
- Open each banana leaf/foil paper, add limes and garnish.
- Serve over rice with dipping sauce.