Paul Menta, 50, is the executive chef of The Stoned Crab in Key West, Florida. He is also part owner of Three Hands Fish, which operates out of the same building. He is one of the most articulate chefs I have ever interviewed.
The Daily Meal: How did you get into cooking? What were your early influences?
Chef Paul Menta: It was my grandmother who first introduced me to cooking. Every Sunday, she would host these massive dinners that would be attended by our entire family and neighborhood. It was from watching her cook for such large groups that I learned how to maintain my calm in the presence of seeming chaos.
For me, though, cooking didn’t begin as a passion or an interest – it began more so as an alibi. After getting into trouble in my Philadelphia neighborhood, I’d take cover in my grandma’s kitchen before anyone found out that I was involved. When my parents would arrive ready to reprimand me, my grandma would come to my defense and say that I was in the kitchen the whole time. If I wasn’t a troublemaker of a kid, I may never have gotten into cooking.
Only over time did I come to realize that it wasn’t that my grandma was trying to get me out of trouble. She was just keenly aware that if she could keep me coming back to the kitchen, my alibi would eventually evolve into a genuine passion. And she was right.
What kind of atmosphere do you like to create in the kitchen, and how do you achieve and maintain it?
My kitchen’s atmosphere is one of purpose, engagement, and equality. It’s understood by all that no one person is more important than another. I am no more important than our dishwashers, and they are no more important than me. There’s a collective understanding that we all play a critical role in the very important process that is preparing meals for our guests.
When each member of the kitchen not only understands their individual role, and the importance of it, but also everyone else’s role, respect for one another increases and, in turn, so too does process, efficiency, and quality. For example, our dishwasher has a critically important role in the kitchen that extends beyond just washing plates, cups, and silverware. He has first-hand insight into what’s being eaten and what’s not. For example, if he’s consistently throwing away rice, then he knows before anyone else that there may be an issue with it. Is it over-seasoned? Under-seasoned? Is our portion too large? Conversely, what’s consistently being consumed in its entirety and thus completely on-point? He understands that it’s his responsibility to be aware of things of this nature, and to voice this knowledge to the broader team.
What are your hopes and plans for the future?
With regard to The Stoned Crab, it’s our goal to continue to source more and more of our ingredients from local farms and suppliers. For example, our partnership with Three Hands Fish inspired us to begin sourcing our produce and vegetables from local South Florida Redland Farms, which has subsequently made a huge impact at our restaurant. Not only are customers tasting a difference, but we’re also proud to support our fellow small businesses.