Friday, July 19, 2024

New chef draws on Mexican heritage

Daily Inter Lake | April 24, 2022 12:00 AM

Christian Ochoa didn’t always dream of cooking for a living. The new chef at Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits originally hoped to be a neurosurgeon.

But the influence of his grandmother, who taught him the fundamentals of the kitchen, eventually caught up with Ochoa.

“I always go back to my grandma,” Ochoa said. “She taught me really what cooking could actually be.”

Her mark on Ochoa led him from his native Arizona to attend culinary school in northern California. After a nine-month immersion project, Ochoa graduated and began working at a one Michelin star restaurant in Menlo Park. He stayed there for two years, then moved up to a two Michelin star establishment in San Francisco.

Next he helped his friends open a few restaurants in northern California, but he was looking for a change when the opportunity opened up at Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits.

“The timing was kind of perfect,” Ochoa said. “I was looking for a new experience.”

Ochoa’s wife is from the Flathead Valley, so the move to the Evergreen restaurant was a perfect fit.

“I saw a lot of opportunity here,” said Ochoa. “They had really big ideas.”

Ochoa said his style comes from his Mexican heritage, but he also draws inspiration from Japanese dishes. Cooking in Northwest Montana, Ochoa said he also relies on some Nordic cuisine, because the climates are similar.

At Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits, Ochoa dishes up an assortment of hot and cold dishes. His baby mix salad comes with pea shoots, arugula, marinated Asian pears, candied almonds and avocado.

His halibut ceviche is made with exotic sauces including tamari shoyu, a richer version of soy sauce. The Halibut is sourced from a Kalispell fisherman who works in Alaska.

Ochoa’s egg pasta is especially rich, using six egg yolks for every one full egg. The dish is topped with a cured egg yolk, which looks like a dried apricot.

Locally sourcing his products and showing respect for his ingredients are two of Ochoa’s driving forces in his culinary practice.

“I think it’s important to show respect for the food,” he said.

Ochoa is looking forward to offering even more unique dishes at Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits as he gets accustomed to his new kitchen.

“We’re still playing around with some ideas,” he said. “We have a lot of exciting things coming.”

Ochoa plans on offering event nights and tasting courses at Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits in the upcoming months.

Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits is located at 2134 U.S. Hwy 2 E, Kalispell, MT 59901. Hours are 12 to 8 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. The restaurant and distillery can be found online at