Chris Mortenson has come a long way from living out of his 1967 Ford Econoline van after graduating from High School, but always knew that working as a chef was his calling. Drawn to the energy, creativity and hands-on nature of the kitchen, he began working in the restaurant industry at the age of 15 as a dishwasher, watching and admiring the cooks on the line. Over the years, he fine-tuned his craft, opened many restaurants and has had the opportunity to work for some of the best chefs in the industry, such as Chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken.
Now as the Executive Chef of La Condesa in the heart of Napa Valley, Mortenson creates a menu of authentic Mexican dishes using local ingredients with a dedication to sustainability. He is also collaborating with a local farmer who is planting and growing specific ingredients exclusively for La Condesa, such as heirloom tomatoes, black radishes, pink, purple and yellow beets, herbs, lavender and epazote. Over the course of his career Mortenson traveled extensively to Oaxaca and Tijuana, Mexico, to study various cooking methods and ingredients.
Prior to joining La Condesa’s Napa Valley outpost in 2012, Mortenson worked at the original La Condesa restaurant in Austin, Texas, where he connected with James Beard Award-nominated Executive Chef Rene Ortiz. He got his first taste of cooking Mexican cuisine when he worked with celebrity chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken to open Border Grill in the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in 2000, where he was the Executive Chef for five years. Working with Chefs Feniger and Millikan, Mortenson collaborated daily on the menus for Border Grill and went on to help them open two more locations in California. In 2005 he ventured off the strip to be the Sous Chef at Red Rock Station Resort, Hotel and Casino before moving to Ogden, Utah, in 2008 to open his own Mexican restaurant, Sonora Grill.
An East Bay native, Mortenson began his culinary career at Macy’s Cellar Café in 1986 and 25 plus years later he is home again in the Bay but this time up North.
When he’s not in the restaurant, Mortenson enjoys running and biking around wine country, seeking out the best coffee houses and spending time with his daughter. He lives in St. Helena.
Our Foodie Chap chat was filled with fun and frivolity but between the laughs I found a chef who is serious about his food; the guacamole comes four ways – yes try all four. The ceviche is knockout. The tacos (chicken mole please) are terribly tasty. The tequila cocktails are killer and pair perfectly with the “bangin'” Chef Mortenson ‘s modern Mexican menu. “I let the ingredients tell me what to do,” said Mortenson. “I love creating dishes based on what is fresh and available that day and experimenting with certain ingredients in an unconventional way.”
VIDEO: 5 Questions With Chef Chris Mortenson
Chef Chris Mortenson’s “La Condesa Shrimp Ceviche”
Recipe Serves 2
3oz. fresh rockfish, diced in ¼ inch cubes
3 lightly poached and chilled shrimp, diced into ¼ inch pieces
3oz. Roasted Tomato Water (recipe below)
½ oz. diced red onion
½ oz. diced cucumber
1/4 of a fresh avocado, diced
2 leaves cilantro, sliced thin
1 leaf mint, sliced thin
Aleppo chili powder
Assemble ceviche in a large serving bowl by placing rockfish and shrimp at the bottom, pour roasted tomato water gently over the fish, then stack red onion, cucumber, avocado and remaining ingredients on top. Finishing with a pinch of chili powder and Maldon salt. Serve with taro chips.
1 C. diced tomatoes
3.5 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
2.5 oz. freshly squeezed orange juice
Kosher salt to taste
Season tomatoes with olive oil, salt and black pepper, roast in 425 degree oven until dark brown, put tomatoes in a fine strainer and allow to drain out. Add citrus juices to tomato liquid and season with salt.
Located on St.Helena’s Main Street, La Condesa is open 7 days a week and offers affordable lunch and dinner. Pop in and stay a while on your next swing through wine country, your tummy will be most glad you did.
Enjoy the chat” …and bartender may I have another Spicy Poloma (tres agaves blanco, ginger liqueur, fresh ginger, splash of jarritos de toronja).”
(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services may have contributed to this report.)