New chef draws inspiration from Mexican heritage


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

But the influence of her grandmother, who taught her the basics of cooking, eventually catches up with Ochoa.

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

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

Then he helped his friends open a few restaurants in Northern California, but he was looking for a change when the opportunity presented itself at Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits.

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

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

“I saw a lot of opportunities here,” Ochoa said. “They had very 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 northern cuisine because the climates are similar.

At Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits, Ochoa prepares an assortment of hot and cold dishes. Her baby mix salad is accompanied by 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 comes from a fisherman from Kalispell who works in Alaska.

Ochoa’s egg pasta is particularly rich, using six egg yolks for each full egg. The dish is topped with a dried egg yolk, which resembles a dried apricot.

Local sourcing of its products and respect for its ingredients are two of Ochoa’s driving forces in its culinary practice.

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

Ochoa looks forward to offering even more unique dishes at Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits as he gets used to his new kitchen.

“We are still playing with some ideas,” he said. “We have a lot of exciting things to come.”

Ochoa plans to offer event nights and tasting classes at Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits in the coming months.

Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits is located at 2134 US Hwy 2 E, Kalispell, MT 59901. Hours of operation are 12 p.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. The restaurant and distillery can be found online at https://www.whitefishspirits.com/.

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