Cooking The Books
Filipino chefs are delving into heritage and history to put Manila on the map as the next great dining destination
This might come as a bit of a surprise to seasoned gourmets and gourmands alike, but right this moment, Manila is experiencing a culinary uptick the likes of which we’ve not seen since Australia in the 1990s and Singapore in the early 2000s. At every turn, young Filipino chefs are upending that hoary old chestnut that the local cuisine is little more than adobo and balut.
And it’s not just a case of beloved classics like sissig being reinterpreted and repackaged for a bolder, younger and more cashed-up generation of foodies (for this, hustle on down to Manam’s for a killer umami-filled version). Instead, from kitchens in Bonifacio Global City to the outskirts of Manila, high in the hills of Cavite, there is a genuine sense of the frontier, of possibilities, and of existential questions that are framed in the context of the Philippines’ long mixed histories with Spain, America and, through the massive diaspora of the past 30 years, the rest of the world: Who are we? What does this food mean to us? Where is our new culinary direction?
“I think a large part of this discussion is being driven by an attempt to reclaim our past and our heritage,” says Jose Suarez, a Manila-based food journalist and F&B consultant, even as he acknowledges the struggle to make sense of the disparate cuisines and cultures of the Philippines’ 7,100-plus islands.
For observers like Suarez, a seminal moment occurred when Antonio’s—Tony Boy Escalante’s gorgeously bucolic restaurant in Tagatay—was named one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2015. That it was also the only Filipino restaurant on the list didn’t escape anyone’s attention. The win, it seems, galvanised an entire generation to pick up the spatula. It also unearthed surprising depths.
At Hey Handsome, for instance, the shyly smiling and gentle Nicco Santos parses Southeast Asian standards. Laksa is recreated as a scoop of creamy chilli ice-cream hiding beneath a piquantly sauced pile of greens, whilst nasi ulam is paired with Filipino interlopers like fried catfish and green papaya. In his small mood-lit restaurant, Mecha Uma, one of Manila’s hottest tables, Bruce Ricketts infuses robust Japanese fare with elements of his roots—to wit, slow-roasted pork, and spicy barley and lengua chahan (ox tongue stew).
Among the city’s culinary trailblazers is The Moment Group, which hosts in its open, high-ceilinged headquarters Test Kitchen. The concept is an opportunity for promising chefs to try out their ideas, and for willing diners to sample the results and, hopefully, score the bragging rights to one day say, “I was there that night where it all started.” At Toyo, another red-hot joint in town, chef and owner Jordy Navarra parlays his stints at the Fat Duck and Hong Kong’s Bo Innovation into a vivid fusion of Western ingredients and Filipino sensibilities as he grills mackerel soured with kamias, a local fruit; and stuffs squid, relyenong-style, with rice, rice wine and mustard glaze. This is conceptual food of a high order, and like so many other chefs in town, Navarra’s MO represents a high-water mark in the renaissance of Filipino cuisine, especially when framed in the context of farm-to-table dining.
Speaking of which, on the rooftop of his Gallery Vask restaurant in downtown Manila, the Spanish chef Chele Gonzalez tends herb boxes that bristle with native gotu kola (a variant of pennywort), lemon basil, and lemony pansit-pansitan, all of which he uses in his dishes. “There is such a huge biodiversity in the Philippines,” he says. “All the herbs in this garden have curative qualities.”
Since he opened his restaurant in 2013, the Torrelavega-born chef has tramped up and down the length of the Philippines. Notebook at hand and taste buds on alert, he sources and documents the bewildering cornucopia of herbs and vegetables in an almost evangelical quest to understand and develop, through sustainable cooking, the historical connection between the Philippines and Spain.
Driven By Discovery
If it’s not already clear, these are exciting times to be dining in Manila. The energy is practically tangible—if not in the menus, then definitely in the hubbub that bounces off the rafters of the beautifully designed restaurants and casual eateries. To native Filipinos, the flavours are familiar, but reimagined. To outsiders, it is chaotic and challenging, and all the more addictive in its appeal.
As industry veteran Cathy Feliciano Chon explains, “We have a very confused identity that’s coloured by Spain, America and the new republic. It’s why we’re confused about what Filipino food is and why our cuisine is so opaque.” All of this has translated into a mood of culinary excitement and a sense of potential that’s been a long time coming: This perfect storm of sophisticated diners bred on social media and flush from several great economic years, the return of a talented, energised diaspora of chefs looking to start restaurants that celebrate their native flavours, and the willingness of businesses to invest in them.
“This has all happened in the last five years,” remarks Alicia Colby-Sy, a gastronomy influencer and the executive editor of the Filipino edition of Town & Country. “The food channels have helped a lot, as has social media. Chefs have become rock stars.” Or as Suarez puts it, “Until about 20, 25 years ago, when McDonald’s first arrived in the Philippines, no Filipino would eat Filipino food in a Filipino restaurant. Why would they, when no one could cook as well as their own mother or grandmother?”
Now, it looks as if that last bit of domestic taboo is being broken. But what’s particularly interesting about this bubbling moment of a culinary awakening is that it’s all happening in the context of a tight group of chefs, suppliers, patrons and farmers who are all friends. It’s a genuine ecosystem in which every element is aware of what the other is doing and cheering it on. If there is rivalry, it exists in the sense of chefs pushing one another to succeed. “It’s really strange,” says one veteran observer of the scene. “It’s almost as if, if one of us fails, then we all fail. But if one of us succeeds, then everyone succeeds.”
Perhaps not so strange if you take the position that Chon does: “Filipino food is about tradition, family and hospitality. If you don’t get that, you won’t get the food.” And judging by the wondrously conceived dishes emerging each night from the kitchens of Navarra, Ricketts and Santos and so many other young turks like them, there’s certainly plenty to get.
By Daven Wu