To the untrained eye, it appeared to be too many chefs in the kitchen. Pio Goco, brother of Robby Goco, one of the evening’s hosts along with Glen Raemakers, gave sweeping introductions across the room. I barely had a chance to catch each name that followed after “chef”.
But this was no room of strangers. These were all handpicked guests by host Robby Goco (of Cyma and Green Pastures fame) and all arrived to marvel at the hands of two particular chefs at work: Louise Bannon and Yannick Van Aeken. The Irish and Belgian pair, who both worked at Noma in Demark (considered the “World’s Best Restaurant” three years in a row by Restaurant magazine), had managed to whip up an excitement and anticipation that was nearly palpable.
Louise was carving a heaping bowl of mangoes. “She does the pastries,” beamed Yannick, “and I do the cooking.” Louise was locked into the task at hand, and seemed none too phased by the hoopla caused by each arriving dinner guest. Yannick held down the fort, keeping the crowd entertained and graciously taking photos with everyone. The rest of the kitchen staff hustled. There was a dinner to be served.
At this point, Louise and Yannick were on the homestretch of their tour across the Philippines. I ask them of their latest impressions, having just touched down from Bacolod that very morning. “So much food!” exclaims Yannick, as he rubs his midsection tenderly. “I thought I was going to lose weight here because I would sweat, but I haven’t at all,” he adds.
I ask him if any dishes have stood out in his cross-country tour. Frankly, he says, most of it has been a blur. Their itinerary has been packed with meetings, and between the tapsilog, pork dishes and merienda, he says the mangoes (“Probably the best in the world!”) and coconuts are what stand out the most in his mind — though he does recall once having chicken four times in a day.
It’s been non-stop for the pair since they landed in Manila. And while some chefs might require days to scrutinize and carefully assemble a six-course meal, Yannick’s experience with “cowboy cooking” meant tonight’s menu was assembled on the fly. Nordic cuisine, he explains, is all about foraging for what’s in season and available. Noma’s menu was typically planned only days in advance, ensuring ingredients were always at their freshest. But what might seem like an event planner’s nightmare was actually a very simple formula for this seasoned chef: “You go the market, and you see what’s good. And you get inspired.” Their trip to the market was only hours earlier, where they handpicked ingredients for a roughly twenty-seven person dinner party. Tonight’s menu would be a complete experiment in the kitchen.
The dinner is at the home of noted local Chef Aleth Ocampo, but she denies lifting a finger in the kitchen tonight. With only the light guidance and orchestration by Chef Robby, all eyes were focused on the two guests of honor, while tongues and bellies tingled for the experience ahead. One by one, each person took their place at the long and elegantly decorated dining table. I found myself sitting next to fellow blogger, Anton Diaz of Our Awesome Planet, which naturally opened into a conversation about, what else, food.
“In two years, Filipino food is going to blow up,” says Anton, rather confidently. As someone considered a trusted source for go-to food reviews in the online community, I don’t take his words lightly. It’s a casual affair, he says, but tonight is really history in the making. With so many locally acclaimed chefs gathered in one intimate setting, here to meet two internationally renown chefs who came out of interest in Philippine cuisine, this was a global event.
I innocently ask Anton what he thinks the main selling points of Filipino cuisine are. After all, this “Filipino food conundrum” was something that I, a Canadian-turned-honorary-Filipina for the past 18 months, still struggled with today. Fried jokes aside, I’ve often found it hard to describe Filipino cuisine to my friends at home. I’d never found a spice I couldn’t handle, or, frankly, an appreciation for pancit.
“It’s all about the ingredients”, he explains. “There are certain flavors and things that grow here that you can’t find anywhere else!” Suddenly, Heny Sison (“Culinary Goddess!” as Anton introduces her) on my right is chipping into my Filipino Food 101. To my skepticism, Heny describes a certain fish (ipon, for the uninformed) that only surfaces in certain waters of the Philippines for few a months, under the full moon.
This all sounded like a thing of Philippine folklore to me, but I was grateful that the topic of Philippine ingredients (malunggay, for one) distracted us from our hunger. Soon enough, the first round of plates hit the table and people lifted their utensils in unison. Two words: Angel Wings. These clams were some of the juiciest and freshest I’d ever tasted in my 18 months! Balanced with the flavors of local vegetables sprinkled with calamansi juice and coconut vinegar, these clams were a pure pop of joy over my taste buds.
The following dishes, each simple in appearance and ingredients, all seemed to pleasantly stump and surprise each chef at the dinner table: Mussels covered in a light pumpkin sauce and local seaweed; a savory broth poured over raw malunggay leaves, local radishes and kelp topped with an egg; ube paste covered with local red rice, crisps made of oatmeal and pickled onions; and a roasted cabbage with sharp and sweet smoked tinapa and tomato sauce.
There was a general tone of amusement and delight at the table. Out of habit, each chef excitedly took part in a guessing game of how these relatively commonplace ingredients had been used and combined at the hands of a complete, well, foreigner. “We would never think of putting things like this and this together” seemed to be a recurring sentiment throughout the night. Robby Goco worked the room, introducing every round, and answering questions by each bewildered chef.
“Their cooking techniques are just so simple and straightforward, and it’s funny because it works,” he says. He tells me that Filipinos mix too many things to produce a sauce where each separate component’s unique flavor becomes drowned out — a halo-halo approach to cooking, perhaps. These Belgian chefs were able to see the appeal of a simple broth made by simmering mussels and seawater.
Tonight’s menu was clearly focused on the ingredients and stripping down of Filipino flavors. With the exception of a light garnish of chicharon, there was little pork to be found at the table. It may have taken the hefty promise of a meal cooked by ex-chefs of Noma to draw the A-list foodie crowd, but tonight’s spotlight really ended on the purity and potential of Filipino ingredients.
“We [Filipinos] are the only ones that think everyone else is better than we are, but they’re here because they want to learn from us,” says Pio. He anticipates more cultural culinary exchanges to come in the future, as more international buzz generates about the underdog that is Filipino cuisine. But perhaps there is some sweet irony in tonight’s exercise, where the deconstruction and simplicity of Philippine ingredients has opened the doors to many future possibilities.