Four Belgians, one mission: To taste the Philippines

Like any good halfie worth his Filipino salt, Glen Ramaekers, 35, has been reconnecting with his Philippine roots. In 2012, working closely with our Department of Agriculture, he organized “Hapag Yaman” in Brussels, a dinner event to introduce Philippine food products to Belgium, where he lives.

For that, Ramaekers invited nine top star chefs (including Ryan Stevenson, an Australian chocolatier who has won top prizes in World Chocolate Masters Final, and Paris-based Victor Magsaysay of Sakebar Restaurant) to prepare food for 200 guests using pre-mixes and sauces from Mama Sita’s, prime bangus from Sarangani Bay, bananas and mangoes flown in from the Philippines, and even organic coconut water.

“There are 260 Belgian companies in the Philippines, but there is not one Filipino company in Belgium,” he tells us while waiting for dinner to be served at a charming post-war house in Paco (it’s listed on Airbnb) where he and three Belgian friends are staying during their short visit in the Philippines.

Ramaekers and his gang — fiancée Julie de Block, 26, chefs Louise Bannon, 32, and Yannick Van Aeken, 28, who both used to work at Noma in Denmark (a consistent first placer in The World’s 50 Best Restaurant Guide) — arrived yesterday morning in Manila and zoomed straight to Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City to have lunch with Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat. 

Chef Bannon is an Irish pastry chef who has worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in Ireland, France and Denmark. At Noma, she made all the breads. Chef van Aeken was executive sous chef.

The group occupied a small table at chef Sandy Daza’s Wooden Spoon, and “we ordered one of each…we finished almost everything. We tried really hard…I think we did pretty good,” says Van Aeken, who stands over six feet, chuckling. Glen’s favorite dish was chef Sandy Daza’s version of adobo flakes, served with a garlic mayo dip.

Van Aeken’s first encounter with Filipino cuisine was in September last year. Ramaekers, a chef and sommelier, organized the launch of Don Papa Rum in Belgium, which was attended by 90 guests that included journalists, bar owners and mixologists.

The Philippine embassy there gave Van Aeken imported fruits and vegetables and he read an article on the top 20 dishes of Filipino cuisine. “Even the Filipinos were convinced [that it was authentic Pinoy food],” he laughs.

The two chefs are working on opening their own restaurant in Belgium, and this Philippine visit is partly to familiarize themselves with local flavours. If all goes well, Philippine-grown ingredients could find themselves in their future restaurant’s menu.

The Belgians are here on their own, with Ramaekers heading the pack and financing most of the trip. The rest of their schedule is packed with meetings with chefs like Margarita Fores and Robby Goco as well as out-of-town trips both meaningful (they will visit a Yolanda-hit community in Palawan) and gustatory (they will eat their way through Bacolod, where Fores is from and Ramaekers’ mom and dad live).

When they return to Manila early next week, there will be a private dinner at Green Pastures and another one organized with Fores, though details are still being ironed out. These events will be an extension of their ongoing fundraising activities for Yolanda; on December 15, Ramaekers and another Filipino-Belgian, Juan Wyns, organized “Picture for a Cause” where they served Philippine cuisine and charged guests an extra 10 euros for a portrait by a professional photographer. 

The group is also here to initiate a livelihood program in Nueva Ecija for Yolanda victims. They are laying the groundworks for a permaculture farm, in tandem with the Cabiokid Foundation. 

If the collaboration with Goco and Fores does well, there could eventually be a yearly exchange of chefs from the Philippines and Belgium via pop-up kitchens. “I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a couple of years and the moment is ripe,” says Ramaekers, who almost opened a restaurant in Manila in 2010. 

Photo (from left): Louise Bannon, Yannick Van Aeken, Jorge Amparado, Julie de Block, Glen Ramaekers, Marcus Schmidt and Mariko Jacinto.

This story first appeared on Coconuts Manila.

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