What made you become a chef? "I was always interested in food but it was usually family-style meals and Filipino celebration food. Later I found out about places like [Heston Blumenthal's] The Fat Duck and I thought, 'Wow, I never knew food could be like that.' I was lucky. I got to spend some time there and saw it first hand but I didn't connect to the food. The flavours were different to what I was used to. Then I ate at Bo Innovation. It used all the modern techniques and Alvin Leung was doing it with Chinese products, many of which I was familiar with because there are many Chinese influences in Filipino food. That's how I ended up working there."
Did you like working with "demon chef" Leung? "I like how he can look at the potential of products. We don't necessarily have to create a finished dish but he can taste and recognise the potential of something. He is really good at that. You'll see him use something from the wet market mixed with overseas premium goods. From there, he pushes things with real personality and flair - his extremeness. That was cool. And the working culture at Bo was nice - working in a fine-dining setting and still having fun - that is, when Alvin wasn't yelling. He likes to yell but he means well."
But you made your name at Black Sheep in Manila … "Black Sheep was a chance for me to play with Filipino flavours and ingredients, and think about Filipino culture. It evolved slowly. People knew I worked at Bo so initially they were expecting more extreme dishes, with smoke and drama. When we do a dish, we come at it from three angles - the flavour profile, produce and Filipino food culture. We did a dish called Bahay Kubo. Basically, it's a nursery folk song that everyone knows. It's about a house with a garden, with vegetables. There are 18 vegetables in the song so we squeezed it all into one dish. This is a dish that is uniquely ours."
Why hasn't Filipino cuisine caught on overseas the way Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese food has? "It's funny. Filipinos are all over the world, but you can't find Filipino restaurants. One thing about Filipino cuisine is it's very diverse. There're so many outside influences, from Spanish and Chinese to American, plus Filipinos coming and going from different countries. I've eaten siu mei [roast meats] and steamed baos all my life. For me, it's very Chinese but it's familiar food in the Philippines, too. Sometimes it's Philippine-ised."
Some people think Filipino food is too sweet or sour … "The Philippines produces sugar, so we have access to a lot of products that are sweet, and we eat things super-sweet. It's a Filipino thing to put ketchup on spaghetti, for example. Also, our cuisine is so diverse, nothing is really codified. Everyone does things slightly different. But I think that diversity is one of our strengths. An example is adobo - it's different in each region but it is all adobo."
But even regular tourists to the Philippines don't know where to go for good Filipino food! "People who visit are constantly asked to try the weird and crazy stuff, like balut [duck embryo], or to have bull's ball soup. The good stuff is harder to find because a lot of it is festive food, like a roast pig over charcoal. You have to go at the right time. It's good when it's fresh but some shops only do that once a day and then reheat the pork, and then it's not as nice. I do think Manila's dining scene is quite underrated, partly due to the perception of Filipino food. But there are lots of interesting restaurants and chefs."
What will your new restaurant be like? "I want to represent a vision that is more urban, more of what Manila is like now. We want to be more accessible. We don't want to be too fine dining but [will] keep a level of sophistication. We're looking to open in late December or January."
What inspired your recent two-night pop-up restaurant for Test Kitchen in Hong Kong? "When, as a chef, you have the chance to go abroad, you take it. It's always fun so I thought we should do it for my guys. Hong Kong has such an exciting food scene, with a range of foods at different prices. Even a lower price point doesn't mean the food drops in quality. There's a good, strong food culture. I wanted my team to eat here and experience it."