Where did the Japanese influences in your food come from? “My grandfather is from China and moved to the Philippines. He was one of the first Honda motorcycle dealers, so one of the perks was trips to Japan. Before moving to the United States, our family’s primary business was commercial fishing, selling fish to Japan and other countries. My father went to Japan 50 times in a 15-year span. Japanese consultants who came to the Philippines wanted to eat Japanese food and some would catch tuna themselves and make the food. My father had a preference for it and that was my initial exposure to it.
“I loved it so much as a kid that my parents used to tell me they couldn’t enjoy different cuisines because that’s all I would eat. I was an only child and a very picky eater.”
When did you start cooking? “In the mid-90s, I moved to Los Angeles and took a business degree at Loyola Marymount University. The university is in West LA, where there is a little Tokyo, so there are a lot of authentic restaurants in the area. Sushi was the reason I started [working with food], because I wanted to make it at home. When my parents were out of town I’d invite friends over to be my guinea pigs.
“When I started learning how to make Japanese food, I sucked! My fish slices were never consistent, I was too slow. I later helped my friend who had a sushi bar, and worked at other small places to see more things. It’s the ingredients that attracted me. My new restaurant is everyday Japanese dishes that people know and there will be an area to put out newer ideas and concepts.”
What did your parents think of you cooking? “My father wanted me to get into the construction business. He would buy land, build houses on it and sell them. He was very passionate about it. When he realised I didn’t have much interest in it, he encouraged me to learn cooking.”
What did you learn from working in different places? “At The Bazaar [in Los Angeles], I worked in the private room, with a new tapas menu every day. Its chef, Jose [Andres], is a disciple of Ferran Adria, and doing molecular cuisine. Now, in my restaurant, we might make an ‘air’ of a sauce that is super strong, like brown-butter air.
“I worked in places like LA’s Providence and Eleven Madison Park [in New York] and got to see how they prepare the food, set up the kitchen and their cooking styles.
“All restaurants care about the products they use regardless of their philosophies. Chefs have a glint in their eyes when they see a good product. ‘How can we use it?’ – that’s the common thing I learned from Japanese, French and Spanish chefs.”
Tell us about your restaurants. “I moved back to Manila in 2010 and my father wanted me to open a place. Studio Kitchen was more Western-based due to a lack of sourcing opportunities. Then we moved to a more central location and opened Allium. I’m always trying to look to incorporate Japanese products and ideologies; like maple syrup paired with pork.”
“When I opened Studio Kitchen, the cooking side was there but the restaurant side was a work in progress. When you worry about the business side, it has a big effect on what you’re doing. You may create things that may not sell right away so you have food wastage. Sustainability is the biggest challenge and we’re still learning.”
What is your philosophy on food? “I’m a big believer in balance in texture and flavour. We do encounter diners who might perceive a lack of flavour, but it’s about subtlety. Some of the biggest compliments we get are that the meal was light and they aren’t left in a food coma.
“When we get new staff, I try to get them more involved in the creative process. I try to encourage them to think and conceptualise instead of just following a recipe, because it will yield something different every time.”
What do you do when you’re not in the kitchen? “Sleep! If you’re very hands-on, even when your team is well developed and you can trust them, you’re still thinking about work. I need to learn to let go more, so I can take a break and come back recharged. Constant thoughts don’t necessarily yield better ideas. There’s not much to do in Manila. Six months after moving back there I’d done all the weekend things. My girlfriend complains when we see a plate store and I’m looking at them on my day off. I’ve met other chefs like that. At least I’m not the only one.”