It was a searing mid morning in tropical Manila.Spanish chef,Elena Arzak of Arzak (No. 7 on World’s 50 Best)was addressing an unusually excited audience of almost a thousand in the air-conditioned comfort of SMX Convention Centre, Manila.Amongst the sea of people were chefs (including luminaries like Andre Chiang from Singapore and Paco Roncero from Spain), journalists, restaurateurs and foodies.
Glued to the edge of their seats, they were listening intently as the one-timeVeuve Clicquot 2012 World’sBest Female Chef expounded on the concept of cuisine creativity.Building on the same creativity theme, her compatriot, Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz (No. 6 on World’s 50 Best) was in the spotlight the next day, when he swept the audience away with his earnest take on innovation in the kitchen (“practise until it becomes a habit”).
The occasion was Madrid Fusion, a three-day gastronomic event held neither in Spain nor Mexico, but in Manila.It was the Spanish food conference’s inaugural foray into Asia.
But why Manila, some may ask, and not Hong Kong, Singapore or maybe even Bangkok? After all, even amidst a mini dining boom in the city, Manila has not been known to be a destination for globetrotting food cognoscenti.
Not until now.
In the recent 2015 edition of the San Pellegrino Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards published by William Reeds Business Media, Antonio’s at Tagaytay, Philippines, landed a prized No. 48 spot, a first for a Philippines-based restaurant since the inception of the regional list.“Manila is developing by leaps and bounds,” said Lourdes Plana, director and founding partner of Madrid Fusion, “The gastronomic scene is expanding with the opening of new and very interesting restaurants and this will put the city on the world map as a new gastronomic point for consideration.”
According to Plana, Manila was the best of all the possible venues to organize the congress taking into account more than 370 years of common history, ties, cultural and culinary fusion between Spain and the Philippines.
At the congress, a cadre of Asian chefs took to the stage to share alongside their Spanish counterparts.“Most restaurants are serving fruit juices only,” said Andre Chiang of Restaurant Andre (No. 5 on Asia’s 50 Best), “How can we push the boundary on juicing?”Chiang went on to distill the essence of the “why” and “how” of juice fermentation; at his restaurant in Singapore, juice pairing is offered as an alternative to wine pairing.
A day after, Hong Kong’s bad boy “Demon Chef”, Alvin Leung of Bo Innovation (No. 28 on Asia’s 50 Best), partook in the fun of “Xtreme Filipino” cuisine.At one of several collaboration dinners held between visiting and local chefs, Leung cooked alongside Jordy Navarra from Black Sheep, a modern Filipino cuisine stronghold.
Perhaps most impactful were the sharings by local chefs- amongst them movers and shakers of the local dining scene.Lifting the lid on the abundance of the local bounty, Bruce Rickett of Mecha Uma showed us how Filipino produce – like Spanish mackerel and pigeon – are gracing his Japanese inflected menu.Jose Luis “Chele” Gonzalez of Gallery Vask took the concept of local sourcing a step further with his awe-inspiring story of how he travelled the country in search of local ingredients; in the process, the Spaniard discovered not just a treasure cove of local ingredients, but also precious pockets of local culture, both seamlessly integrated into his cuisine. That same night, Chele partnered with Aduriz on a four-hands dinner where privileged guests were treated to a parade of inspired creations.
Any discussions on Filipino cuisine is incomplete without so much as a mention on adobo, the Philippines’ national dish of braised meat cooked with vinegar, animal fat and lots of garlic, and Claude Tayag of Bale Datung tackled the topic with aplomb.”Adobo is more a cooking process rather than a dish,” said Tayag, “Every household in the Philippines has its own version of adobo.”In her talk on “What Gives Life”, Margarita Fores of Grace Park cheekily suggested tuna sperm sac as a plausible alternative to foie gras.
Much to the amusement of the crowd, Fores also showed the audience how the local provinces integrate the udder and nipples of animals in their cooking.
To inform ourselves on the food scene, we braved the much-talked-about Manila traffic (it took almost an hour and a half to get to dinner) and descended onMecha Umaat Bonifacio Global City oneFridaynight.
In a bijou space headlined by a 10-seat counter, head chef Bruce Ricketts presented us with plate after plate of Japanese-inflected dishes infused with the strong and punchy flavours of the Philippines.The 10-course omakase, available only at the copper-topped counter, showcased dishes like the a la plancha firefly squid with Hokkaido uni, tapioca pearls and fermented squid resting on warm chawan mushi (steamed egg pudding).A purveyor of fresh produce, particularly pristine seafood from Japan, the young chef tries to use local produce whenever possible, as evinced by the butter and lavender roasted aged pigeon from Batangas, Luzon, glazed with Mexican chillies that made an appearance during our visit.“Our approach is Japanese inspired,” said the 25-year-old Ricketts, touted as one of Manila’s hottest young chefs. “But the soul of my cuisine is Filipino, we like to season our produce with vinegar, soya sauce, patis (Filipino fish sauce) and dried fish products.”The next night, we revisited Bonifacio Global City once again.This time, it was to meet Manila’s most decorated chef,Jose Luis “Chele” Gonzalez, whose resume beams with a solid 10-year stint at Spain’s temples of high cuisine: Mugaritz, Arzak, El Bulli andEl Cellar de Can Roca.
At his art gallery-inspiredGallery Vask, Chele celebrates the provenance of the mountains, land and coast of the Philippines with just 2 tasting menus, both of which incorporate an abundance of local ingredients that rarely showcase outside the Philippines.Briny oysters from Aklan, Visayas, made an appearance blanketed with seeds of okra and upo (bottle gourd) while luscious lobsters from Sorsogon, Luzon, were served basking in savoury green mung bean broth studded with cashew nuts, pickled green mango and local herbs.“Who says we do not have petit pois in the Phillippines,” said Chele as he presented a dish of melt-in-the-mouth braised beef tendons flecked with palate-cleansing chicharo seeds (snow peas) fromBaguio, Luzon.In true Filipino style, Chele’s mignardises were manifested as Filipino candies – including delicious Filipino pili nuts – served on a long wooden block that the locals use to play the traditional sungka game.
The next morning, we took a 1.5-hour drive to Tagaytay.Situated on the rim of the Taal Lake that surrounds Taal Volcano, Tagaytay is home toAntonio’s, the 13-year-old restaurant that recently made the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list.Residing on a sprawling 3.6 hectare site that also includes a farm, the Lanai Lounge and the residence of chef-owner, “Tony Boy” Escalante, the 150-seat colonial-style Antonio’s eschews the fancy schmancy tasting menu route in favour of well-executed European classics including a plethora of grilled steak dishes and the house Antonio’s salad prepped with home-grown arugula.Over a 4-course set lunch on an idyllicSundayafternoon, we tucked into a gigantic stalk of grilled leek with capers and crushed hazelnut and washed it down with a heady glass of mojito scented with fresh mint plucked on site.While tackling the mains of roasted lamb cutlets, we learnt that the Escalante’s passion for fresh farm produce has led to the development 4 farmlands in Tagaytay.Managed by the chef’s wife, Agnes Escalante, the farms supply a good 80% of the restaurant’s vegetable needs and their clientele now includes hotels and restaurants in Manila city.
On our way back to the hotel at Makati, our car whizzed pass the sky-piercing Discovery Primea, the tallest hotel and residential complex in the Philippines.Opened in 2014, the striking tower is a fitting symbol for where Manila’s now-vibrant dining scene is headed.It may have taken this city a little longer to get to where it wants to be; slowly but surely, Manila is showing the world its culinary prowess.
Madrid Fusion Manila is possibly just the beginning.