Cover The Hapag Manila Team (Photo: JV Rabano)

Filipino cuisine is being fitted with new clothes by a circle of chefs robust with inspiration and ingenuity. But is there really a need for it when the current outfit wears just fine?

There’s a point being made when you turn Bicol’s traditional laing into squid ink-battered spheres topped with pickled mango. As one of Hapag Private Dining’s signature dishes, laing stones best represent the kind of cuisine the nondescript Quezon City restaurant wants to champion. By spiffing up the often messy plate of spiced coconut milk-braised taro leaves and converting it into an edible “stone garden” adorned with fresh herbs and finished with a tableside spritz of pickling liquid, a typical provincial home fare turns into an elegant appetiser that merits a crisp white linen and a social media post.

“We decided to open this kind of restaurant for one reason only—to showcase Filipino food and to know how far we can push the boundaries of the cuisine,” says chef slash co-owner Thirdy Dolatre. Together with Kevin Villarica and Kevin Navoa, he launched Hapag, a 42-seater tucked behind a congee shop along Katipunan Avenue, that intends to reimagine beloved items such as kare-kare, chicken inasal and bistek Tagalog into a feast for the senses.

They are a part of the still-growing club of chefs that are peppering their creativity into the unadulterated world of Filipino food. “We think it’s very important to do this because we’d like to think that Filipino cuisine can match any type of cuisine. We feel that the techniques passed down to us by our chefs when we were an apprentice can only improve what we know now,” says Villarica. “We are sure that we are only scratching the surface of the potential of our own cuisine,” adds Navoa.

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A recent member of the league is Don Baldosano, who has been serving an inspired menu at the backyard of his family’s Parañaque home. His dishes come in smaller, solo-sized portions and are all part of a progressive meal, which is a far cry from the manner to which we grew up enjoying Filipino food.

“I am a firm believer that a cuisine should never be stagnant,” says the 22-year-old. “It must always move forward—from discovering local ingredients and techniques to re-introducing forgotten generations-old recipes that we can share with people.”

LOOKING BACK

Though these chefs share a common goal, their approaches may differ. Baldosano’s routine is to talk to different farmers and wet market vendors to fish out their knowledge about their own produce including how they like to prepare them. He also forages in the forest and tries to incorporate his discoveries in his dishes.

One of the things he found on the field isn’t actually savoury, but its aroma triggered clever ideas. “The idea behind my dessert Kugon Sorbetes is to serve the components that co-exist in a single terroir into one dish,” he says. The kugon is a type of grass traditionally used as a roofing material by our ancestors. He roasts and steeps it in his ice cream base to produce sorbetes that exhibits a matcha-like flavour. Scoops of it are served with mulberries harvested from the same area as the kugon and rice that is seasoned with muscovado.

For the chefs at Hapag, the process starts by looking back at their family recipes and turning to lesser-known local ingredients and techniques. Fortunately, they usually end up with something that makes sense to all three of them.

One successful dish born out of this process is their Ginanggang Ice Cream, which is largely inspired by a popular street snack in Mindanao composed of a saba banana that is skewered and grilled over charcoal, brushed with margarine and sprinkled with white sugar.

Their version marries two kinds of bananas— grilled saba and blackened ones, which is the result of slow cooking them in a rice cooker for two weeks. Doing so brings out its caramelised toffee notes. The mixture is then churned with cream and served with a streusel made of pinipig crunch, cashews, coffee oil and meringue.

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REPRESENTING HIS ROOTS

Someone who has been putting his contemporary spin on Filipino cuisine for quite some time now is chef Jordy Navarra. Along with wife May, they run Toyo Eatery, which is at the forefront of the movement, with the restaurant constantly reaping regional awards and recognitions.

Opening a Filipino restaurant has always been a dream of Jordy’s. “I love our food and we always try to pay tribute to that with our work. My parents actually opened and ran a traditional Filipino restaurant but closed it way before I was born; so all of the Filipino food I grew up with was rooted in their expression of that market-fresh, traditional, very Pinoy cooking style.” Toyo is nothing close to what his folks operated before as his has a more urban take on the cuisine.

Nevertheless, his food is largely influenced by the flavours of wood and charcoal grill since that played a huge part in the kind of food he grew up eating. “It was a matter of imagining the possibilities for us Filipino cooks and panaderos [he also runs Toyo Panaderya offering Filipino breads] within the idea of what Filipinos eat here and around the world and how that relates to a dining experience for Filipinos today. I don’t really feel we’re far from traditional Filipino since we keep that traditional Pinoy mindset and apply that to the ingredients we have today,” he says.

More than the end product, regionality and variations across the islands are what he and his team usually take inspiration from when developing a dish. Kinilaw, for instance, has an array of interpretations that range from different proteins, vinegar and aromatics. What the staff at Toyo does is acknowledge those varieties and think of more ways to add to those traditions and techniques without straying so far away from the original.

“We’re very reliant on what’s around us and our goal is to be reactive to those. That’s what really pushes us in the direction we’re going. In line with that, we need to constantly go out and experience different aspects of the Philippine culture. That’s really one of the advantages of having a diverse group within our team who are from different parts of the country and who are open to sharing what they eat and enjoy with the rest of us,” Jordy elaborates.

Toyo’s Buntaa is culled from a good memory. “It’s a beautiful dish my late Tita Jean made for us when we visited her in Butuan and I just fell in love with it. I ate so much,” he says. “It’s difficult to capture a moment like that and serve it as is at the restaurant. The best we can do is to recreate the feeling of eating it through a dish of our interpretation.” Their take uses the same ingredients and flavours—coconut, ginger and flaked meat—but in the form of a delicate flan adorned with a sauce made with crab roe.

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Even food considered traditional today used to be new at some point in time; so always push to try new things but stay rooted in who you are.
Jordy Navarra

STRIKING A BALANCE

Oftentimes, chefs fall into the trap of superficiality when it comes to modernising a cuisine. The eagerness to show off contemporary applications jeopardise the flavour and consequently, any good memory that goes with it. The resulting taste becomes too distant to be associated with the name that it makes the customer question the motive behind the execution.

“To be honest, it’s quite hard to balance both these things all at once. Sometimes you get too playful with a certain dish that it ends up not tasting like a Filipino dish you’ve had before anymore,” says Villarica. “We tend to be freely creative that we sometimes forget that the focus is making a truly new Pinoy dish,” adds Baldosano. “But it is also hard to say that one chef’s creation is far from the original for we do not know his inspiration behind that dish. At the end of the day, what is original for one Filipino is different from another because of the variations of our cuisine.”

“Once you’ve figured out how we Filipinos eat then it will be a lot easier to understand how to play with certain dishes, ingredients and techniques. Until now we are still trying to figure out the Filipino palate better,” adds Dolatre.

Navarra likens it to hip-hop where you see and hear artists take samples from old songs or songs they like and put a new feel to a song, which elicits mixed reactions, both positive and negative. “DJs do it with remixes too. Sometimes you hear a completely new song with the remix. There are people who take offence to altering the experience of the original and there are those who enjoy the added layers of experiencing new work. How you take it and use it is really a matter of someone’s own style, philosophy, limitations and strengths. It’s a difficult balance but it’s a risk anyone who tries to produce anything takes whenever they put their work out there,” he explains.

That shouldn’t deter any chef from tapping into the world of modern cuisine though because it is essential to keep up with the times. Staying relevant is key for the survival of any cuisine.

“Even food considered traditional today used to be new at some point in time; so always push to try new things but stay rooted in who you are,” advises Navarra.

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