Chef and restaurateur Baba Ibazeta-Benedicto of Nono's and Classic Confections reflects on her journey from culinary school to now, recounting the challenges presented by the pandemic and her optimistic desires for the industry's revival.

Fresh from culinary school and hands-on bakery experience in California, Baba Ibazeta-Benedicto returned to Manila and planted the seeds of what would become her successful bakeshop, Classic Confections. Today, nearly 15 years later, Baba sees success in her newest food venture - Nono’s, an inviting restaurant chain serving nostalgic comfort food inspired by her youth.

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Nono’s opened its first branch at UP Town Center in April 2017, and its second branch followed later that year at The Podium. The following year, the group proudly revealed four brand new branches: Three Central in Valero, Festival Mall, Glorietta, and Nuvali. Today they have nine locations that are all bustling with happy customers. This success story all began when Baba opened her bakeshop Classic Confections. "In 2016, I partnered with The Table Group to put up a full-service restaurant featuring the desserts I had at Classic Confections. After trying out a few menus with easy-to-make dishes, we saw an opportunity to make the project more personal, so we shifted to creating a concept that’s centred around comfort food that reminded me of my childhood. [We wanted to] make people feel good and made sure the entire dining experience espoused the idea of home."

However, like most others in the food and beverage industry, Nono’s was not immune from the unforeseen repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though they’ve effectively pivoted their operations and offerings to better accommodate take-away and delivery, Baba reminisces of a time when they were able to provide guests with the full dining experience, bringing people together over familiar comforts in a welcoming atmosphere as she had envisioned.

Despite these challenges, she remains optimistic about the future of the industry, the newfound unity within the community, and what’s in store for her and her restaurants.

Read on to learn about Baba’s culinary journey, how she’s adapted through the pandemic and her insights about the ever-shifting Philippine food and beverage industry.

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How did the dining scene change for you and Nono's over 2020-2021?

The dining experience at Nono’s is very much tied to being present at the restaurant. More than just bonding over good food, it includes enjoying the store interiors, soaking up the relaxed atmosphere with family and friends, and interacting with our friendly service staff. So when the pandemic hit and everyone had to stay home, we had to think of other ways to bring that experience to our customers, wherever they may be. The familiar challenge became an opportunity for us to innovate, become more accessible to our customers, and improve our methods of delighting diners.

Can you tell me about yourself as a chef? Where did you study culinary arts, and where did you train or work before opening Nono's?

I studied at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and then worked at Masse’s Pastries in Berkeley. In 1999, I moved back to the Philippines and started a home business selling cakes and pastries. I would supply cafés and restaurants with desserts until I opened my first Classic Confections shop in 2007. Years later, I partnered with The Table Group and put up Nono’s. As a chef, I gravitate towards classic pastries and food but I try to elevate it a bit.

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You are known as a pastry chef - what made you want to include savoury foods to your menu at Nono's? What was that change and learning curve like for you?

Shifting from a bakeshop to a full-service restaurant was hard, mainly because of the more complex operations involved. However, I’m fortunate to work alongside people who are considered experts in this field and to do work at a creative level.

One thing I learned is that when you make the project personal and clearly define what you are all about and work around that, it will pay off. Case and point: we wanted to offer a cheese stick product since it’s something I personally enjoyed eating as a child and everyone is also likely to have a story with it. With our concept and message in mind, we thought of ways to make it better by playing with the shape, using two kinds of cheese instead, and further elevating it with honey and truffle oil.

What were the lessons learned or challenges faced in your career and how have they made an impact on you?

The biggest challenge thus far is the pandemic. It was not something I - or anyone - planned for. Inevitably, our industry was among the hardest hit, and a lot of us in the business had to make tough decisions quickly. Meanwhile, every single member of our organisation sacrificed and worked very hard to get through it. This whole experience has shown me the importance of not taking things for granted.

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Which COVID-19-related measures do you think are here to stay (even post-pandemic) and how do you feel about them?

Deliveries will continue to play a big part in restaurant operations and al fresco dining looks like it is here to stay (at least on clear days). I also think restaurants will continue to pay heightened attention to safety precautions, not only to provide a safe space for diners but for their staff and partners as well.

Nonetheless, I am hopeful that we will return to life similar to pre-pandemic times, where we are able to convene in comfort once again.

What unexpected opportunities arose from the pandemic for you?

Despite the obvious constraints brought about by the pandemic, we saw and took the opportunity to expand further. We have more branches in the pipeline this year.

Another opportunity to come out of this, is restaurant owners and operators banding together. Brands that are commonly considered competitors are coming together to provide support and share advice with each other. The sense of community has never been stronger.

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How did the pandemic impact your personal cooking and eating habits, whether at home or at the restaurant?

Being housebound for months has granted me more time to cook and bake for my family. I also took the chance to experiment with new things and try out items from different home cooks. For takeout, I always order from Nono’s just so I am able to monitor that experience and see how else we can improve.

What did you learn about yourself during these challenging times?

As a business owner, I learned the importance of seeing the big picture, reinvention, and making fast and firm decisions to adapt to rapidly changing situations, all while keeping in mind how they affect our people.

What advice do you have for chefs who want to become restaurateurs?

Figure out your vision; the story you want to tell with your concept and let it serve as your north star. Also, look for people and partners that complement your skills.

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How do you think the F&B industry in the PH has fared compared to elsewhere in the world?

It would be difficult to say how we have fared as an industry compared to the rest of the world. What are the criteria for comparison? But I will say this:

As a whole, I feel the Philippine food industry has progressed. We now have more variety of concepts to choose from and a lot of talented chefs contributing to its growth. On the other hand, people enjoy eating and the whole experience that goes with it. I think more people watch culinary shows or travel to other places just to experience eating in certain restaurants. This comes with a demand for finer ingredients (French butter, imported produce and meat, etc.), signalling that diners’ palates have certainly evolved.

How best do you think consumers/diners can support you and the F&B industry in the short term, and the longer term?

Carve out at least a day in the week to support your favourite restaurants. Go out of your way to spread the word on good dining experiences and share it with friends and family. It also helps a lot to call restaurants directly for pickup. Also, something I found really thoughtful was when people refused to use their discount cards since they know it’s the restaurant that bears the cost.

Looking further into the future, how do you think restaurants and the experience of dining out will change as a result of the pandemic?

The pandemic has forced people apart for quite some time, and I’m sure most of us miss the interaction and just the experience of gathering around the dining table over good food and drinks. As such, I am very hopeful that people will be back in the restaurants in no time. In the meantime, let us continue to keep ourselves and each other safe.

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