Cover Photo: Locavore Official Facebook Page

From enduring a burnout in his early 20s, to basking in Locavore's success, and now facing the heartbreaking realities of the pandemic, Mikel Zaguirre's winding journey has granted him invaluable insights. Allow us to share them with you, too.

You’ve likely heard of chef Mikel Zaguirre because of his popular Filipino gastropub, Locavore. Admittedly the “bread and butter” of his many dining concepts, Locavore was an immense success from day dot. “The reception was really good! We prepared a week’s worth of supplies for the soft opening, and on the night we opened we ran out of everything. We had to shut down for five days to replenish our stock.”

However, Mikel’s culinary journey is endlessly winding. After graduating with a major in culinary arts, the fresh graduate launched his career as the executive chef at a Boracay resort. Not long after, he ended up absorbing the roles of resort manager, accountant, and many more duties beyond the kitchen. He soon went on to work at French bistro La Reglade, take on the executive sous chef position at Eastwood Richmonde hotel, and even work as a culinary consultant for the television series Junior MasterChef Philippines. Despite all that, interestingly, he does not consider himself a chef, but a consultant instead.

Now in his fruitful career, Mikel has been privileged with opening many more successful projects. But like many others over the pandemic, he’s faced the heartbreaking realities of closing down promising concepts too.

Keep reading to learn more about Mikel’s culinary journey: 

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You were thrown into a big role during your first-ever culinary job. What was that experience in Boracay like? 

Even before graduation, I already had job offers. I ended up choosing the one in Boracay to be my first. It was kind of weird - they offered me the executive chef position right away, and I wasn’t executive chef material. But I took it on for the experience, I took it because it was in Boracay, and I was sure it was going to be fun. So, I became the executive chef… and I also ended up being the manager of the resort, and the restaurant. I ended up as the accountant, the marketing manager, the purchaser - basically, I did it all.

How important would you say on-the-job training and experience is in F&B?

Extremely. My first job in Boracay was where I learned all those skills that made me who I am now. I had to learn fast, I had to mature fast, I had to grow up fast. It was fun, but it was overwhelming. After that, a mentor messaged me to say a Michelin chef was coming to the Philippines to lead a French bistro in Makati, and she asked me if I wanted to join. At that time, I automatically grabbed the opportunity. So I came back to Manila and became part of La Reglade’s opening team.

After that, the Richmonde group offered me the executive sous chef position at their new hotel - Eastwood Richmonde Hotel. I didn’t know what I was doing because this was a really big responsibility, but I just wanted to try it out. At 23 years old, I opened the hotel with 80 employees under me. There was supposed to be an executive chef joining me, but they didn’t end up hiring one so I was reporting directly to the F&B directors and the directors of the hotel. Then, I was pirated by ABS-CBN to help conceptualise Junior MasterChef Philippines and oversee the culinary technicalities for the show.

After that, I didn’t know what direction to go in. I was burnt out. I had to stop.

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How did you cope with the burnout? What did you do instead?

I went back to my alma mater, and they offered me a teaching job. Teaching was my take-a-break moment. It was the best time; it was a very humbling experience. In the restaurant industry, everything moved so quickly, everything was driven by perfection and excellence, and it was very “my way or the highway” - then I went into teaching kids and that was all about patience. Everything they say about teaching... it’s true - it’s humbling and all about sacrifice. It's like cooking for someone and then seeing that someone finishing the food. That was one of my favourite parts of my journey.

What would you say your big break was in the restaurant industry?

After teaching, I realised I really wanted to do restaurants again. I missed the fire, I missed the action, I missed the exciting parts of cooking 100 dishes at the same time, I missed the heat. 

I had a lot of small restaurant clients both in and out of Manila, but, my first breakthrough to get back in the industry was Locavore. I presented the partners - who are now my partners - with the Locavore concept. They wanted a Filipino concept because Filipino restaurants were getting a lot of traction in New York with the likes of Jeepney and Maharlika. There was also the resurgence of gastropubs. Why not do a gastropub that serves Filipino food with a twist you can’t get anywhere else. They were really happy with it and they asked me to join, teach them how to run things. So in terms of my big break? Locavore. Locavore talaga [it was really Locavore].

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The pandemic taught me to diversify, to not put all my eggs in one basket.
Mikel Zaguirre

What is an F&B consultant? 

I’m a consultant, so basically I help people build their concepts. Much like what you’d call “build and sell” in construction - that’s what I do, but for restaurants. Clients approach me, they ask me if I can help build the restaurant of their dreams! And I crush it. I say, “that’s not going to work because x, y, z.” And I ask them “Are you sure you really want to do this? Restaurants are really hard. Most often than not, restaurants close. It’s a big investment, are you sure?” I don’t have the perfect blueprint for opening a restaurant, but I do have the experience for it, so I can help. 

I really focus on the creative parts of opening a restaurant - I handle the direction of branding, of the food, of the concept, and also the menu and the training. I do end up having different roles with different partners. Sometimes I handle the whole operations, and other times like in Kampai I only handle the food. The great thing about it is that I get to network and I get to learn from a lot of businesspeople and wise partners.

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How did the pandemic affect and change the way you run the restaurant from service to menu and food?

The pandemic has affected us in a big way. We closed down Taqueria, Fyre in Poblacion, and BangBangBar, because of the pandemic. That’s the thing - I went all-in in Poblacion the past two years because that was the place to be. I built a lot of bars there, and now I’m left with two in the Poblacion area - OVO and Kampai.

Even Locavore is having a really hard time right now. There’s a mentality that you wouldn’t really order Filipino food if you’re eating Filipino food at home. For us, takeaways and deliveries are not going to be as successful as they are for burgers and pizzas - we know that for a fact now. We have to be more creative in terms of how we recreate the restaurant experience at home.

What have been the biggest lessons learned during the pandemic?

The pandemic taught me to diversify, to not put all my eggs in one basket. Since closing BangBangBar, my partners and I ended up opening a drive-through COVID-19 swab centre. I equated it to opening a restaurant: I did the concept for it, the mission and vision for it, specified the target market. It was fun!

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What are the most significant challenges you’ve overcome as a chef, restaurateur, or consultant?

Definitely the situation now, the pandemic. It’s always hard when you have to choose between the business, your people, or yourself. It’s really tough. Do you cut your roster to a size that ensures you can take care of everyone on the team, yourself included, but accept that everyone else will need to work harder with a smaller team? For me, I want to create more concepts, to create more and more and more. I don’t want to stop because I want to take care of the people who take care of my business and give them opportunities in the same way that I was given opportunities when I began. The end goal is to create more, so I can help more.

What advice do you have for other restaurateurs and chefs?

Stay strong - the mental aspect of the industry is really very challenging. I was there, and I'm still going through it. There are times when I just want to stop everything. But there is more at stake - maraming naka depende sa 'yo [so many people depend on you]. All your people, all their families. My advice? Just stay strong. Help where you can. And if you have a choice between being right or being kind, I think you should always be kind.

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Help where you can. And if you have a choice between being right or being kind, I think you should always be kind
Chef Mikel Zaguirre

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

Let’s not complain too much - everyone should be forgiving, especially now. You have to be forgiving because these are truly unprecedented times; no one has the perfect equation for how to overcome these challenges.

What do you think the future holds for F&B in the PH? And looking further into the future, how do you think restaurants and the experience of dining out will change as a result of the pandemic?

I think it will be like this for a long time. Most of our restaurants are shifting towards cloud concepts. Honestly, I think that’s the direction, pandemic or not. I think there will be a big market for it. Deliveries will continue to be a big part of our lifestyles. I actually think big companies like fast-food giants are the most affected by it because everyone is now competing in the same space. Now, everyone is on one platform and we’re getting a small piece of a bigger pie. It’s a double-edged sword because everyone is our competition, but we have every opportunity to face it head-on. We just have to be patient, study the market, and be creative. When everything does go back to normal, [the cloud] will just be the gravy on top that allows you to cater to a bigger market.

As for dine-in… it’s going to be more special. Chef-driven restaurants will be your special occasion, sit-down event type of luxury. It will be more expensive I’m sure, so chefs will have to be more creative too. 

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