MANILA (Reuters Life!) - The Philippines may not have much of a reputation as a culinary destination, but it has produced a number of top-notch chefs who've made a mark in global kitchens, often thanks to Eugenio "Gene" Gonzalez.
Chef, restaurateur, best-selling author and teacher rolled into one, Gonzalez was a former bond market dealer who set up his first restaurant, Cafe Ysabel, at the age of 23, and it's still going strong 27 years later.
The 50-year-old self-confessed chocoholic, who studied behavioral science, hosted gourmet cooking shows on Philippine television in the 1980s and he has written several recipe books that have made it to Manila's best-seller lists.
In 2000, he set up "The Center for Asian Culinary Studies" from which about 500 chefs have graduated so far.
Gonzalez spoke to Reuters recently about his first love and why he thinks passion is not enough to make a great chef:
Q: How and when did your love for cooking begin?
A: "I started cooking when I could stand on a stool. I grew up in a kitchen. We came from a very special town that is well known for entertaining and for food. My family entertained the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, then Prince Norodom (Sihanouk), who later became king of Cambodia, and Arthur MacArthur (a former Philippine governor-general), they were so many."
Q: What inspired you to go into the restaurant business?
A: "Our family has a food company. We have a bakery that sells and distributes to supermarkets, and we have the oldest taco and tortilla company. My siblings continued the business, although I am pretty much on my own with the restaurant.
I opened Cafe Ysabel, which later became a chain of 9 restaurants. But, somewhere along the way, I felt we could not rely on one line of business, so we delved into food consultancy.
We have helped set up 65 restaurants and 10 major food systems. We have a very good batting average. Of the 65 restaurants, 60 are still operating."
Q: How did you come up with name of Cafe Ysabel?
A: "I named the restaurant after my aunt. I found it very sexy because her name was spelled with a Y."
Q: Has Cafe Ysabel undergone many changes since it was established 27 years ago?
A: "Not really. Cafe Ysabel stood the test of time. Thirty-three percent of the menu has stayed, and these are the things that you will never be able to take out because they are such classics, like the Pasta Ysabel, Steak ala Pobre, Ceasar Salad, spaghetti with "angry" sauce, and Cafe's Puttanesa."
Q: What sets it apart from other restaurants in Manila?
A: "It is very casual. It is not pretentious. You can come in shorts. But, what make us different is that, we are not scared to try a lot of new things. We have been a haven of gastronomy.
We have been known for "custom made" menus. We have done a lot of very wild dinners. During the era of cigars, we did cigar dinners. During the 90s, I did chocolate dinners. I am a chocoholic and I am a certified Belgian chocolate instructor.
You go to my office, you go to my room, within arms reach, there is chocolate everywhere."
Q: What made you decide to put up a culinary school?
A: "I was taking more apprentices and we were doing a lot of research work anyway, plus we needed a food styling department.
We do a lot of commercials, advertisements and pictorials. We needed a research arm, and an educational institution is a perfect research arm. We graduate 180 students a year, although we have more students who enroll for the short courses. The full course, which takes a year, costs 325,000 pesos ($6,800), and about 65,000 pesos for the short courses.
A: What makes a great chef?
Q: "Everybody talks about passion, but, you also need to be creative and you need to have administrative skills as well.
But, there is one aspect that chefs tend to overlook -- the importance of being fit. You need stamina. If you are not fit, you will not be able to endure the rigors of standing up for long periods of time.
Q: What is in store for the school in 2009?
A: "We are coming out with more innovative courses. We are coming out with longer pastry program. We are coming out with a longer wine studies program. The Asian program, which will be the most comprehensive Asian program in the country, is coming out soon. Once you have completed the course, you can work in any Asian kitchen in the world.
Q: Has the business been affected by the economic crisis?
A: "We have yet to see, because everytime there is a crisis that is the time we expand.
Q: Where do you see yourself a few years from now?
A: "I don't know, probably still working. I don't think I will be quitting or retiring, that is not my nature."
MENUDO SULIPENA (Oxtail Stew)
Taken from "Cocina Sulipena: Culinary Gems from Old Pampanga" 1 kg oxtail, cleaned and washed
2 tbsp butter
3 tbsp olive oil
1 head garlic, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 red pepper, seeded and roasted
1 green pepper, seeded and roasted
dash of paprika picante
cup ham, cubed
cup sliced chorizo Bilbao (Spanish sausage)
1 cup tomato sauce
1 tbsp tomato paste
t tbsp cooked chick peas
1 tbsp Spanish brandy
salt and pepper
Pressure cook oxtail for 20-25 minutes or simmer with enough water to cover until tender. Debone and cut into 1/2-inch cubes. Set the stock aside.
In a casserole, heat butter and olive oil. Saute garlic and onion, then add red and green peppers and paprika. Stir fry for 2-3 minutes. Add oxtail, ham, chorizo, tomato sauce and tomato paste. Add stock and simmer over low fire for about 10 minutes. Add chick peas and brandy. Season with salt and pepper. (Serves 6)
Editing by Miral Fahmy