International Invasion

Is Manila Ready for International Celebrity Chefs?

Words: JJ Yulo/Illustration: Krizia Lim

First published in July 9, 2014 issue of Pepper.Ph

 Illustration by Krizia Lim for Pepper.PH

Illustration by Krizia Lim for Pepper.PH

I am pretty sure you can feel the energy in the air these days. Despite our perennial problem of poverty, corruption, and what have you—there is no denying that there are forces at work out there that are making things happen. This is especially true for the hospitality industry. Restaurants of all shapes and sizes and concepts are opening faster than you can call a waiter. Good for us guests, but surefire white hair inducers for restaurateurs. It’s a battle, and you have to be on top of your game. Also consider if you will as well the much discussed impending ASEAN integration (which basically means biz can open up to non-Pinoys around the region) which to me spells out that the floodgates will open for international dining concepts and the onslaught of foreign chefs. Surely even a few rockstars.

 David Thompson of Nahm, Bangkok

David Thompson of Nahm, Bangkok

With the likes of food demigods like Mario Batali, Daniel Bouloud, Nobu Matsuhisa, Wolfgang Puck, Alain Ducasse, Tetsuya Wakuda et al just around the corner in other Asian countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and even Bangkok (hello David Thompson!)—you can bet the big boys are scoping out our shores to see if they can further fund their burgeoning empires by shoving grub down the maws of us takaw Filipinos. But really—is Manila ready for international celebrity chefs?

Well, forgive me for copping out here, and not giving a firm answer, because in my book it’s still a very debatable maybe. There are still factors to consider.

Good eating often comes at a price, and when you have to import to get the results you want, you can bet that price isn’t a small one. Places like this work in other parts of the region because they have deep pockets.

The biggest and most obvious concern, of course, would be price. I know for a fact that pareng Mario will most probably insist on getting the best he can get his hands on. That’s how he operates in Singapore with Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza. Sure, maybe your chicken wings are from nearby Malaysia, but you can be sure your delicious roasted cherry tomatoes were flown in from Holland, your creamy and luscious burratta cheese from a farmer in Napa Valley, your pork from a hipster Japanese swine expert in Okinawa (I’m making all these up, of course, but you get the picture.) So while I am certain that any true Food Network and Asian Food Channel junkie from the PI will cause a tsunami of drool at the thought of scoring a famed hot and crusty Pizzeria Mozza pie here in Manila—that person may also pass out from sticker shock. Good eating often comes at a price, and when you have to import to get the results you want, you can bet that price isn’t a small one. Places like this work in other parts of the region because they have deep pockets.

So what do we make of the news of the fancy Nobu Hotel opening in SM’s City Of Dreams (complete with a Nobu outpost, of course!) and Wolfgang Puck’s CUT Steakhouse (in Singapore it’s SG$100 JUST FOR THE STEAK)? How are they going to do it —what with the two aforementioned restaurateurs who are, of course, some of the biggest food celebs in the world? They should work mainly because of their all-important location. They will be in the midst of sharks of the gambling variety: loads of cash from high rollers will be flowing through the COD—they have to eat sometime, right? Well, anticucho, tiraditos, and rather large ribeyes to the rescue, prices be damned and shoved out the window—especially if they’re winning at the poker tables—certainly not a reflection of how the rest of the metro is willing to part with their hard earned money (although it’s a no-brainer that some people will just follow their stomachs and go for it).

Please don’t think, however, that it is impossible for a known chef to do something successful here. Nothing is impossible IF you can be flexible. American chef Walter Manzke, one of the owners of Wildflour Cafe + Bakery in BGC (also currently of Republique in LA) imports stuff too, sure, but if he finds any local stuff that he crushes on, and there’s enough of it to go around, he’ll surely give it a shot. Mind you, while he may not be as well known as the Orange Croc’d one, he is as top notch and world class as it gets. If he can pull it off, then there is surely a way to get it done.

If someone like Rene Redzepi, the famous deity chef of Noma in Copenhagen, would consider an outpost here, he with his style of foraging and cooking, and his avant garde Scandinavian ways —I’m not quite sure it’ll sit well with most people. At the end of the day, we’re still beef gravy and rice peeps at heart, and Noma might be slightly ahead of the curve.

There is another factor to consider, and that’s concept. Just because we are in the midst of a local food Renaissance of sorts, doesn’t mean you can go open a roasted insect café, no matter how protein laden the little buggers are. Some things still can’t fly here, methinks, especially from a business perspective. For instance, if someone like Rene Redzepi, the famous deity chef of Noma in Copenhagen, would consider an outpost here, he with his style of foraging and cooking, and his avant garde Scandinavian ways—I’m not quite sure it’ll sit well with most people. Sure, those who are curious, those who’ve travelled, those who have cash to burn (of course it isn’t cheap!), and those who call themselves “foodies” will get a streak of the food hornies and go for it, but I would think the buck may just stop there. After all, at the end of the day, we’re still beef gravy and rice peeps at heart, and Noma might be slightly ahead of the curve.

 Chef Walter Manzke of Wildflour Cafe+Bakery Manila and Republique, LA

Chef Walter Manzke of Wildflour Cafe+Bakery Manila and Republique, LA

Are we ready for international chefs? As an eater, I would say sure. Is it sustainable? That’s still questionable. However we undoubtedly live in an age where the food world is looking our way and even planting seeds. Heston Blumenthal, for example, is closing his Fat Duck in the UK and moving it for 6 months to Melbourne. After he leaves, Fat Duck Melbourne becomes Dinner By Heston Blumenthal, and Melbourne is all the luckier for it. Rene Redzepi is heading to Tokyo in January for a few weeks, to open a sort of “limited edition” Noma, but utilizing mostly Japanese ingredients. If things like this are happening, then certainly Manila is not far behind.

Wouldn’t that be a cool thing—for people abroad to talk about our chefs with the same reverence as we do theirs?

I for one would love to see us with an economy robust enough, where we have more to spend on international celeb chefs and their creations. In the meantime, what I would love more is for our local boys to dig deeper than they ever have before, and come up with food and places that are at par or maybe even surpass that of their foreign counterparts. Now wouldn’t that be a cool thing—for people abroad to talk about our chefs with the same reverence as we do theirs? It’ll happen. I don’t know when, but it will. Believe.