I get thrilled when I eat in an interesting restaurant, and then the owner or chef invites me to their kitchen. There, I get to discover more about the resto other than what I have enjoyed from my plate.
Such was the case when I dined at Deo Gracias, a new Spanish restaurant opened by the country’s most famous cake guru, Heny Sison, in collaboration with Spanish chef Alex Del Hoyo Gomez.
I wanted the dishes to represent what I experienced in different regions of Spain, interpreted in a manner that is unique and innovative.
In their kitchen, written in red, on stainless steel, were these words: “Move like a ninja. Cook like a grandma.”
The words form the mantra of Chef Alex. And even more colorful stories are written — rather, tattooed — on his body. He looks hip, he is handsome, he has a sense of humor. And most of all, he speaks from the heart.
“In every kitchen I arrive, I always write this on the wall,” Chef Alex smiles.
This made me think that he might have been a vagabond wandering through the world’s kitchens. I was partly right. Wandering, yes. But vagabond, no.
Chef Alex has been working all his life. For eight years, he had a career in special education in Spain. “I was a teacher for disabled persons. I quit when I realized that the admin did not really take good care of the disabled, and I got frustrated suggesting some measures,” he narrates.
He was a working student who always took a second job: cooking. He left his Burgos hometown and went to Madrid, where his girlfriend opened a shop, and he, a restaurant.
“Then my girlfriend and I broke up (he is a romanticist and his love stories are tattooed on his arms). I also realized I was getting very tired, working 12 to 14 hours daily. I sold my restaurant, left Spain and decided to get fresh air and broaden my culinary skills in Asia.”
He was easily hired as a chef or consultant in restaurants in Vietnam and Thailand.
Fast forward, he landed in the Philippines, where he joined the Las Flores group. Until the pandemic happened.
Most of his Spanish chef friends went back to Europe. So Chef Alex started a food business, serving mostly the Spanish community here. “Food we missed from our grandmas,” he told them. It was a hit.
Meanwhile, Heny Sison was looking for a Spanish chef for her Spanish resto, which she had planned even before the pandemic. Her search ended when she interviewed Chef Alex, who was recommended by Heny’s Spanish chef friend. After a trade test, he passed all of Heny’s requirements “with flying colors.”
Heny was already working on a menu with her culinary team, and with Chef Alex on board, her wish list of Spanish dishes — some of which are not available in Manila — was completed.
“I wanted the dishes to represent what I experienced in different regions of Spain, interpreted in a manner that is unique and innovative,” says Heny. So her collab with Chef Alex combines traditional with modern.
“We did a lot of recipe testing and trials until we got the right taste for every dish. Chef Alex has mastered the art of Spanish cooking that allowed him to develop his own food culture that is lusciously tasteful, sophisticated and contemporary.”
There’s their Callos a la Bilbaina, a classic dish slow-cooked to perfection with Chef Alex’s family heritage recipe, to the succulent Cochinillo Castellano, featuring a scrumptious suckling pig imported all the way from Spain and cooked in a special way.
“We also tested cakes, bread and sausages of Spanish origin, which we are now selling at the La Tienda deli section of Deo Gracias,” explains Heny. “For bread, we have Pan de Aceite, Regana, and Pan de Cristal. For cakes, there’s Tarta de Santiago, Burnt Manchego Cheesecake and Tarta de Ron.”
For the ultimate dining experience, Deo Gracias has designated spaces: El Comedor for a la carte indoor dining; El Patio for outdoor dining; and La Barra for cocktails. There are function rooms on the second floor.
Deo Gracias was taken from the Latin phrase “deo gratias,” which means “thanks (be) to God.” The name was suggested by the priest who blessed the place. It’s also Heny’s way of expressing gratitude for a life well lived through cooking. “Enjoy life through good food,” is her motto.
Heny has been cooking good food in her two other restos in the same Quezon City area as Deo Gracias: Victorino’s, a Filipino restaurant specializing in Ilocano dishes; and Heny Sison Desserterie, which showcases what she excels in.
Heny is, of course, known for her birthday and wedding cakes, which are favored by the elite. She opened her School of Cake Decorating and Baking, now better known as the Heny Sison Culinary School.
But her childhood dream was really to be an artist “because I love to draw, and always got high grades in art and home economics.” Her own culinary education came from her mother, who whipped up delectable desserts and dishes at age seven.
“My mother first taught me how to work in the kitchen,” shares the former Heny Banzon.
After taking AB in Social Science and Political Science in UP, she worked in a bank and then in a government agency until she realized what she really wanted to pursue: her love for cooking and cake decorating. So she took cooking, baking and cake-decorating lessons during her free time.
After marriage to business wiz Benny Sison, they moved to the US, where Heny studied at the Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery.
Where else can you find a Spanish resto run by a renowned culinary guru? Where the cool chef — he with his colorful tattoos — moves like a ninja? And cooks like a grandma.
Upon returning to Manila, Heny opened her eponymous school of baking and cake decorating. Her famous students include the Lorenzana sisters, Ana de Ocampo and Margarita Manzke of Wildflour; Sau del Rosario of Cafe Fleur; Aileen Anastacio of Goodies and Sweets; Jackie Ang Po of Fleur de Lys; Karen Young of Karen’s Kitchen; Maricel Cunanan, Pixie Sevilla of Forget-Me-Not; Baby Yulo, Gay Vasquez, and Juda Liu of Pasteleria Costa Brava.
Heny went to the US again to study at the California Culinary Academy, and the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone for baking; and the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park NY for cooking.
Though she has her Heny Sison Culinary School, Heny still believes every trip to the world’s culinary capitals and famous food places always brings new things to learn and enjoy.
Which is probably why her daughter, Mela Sison, who inherited Heny’s pretty looks as well as flair for art, lingered in New York too long — more than 10 years — to study and work.
She took up BS Fashion Merchandising Management and graduated magna cum laude at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology New York). She continued in Parsons for Retail Buying in 2018, SVA for Design in 2019. She took internships while an undergrad at Peter Som, Alberta Ferretti, Tibi and Helmut Lang, and freelanced at Kate Spade, Alexander Wang and Eileen Fisher.
She worked at Bird, a multi-brand luxury boutique, and freelanced for the Corporate Citizenship and Sustainability team at Estee Lauder, including the MAC Aids Fund.
Mela has finally come home, and is a creative consultant at Deo Gracias, helping her mom in designing — from packaging to uniforms to plates. But from April to July 2022, Mela will take a three-month graphic design course at the Shillington School of Graphic Design London.
Thank God for Deo Gracias. Where else can you find a Spanish resto run by a renowned culinary guru? Where the cool chef — he with his colorful tattoos — moves like a ninja? And cooks like a grandma.