It may not be Valentine’s Day but in the food world, every day is a good day to celebrate love: the love of a chef for his wife, his passion for cooking or a particular ingredient, and our universal love for food. Here are three such love stories:
CHEF CHELE’S KITCHEN: Dating then baking
Chef Chele Gonzalez met Teri Echiverri through a mutual friend at Sofitel Philippine Plaza, where Teri worked. Even if the long hours they both worked in F&B made dating a challenge, the instant attraction was difficult to deny.
“Teri is intelligent, funny, and I can be myself around her,” Chele says. “And that’s how I fell in love.”
For her part, Teri fell for Chele when she saw him in his element. “The first time I visited his restaurant, Gallery Vask, I was excited to see what he does,” she relates. “And I was able to observe another side: his character, his commitment, passion, and dedication to his work — all the qualities I was looking for in a man. His values, intelligence, and positive outlook on life made me realize he was The One.”
Now the couple is happily married, and their first “baby” is Chef Chele’s Kitchen, born during the pandemic and whose first issue is Burnt Basque Cheesecake, an eye-closingly good confection riding high on the wave of trendy quarantine dishes.
“Teri and I always wanted to start a business together and this was a perfect opportunity,” says Chele. “Before the pandemic, if you asked me if I would ever bake a cheesecake in the Philippines, I would say you are completely crazy, but I was surprised when I did this recipe in my last collaboration in January 2020 in Hong Kong. I took this recipe and evolved it and people loved it — it was really a hit.”
Chele first encountered the recipe in his native Spain, working at Restaurante Arzak in San Sebastian. “The passion between and among the chefs is very high, so when we go out, we would always talk about food and recipes,” he says. “This recipe is traditionally in the Basque country and it was passed from one chef to the other. Over the years, I was able to refine it, and made it my own.”
Chele and Teri use high-quality European cream cheese for their cheesecake. “In the past I have used different kinds of cheeses, but I found that for the local palate the European cream cheese that I use goes very well,” notes the chef.
Another secret of the burnt Basque cheesecake is to bake it at a very high temperature: “The cheese and sugar create this caramelized crust but it still has that creamy lava texture inside,” Chele says. “And never put it in the refrigerator.”
While he may be the boss in the kitchen, at home it’s a different story. “Even if I pretended to be the boss, at the end of the day before we go to bed, Teri will still be the boss,” laughs Chele. “Our roles are, she manages the business, handles everything, and I give all the knowledge and the culinary support.”
Teri, meanwhile, holds her own apron strings and even has the courage and devotion to cook for her hubby. “What can you cook for a chef?!” she exclaims. “Honestly, I only attempted once. Well, he said it was good; however, I’m really not sure whether he was just being modest because he doesn't want to sleep in the doghouse, hahaha. So I always end up preparing a simple breakfast for him. He loves my omelet, cheese and mushrooms with toast and vegetables. I guess for him it's the thought that counts.”
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Chef Chele’s Kitchen Burnt Basque Cheesecake comes in two sizes: 6.5 inches (P950) and 8.5 inches (P1,550). Order from @chefcheleskitchen on Instagram and Facebook or message Chef Chele’s Kitchen on Viber at
BREAD: From Paris to Poblacion
In what could be an episode from Emily in Paris, French chef Emmanuel Piret met his Filipino wife Armi while he was having drinks with a friend along the Champs Elysees, Paris' most famous shopping street. She was calm and reserved. He was full of energy and talked a lot. Opposites attracted, and they fell in love. They got married, and Armi started working with chef Manu at his Parisian bakeries Boulangerie Saint Joseph and Boulangerie de Trivaux, until the couple eventually decided to move to Armi’s home country.
“My wife and I used to spend our yearly summer vacation here in the Philippines and I enjoyed it already back then,” says chef Piret. “We made a promise to retire at 40 and what better place other than the Philippines to retire, having a Filipina wife?
Having grown up in the Vosges region of France, a postcard-pretty place near the German border, chef Manu’s interest in baking was piqued when he would accompany his artisan plumber/electrician father to troubleshoot equipment at the bakery of his dad’s friend.
He studied baking while getting work experience on the side, and became proficient enough to move to Paris, where he opened the aforementioned bakeries, specializing in country breads with cereal, dried fruits, and grains.
Now chef Manu has come out of retirement to assume the mantle of Dr. Bread, and has brought his bread-making expertise to Poblacion, Makati, where classic French baguettes, croissants, pains au chocolat, and modern hybrids like cronuts and cruffins issue from his oven.
“I make all the breads from A to Z,” says Piret. “The only person helping me at the bakery is our driver, to deliver the orders.”
I heard somewhere that French baguettes taste different outside France because the secret lies in the water used to make it. I ask chef Manu if that’s true and he replies, “I don’t know if it has something to do with the water; I think it’s more about the method. The recipe to make bread is quite simple, as long as you respect the right temperature. Each person can add his or her personal touch or expertise to make it better. We do use imported flour, and other imported ingredients like artisan butter from France.”
Water or not, Piret’s breads are so authentic and good I had another Emily in Paris moment after biting into his torsade, a lovely soft rope bread wound with Belgian chocolate. His baguette is similarly transporting, staying crusty on the outside and soft on the inside even after a few days on the dining table.
Home bakers have proliferated thanks to the pandemic, but there is something to be said for authentically French bread made by French hands, and possessing French heart, soul and tradition in every bite. Just what the doctor ordered.
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To look at the full menu and order, go to @dr.breadmanila on Instagram, “Dr. Bread Manila” on Facebook, or Viber 0905-513-5129 for details.
WAGYU STUDIO: A love affair with Kobe beef
Like many Pinoys who’ve traveled to Japan, Lui Clavano had tried many different kinds of wagyu, but didn’t fall hard for it until his friend Carlo Alvarez told him about this one particular Japanese brand: “The wagyu there, it's insane, it's different.”
That brand was Wagyumafia, a temple to all things wagyu in Tokyo. Lui was so impressed that he, his brothers LA and Mico, and Carlo offered to partner with the Japanese chain in the Philippines. They also became friends with one of the brand’s top chefs, Yoji Kitayama, who had also worked as head chef of Morimoto Bangkok.
“Yoji ended up loving it here and we really got along,” Lui says. “We became, like, really good friends.”
Then the pandemic hit. The process of opening Wagyumafia stalled, but the Philippine partners were ready to rock and roll, so Kitayama came up with a bright idea: “We might as well just do our own thing and create our own concept.”
The result is Wagyu Studio, which is also a temple to all things wagyu, but with a difference: they also serve premium, high-quality seafood from Japan (like toro, fatty tuna belly), and this luxe combination of Kobe beef and Tsukiji Market-level seafood prepared in the expert, creative hands of Kitayama makes Wagyu Studio a special, not-to-be-missed experience indeed.
Wagyu Studio is divided into two sections: The 28-seat Yakiniku Lounge, where customers can order a la carte and cook wagyu on a table grill according to their liking; and the 22-seat Live Kitchen, where chef Kitayama prepares a 10- to 11-course tasting menu facing a huge, socially distanced communal table.
The Live Kitchen is Kitayama’s culinary playground, outfitted with the Rolls-Royce of kitchen toys, the Josper grill.
“It’s rated one of the best grills in the world,” Lui says. “It's like an oven/grill, and we use imported Japanese charcoal.”
Josper-grilled Kobe beef is the main event on Wagyu Studio’s tasting menu, which starts off with their signature Tricolor Tartar, which gets its three colors from raw wagyu (red), uni from Japan (orange), and caviar (black) layered on top of a nori crisp.
It’s not often you get three of the most luxurious ingredients in one bite, and it put me in mind of Anthony Bourdain, who said he could happily die with a piece of high-test uni hanging out of his mouth. I wouldn’t mind having this as my last dish.
Next came Toro, and Kitayama highlights the best qualities of the ultra-fresh tuna sashimi with dots of yuzu and a zesty onion dressing.
Cheesy gyoza followed. Our server, Russ Javier, said that while gyoza is normally filled with pork and cabbage, ours featured wagyu, of course, enclosing cheddar cheese and a spicy dollop of miso paste to sweeten the whole, unctuous deal.
In lieu of a statin to clear our arteries we got Q, a fresh cucumber salad topped with Korean chili salt to cleanse our palates.
Next came Tebasaki, a chicken wing from which the chef slices away the flesh to expose the bones. We soon found out why: the tasty juices cool in the meat next to the perfectly crisp skin, over which Kitayama sprinkles some of his “magic powder.” The result? A bite so perfect it’s like tasting fried chicken for the first time.
Cured Kobe involves dry aging the wagyu for a week in salt and spices before slow-cooking it in a water bath. It’s a good dish, but acts more as a curtain raiser for Kitayama’s Chateaubriand Sando, a truly mind-blowing mini sandwich featuring the tenderest part of the wagyu tenderloin accented with a fruit and vegetable jam — possibly the best steak sandwich we’ve ever had.
Not to be missed also is their Old Fashioned, typically involving whisky, sugar and bitters with a cocktail cherry; but here it features a slice of wagyu jerky immersed in the glass, and the cocktail itself is infused with rendered wagyu fat and a bit of honey. Wagyu, of course, pairs beautifully with whisky.
For the main event, our server presented six thick steaks on a board, which were then prepared by Kitayama on the Josper grill. What came to us was four slices of Kobe beef — four slices of heaven, more like it — that were so succulent it was like burying your incisors into a perfectly toasted beef marshmallow — crusty on the outside but pillow-soft and juicy within.
This tasting menu is well worth it in that Kitayama is given the freedom to explore traditional Japanese flavors but knock them out of the ballpark. At the very least, it’s a hint that there’s a world out there still waiting to beckon our palates out of lockdown.
Lui tells us that their Kobe supplier just won second place in the Kobe beef championship, and they’re bringing the winning cow to Wagyu Studio in December. “Since people can’t go to Japan, we want to bring Japan to you.”
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Wagyu Studio is located at Unit 201B, 1/F The Finance Centre, 9th Avenue corner 26th St., Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, tel. 8426-5351, and mobile 0917-180-0657. Visit www.wagyustudio.com and follow @wagyustudio on Facebook and Instagram.
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Follow the author on Instagram @theresejamoragarceau and Facebook (Therese Jamora-Garceau).