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Fine dining in the future

By THERESE JAMORA-GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 09, 2023 5:00 am

I hadn’t seen chef Rob Pengson in a while, since his pre-pandemic stint with Beso Beso, so it was good to hear from the talented chef again, who’s back with a new and forward-thinking concept called Chef.

“Chef is a project in fine dining that aims to keep our love alive,” says Rob, who’s been keeping busy teaching and mentoring students at his Aleanza Institute in Makati. “I've been in education for 20 years, alumni is 16,000 already. A lot of chefs love fine dining because they're able to cook with such passion. But as a business model, it can be very challenging. Rene Redzepi of Noma said it's not sustainable, diba?”

Chef Rob Pengson

Rob and his chefs thought about how to keep fine dining alive, “because it can be quite precarious if you do the standard brick-and-mortar restaurant. So we said, why don't we follow all these tech companies? The first thing to go is the brick-and-mortar essence. It fixes a lot of problems with fine dining—the escalating rent, the depreciation, the fact that when you're old, people don't want to go to you anymore. They'll go to the new place that just opened.

“So we came up with Chef. We call it ‘fine dining in the future,’ because now we're not bound by geography. We do it as a popup.”

And so Chef was born, in an Aleanza office that Rob and his team transformed into an elegant dining space with flowers, oriental rugs, botanical wallpaper, white tablecloths, and of course, fantastic food.

Scott and I have a table to ourselves and I love the little lamps that brighten and dim with the touch of a hand.

Chef’s signature: Cones with ricotta, fig and foie gras

One of Rob’s longtime chefs, Nicey Reyes, serves and explains each course. The first is a Cone that’s been a Pengson signature ever since his Goose Station days, when he popularized tasting menus. Lovely flavor combinations filled our cones: mine was made with ricotta, while Scott’s had fig and foie gras.

As a caviar lover I was excited about the next course, Crab & Caviar, cauliflower panna cotta topped with black caviar, cut texturally and flavor-wise by daikon rose petals and crab remoulade. They were so generous with the caviar that my craving was fully sated, if not exceeded.

Crab & Caviar: Cauliflower panna cotta topped with black caviar

Next came Choux-quette, Scott’s with prosciutto, Manchego, and a biscuit tuile. Rob remembered that I was pescatarian and had one specially made for me, with truffle honey and black pepper that may have been even better than the original.

The next course, Tuna Tartlette Horseradish Crème Fraiche, was served at the pass, where Rob introduced us to his mostly female chefs, some who’ve worked with him from as far back as The Goose Station. Pengson admits that he’s found that women tend to be more focused on their work in the kitchen than their male counterparts.

After consuming the excellent tartlet, we headed back to our table, where a Chestnut Mushroom Velouté was served an espresso cup— creamy, rich and comforting. 

Next came Salad Ratatouille—a classic ratatouille, according to Nicey, with tomato sorbet, red pepper and anchovies. As a red pepper fan I loved its tartness and the piquancy of the sauce.

Refreshing cocktails are served at Chef.

For his main, Scott had Steak Diane with white sauce, Cabrales cheese and Bordelaise sauce. “We just wanted to make something classic,” according to chef Nicey.

“We feel like a lot of the cooking is lost with all the modern Instagram styles,” Rob points out. “So, Sauce Diane and stuff like that, you don't see that anymore. It’s really delicious. So we do everything traditional French, but we don't limit our flavors to traditional French.”

Fine fish: Chilean seabass with garlic sauce at Chef by Rob Pengson

Chef Yancy Ramirez served me Chilean seabass with garlic sauce and unagi with balsamic sauce. The contrast of the savory seabass with its crispy skin to the sweetness of the unagi was revelatory. 

Since Chef’s menu highlights big and bold flavors, pastry chef PJ Ramos wanted something fresh for dessert, so he made vanilla-bean panna cotta with cardamom, topping it with fresh blackberries, strawberry compote and coulis, and crème diplomat cones.

For the last course Ramos played around with the textures and layers of chocolate, creating a Persian tiramisu meant to be paired with coffee. While the bottom layer was a cacao crackling chew, inside was crème diplomat infused with cardamom and marsala wine, at the center were rose petals infused with chocolate, and on top, a cacao sable and tuile—a signature of the house.

“Our business model is we want to make customers like you happy, so good service, nice ambiance, good food, but at the same time we offer this concept to other businesses, like small hotels, small resorts,” Rob explains. “If your family has, let's say, a nice ancestral home in the province but it's a busy place, we can transform it into something that's operating. We’re even trying to approach the LGUs. So if you have a little place and you want to bring life into it, Chef can stay there for a week, a month, or a year. Something that's always new. Never gets old. That’s what Chef is. A lot of people think I named it after myself, but what powers the movement? It’s really all the chefs behind it. It's the passion of the chef; it's the sweat of the chef. The plan is it's a business that can scale in multiple areas, but at the same time it supports our craft. The idea is Neoclassic French, available anywhere and everywhere.”