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Traveling through the world on a plate

By SCOTT & THERESE GARCEAU Published Feb 22, 2024 8:00 am

We traveled to Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Spain and back again via a dinner by chefs Chele Gonzalez and Rhea Rizzo—the latest team-up in Anya Resort Tagaytay’s Samira Culinary Collection series, where guest chefs are invited to collaborate with the chef behind Samira by Chele.

Chef Rhea Rizzo is known for her bespoke private dining restaurant Mrs. Saldo’s in nearby Silang, Cavite, her family’s personal farm/country estate that she converted into a culinary destination, complete with artisanal bakery and cooking school.

“When I started working in restaurants, I found out that my daughter was special needs, so I had to take a step back and obviously, she was a priority,” Rhea relates. “But for those 10 years, while I was building the network for her sessions and therapies, I traveled with my husband and took classes in Indonesia and Bangkok (where she staged at the Michelin-starred Gaggan). I never actually thought I was going to open a restaurant. I just really wanted to go and cook.”

Culinary collab: Chefs Chele Gonzalez of Samira by Chele and Rhea Rizzo of Mrs. Saldo’s in Silang, Cavite

We hadn’t eaten at Mrs. Saldo’s (the resto is named after a red zinfandel called Saldo, which means “balance” in Spanish; wine is Rhea’s husband Dave Rizzo’s passion and he’s amassed a cellar of prized bottles that Anya general manager Mikel Arriet told us admiringly might be even better than Anya’s), but after trying Rhea’s dishes we were so impressed we want to book a table as soon as possible. 

The 10-course dinner opened with her Hamachi Crudo with beurre blanc, wakame oil, ikura roe and puff pastry—such a refined, striking dish with the buttery fish flown in from Japan. “I really like their quality of the Hamachi and unfortunately in our waters it’s not possible,” Rhea says. “Obviously you want to be more global and sustainable, but for this particular course I really wanted to pair the Hamachi against the yuzu and beurre blanc.”

Chef Rhea Rizzo’s Hamachi Crudo with beurre blanc, wakame oil, ikura roe and puff pastry

Chele’s Potato & Caviar Takoyaki with truffle, egg and onion was a fun mouthful that transported us to the streets of Japan, where we would regularly stop for the popular octopus balls.

The two chefs collaborated on the refreshing Tuna Tartlet with laarb dressing, cilantro, mint and a smoked coconut ice cream Chele concocted, “which I thought it was so fantastic with the tuna and guanciale,” Rhea gushed.

“She is very easy to work with, very alive and fun,” Chele says about Rhea. He chose her “because we’re very close, we’re neighbors. These days the sense of community between chefs is very strong. And I think that is also maturity when you work together with your colleagues, it means that you are in a stage that understands that together you are stronger than by yourself.”

Chef Chele Gonzalez’s Potato & Caviar Takoyaki with truffle, egg and onion

For her part, Rhea says about Chele, “He’s one of the OGs, right? You can tell his experience, because me, I was just running back and forth trying to get things done, and he was just, like, so calm.”

Their appetizer trio was paired with a Bohigas Gran Reserva Extra Brut, said to be one of the oldest Cavas in Spain, dating back to 13th-century Catalunya. Yet it was bright and steely dry.

For the next course, Fresh Coconut Ceviche with snapper, tiger’s milk, calamansi, cashew and corn, sommelier Chico Silva served a Gruner Veltliner, one of two Austrian wines this evening. The Gruner, a white known for its minerality, washed against the spicy ceviche, tamping down the fierce chili and swirling with its flavors.

Tuna Tartlet

The two chefs again collaborated on an Iberico Secreto BBQ Skewer with Thai shrimp salad and a spectacular peanut sauce, with Chele venturing more to Rhea’s side of the world by doing satay and incorporating more Thai and Indonesian flavors. “She has a lot of personality in the Asian and Thai flavors,” he notes. “I like how she blended Thai flavors with Filipino ones.”

Meanwhile, in deference to Chele, Rhea was thinking of touching on his Spanish roots, “but then he said, ‘It's okay, Rhea, we can do modern European.’ My food has always been kind of all over the place. Yes, it's Asian, but maybe because I'm also French classically trained—I do the French classical sauces—those things kind of tie together.”

Both chefs collaborated on the Tuna Tartlet and Iberico Secreto skewer with Thai Shrimp Salad.

However, her strong Asian background, particularly in Thai cuisine, was evident in her next dish, Thai Fish Curry with Hamachi, shallots, curry and peanut sauce, which she says is her most personal dish. “I lived in Bangkok on my own for three months,” she relates. “And that was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life but also the most unforgettable for so many reasons. Sometimes the things that are both traumatic and just really authentic and enjoyable, it marks differently in your head. So I try to recreate that with the Thai fish curry.”

Austrian wine returned for these two dishes: a ruby red Blaufrankisch from Burgenland, Austria, revealed leather and spice notes, blueberries and blackberries, complementing all the strong Asian flavors.

Wagyu Beef Cheeks Pichi Pichi with blue-pea rice by chef Rhea Rizzo

We shifted to France for the next two dishes: with a Bordeaux Blend from Chateau Pre Lalande estate. A truly expressive red that, after a few glass swirls, released a full-bodied, elegant palate with deep red berry and black fruit notes. This sat well with Rhea’s Hokkaido Scallops with Black Ink Rice, and Wagyu Beef Cheeks Pichi Pichi, coated with fresh coconut flakes in a bath of spicy sambal and pickled quail egg. The Wagyu was chewier with the pichi-pichi coating, but led to a delicious, hearty center, almost like eating a dessert, that was magical with the Bordeaux Blend. Scott highly enjoyed. 

Rhea said she was inspired by kakanin in creating this dish: “I thought when I was making the rendang, ‘Oh, it's coconut-based, why not be playful with it? So I dredged it in coconut to make it look like it's a pichi-pichi, but it's really rendang with sambal and the nasi lemak, which we made from scratch. And the quail eggs are pickled just to cut through the richness.”

Chele Gonzalez’s deconstructed Buko Pie in Textures

Desserts were Rhea’s Rosemary Ice Cream with Earl Grey caramel and Lemon Crumble plus Chele’s deconstructed Buko Pie in Textures, the glistening strips of coconut flesh topped with latik ice cream resting on a bed of crumbled cookies. Both were served with Café Anya, the resort’s delicious spiced coffee with cinnamon.

Chef Rhea describes her food as a modern take on Asian “because there’s Peranakan, there’s Thai, there’s banh mi, there’s Cambodian, there’s Pinoy also with the pichi-pichi, but touching on different parts of Asia. I like tying them together.”

Chele says, “Now that we go to globalization, it’s interesting because most of us, we like when the food is translated to something that we understand. Sometimes we like authentic and sometimes we like also interpretation.”

Through this meeting of the minds and palates, both have influenced each other and emerged altered. When Rhea got the invitation from Chele to cook for Samira, she was a bit intimidated. “I always feel like I'm not ready,” she admits. “But when the universe or God asks you, you kind of have to step up, right? And for me, every time I do that, especially with that kind of a caliber of a chef, you can't help but grow. Always like propelling yourself forward to the best version of yourself, and that only happens when you have the courage to say yes—as much as I want to say no—because I’m really super shy, believe it or not. But it always pays to say yes.”

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then Rhea should feel very flattered because Chele told us, “I feel so inspired for the new menu that we’ll probably do a fish curry.”