Maria Estela "Maritel" Nievera grew up amid the enticing aroma of good food wafting from her grandmother Juliana and mother Ester's Capampangan kitchen in a neighborhood where everybody shared a passion for cooking. She learned the secrets of glorious Capampangan food at her Apong Juliana's knee. Surrounded by cooks and gifted with the Capampangan taste buds, she eventually honed her taste for food.
"Capampangan cooking is very basic, but it's rich in flavor," recalls Maritel Nievera, the beauty and brains behind the Cabalen Group of Companies as its president/CEO. "It's very simple, like ampalaya sautéed in ginger with sardines. My lola would tell us to clean thoroughly and to cook it longer. It's the long cooking that makes Cabalen food really delicious because the longer you cook, the better the flavor comes out. The shelf life is also longer; you can keep the food longer."
Too salty and too sweet are a big no-no. "So, if we have tibok-tibok (Capampangan panna cotta), you will not taste the sugar, but just the flavorful goodness of pure carabao's milk," Maritel points out.
On top of that, it's probably no secret that at Cabalen, everything is made from scratch because there are no shortcuts to freshness and quality. "Like for our kare-kare, we make our own peanuts and pound them ourselves," Maritel describes. "We do everything in our central kitchen/commissary so the taste or recipe is consistent throughout the Cabalen branches. During the pandemic, we focused on centralizing all our signature dishes so we could keep an eye on and maintain the quality of our food."
Thirty-six delicious years and counting
At 17, Maritel was already running her Bahay Pasalubong and Ituro Mo, Iluto Ko, the go-to place for those craving authentic, traditional Capampangan food. You can say that Maritel already knew her onions long before she opened her first Cabalen (Pampango word for “townmate” or “friend”) restaurant on West Ave., Quezon City, in 1986. But back then (as now), competition was tough and Cabalen had to be a cut above the rest.
"I didn't want to do the same things that the others were doing; I had to do things differently," Maritel confesses, as can be gleaned from the book The Cabalen Kitchen — The Best of Pampanga's Culinary Treasures with Maritel Nievera that's loaded with culinary secrets and recipes (available at Cabalen restaurants).
Thirty-six years ago, Maritel was just a small-town girl whose big dream was to put Capampangan food on the culinary map. And she did, bringing the best of Pampango specialties from the country's culinary capital to Manila and we remember how they awakened and tickled our lethargic taste buds for the first time. There was the iconic sisig (chopped pork head and cheeks, onions, chili peppers seasoned with calamansi, topped with egg, and served on a hot plate) of Angeles City, the original recipe of Sisig Queen Aling Lucing, as well as the much-loved kare-kare (Pinoy stew with thick savory peanut sauce) of San Fernando, the asadong manok (chicken stew) of Sta. Rita, Guagua, with its alluring citrusy fragrance, the beringhe (hearty, tasty, Filipino-style paella) from the northern part of Pampanga, and a lot more.
Then and now, Cabalen's lavish buffet spread dazzled even the jaded palate. In a TV kare-kare cookoff, Cabalen was awarded as the "Home of the Best Kare-kare" by Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho.
From a cozy mom-and-pop kind of place on West Ave., Cabalen soon grew to 60 branches all over the Philippines, including franchise stores: Baguio, Naga, Lucena, Urdaneta, La Union, Bulacan, Subic, SM Clark, SM San Fernando, Cebu, Bacolod, Iloilo, Mindanao (Butuan, Davao, and soon to open, Zamboanga).
Business with a heart
With her inspiring business success, Maritel, always a step ahead of the competition and never running out of innovative food concepts, received the Asia Pacific Entrepreneurship Award in 2016. Her eldest three children — Adji, Ian, and Frances — have followed in her revered culinary footsteps, while youngest son Dion is learning resto tasks after school work.
To her kids and the young entrepreneurs, Maritel has this gem of wisdom to share: "First and most importantly, you have to keep your integrity. You must have the sincerity of intentions. Don't start a business wanting to make money out of everyone and everything. Second, know your product. In the food business, it's not enough that you know how to cook. You must understand what good food is."
Know your product. In the food business, it's not enough that you know how to cook. You must understand what good food is.
No half measures and nothing half-baked for this consummate restaurateur. With her keen eye for detail, she can spot an errant dish, like, for instance, if the burong hipon lacks fermentation.
While Maritel may have a good head for business, she also has a big heart for the less fortunate and marginalized sectors of society.
In her letter to Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte-Alimurung, Maritel wrote, "As we continue to recover given the pandemic, we considered every means possible to extend the needed assistance not only to our employees but the general public as well. It was during that time that we realized how difficult it was, if not impossible, for PWDs (persons with disabilities) to sustain a decent means of livelihood. We then decided to speak with the QC PDAO (Persons with Disability Affairs Office), through company representatives, and discuss a potential partnership with the objective of hiring PWDs and empower members of that sector by giving them an opportunity to overcome their respective disabilities and become productive citizens."
Gracing Cabalen's 36th-anniversary celebration, Mayor Joy Belmonte asserts, "Employing PWDs is part of our thrust in our city government, which is based on an agenda of inclusivity. Of course, this sector is usually marginalized and very vulnerable. So, I'm very grateful for this initiative to give employment to persons with disabilities."
We ask Mayor Belmonte: Are there PWDs in Quezon City Hall?
Mayor Belmonte quickly replies, "Yes! We have a program that hires persons who have disabilities. They're very productive; in fact, much more productive than those who have no disabilities because they're very concentrated on their work, so you'll find them usually in IT, data encoding, and the like."
To which Maritel adds, "We have our Cabalen Culinary and Training Institute, where we train PWDs. We're going to open a coop. Our projects should be able to help, so we chose the QC PDAO."
And now, Cusina Estela by Chef B
On its 36th birthday, Cabalen gets a new look, while Cabalen Catering gets some tweaking, too.
"Cabalen Catering has been around for a long time, but we decided to improve on it and include international dishes," chef Bernard Gaudinez tells us. "We have 100 new dishes, a combination of American, Mediterranean, Italian, French."
Cusina Estela by Chef B introduces the super buffet service that combines classic Filipino and Asian cuisines with new selections of Western cuisine presented on a uniquely designed buffet table spread.
Its mission/vision is clear: To become the top-of-mind catering company in the industry by providing quality delicious dishes with exceptional service by a professional, passionate team. And ultimately, to create beautiful memories for clients.
For today's lunch, we get a mouthwatering taste of Cusina Estela by Chef B's menu. There's the good old Cabalen Classic Filipino Cuisine we've loved all these years: beef kare-kare with bagoong, lechon paksiw, pansit puti, beringhe, bangus embotido, fried hito with buro at mustasa, to name some.
It's easy to get high on Cusina Estela’s “Authentic Thai Cuisine” with its scintillating offerings, such as tom yam halaan, crispy catfish salad, chicken pandan, fish fillet tamarind sauce, and mango sticky rice.
Then there's the “International Cuisine”: wild mushroom paté, wild truffle mushroom pasta, pritchon sisig taco, pan-seared salmon in sundried tomato cream sauce, pesto-infused chicken with mozzarella, braised beef chorizo in paprika garlic sauce, and mango panna cotta.
But of course, there's pritchon (pritong lechon) sitting on a platter.
"All this is just a sampling of the Cusina Estela by Chef B menu," Maritel discloses, as we polish off our second plate. "The menu will have many variations."
Chef Bernard clarifies, "If you have a budget, we can work around it, around your location, or whatever your event requires, including the coffee after the meal. We can customize the menu to make it cheaper for you."
The big news is that Cuisina Estela by Chef B has not forgotten its little clients, as it caters for kiddie parties and events, too. "We're accredited with popular kiddie events places that have rides," Chef Bernard informs parents. "We have separate menus for the adults and the kids."
All these 36 years, Cabalen has brought so much excitement to the dining scene and to our lives. And we certainly look forward to what Maritel is cooking up next!
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