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Leon Araneta: The new food rock star

By MILLET M. MANANQUIL, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 11, 2021 5:00 am

Leon Araneta dreamed of becoming a rock star when he was young.

“My love for rock started with KISS and quickly transcended to ACDC, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and The Doors,” says Leon, whose towering, handsome presence and musical skills could have easily made him a heartthrob.

His mother, Gemma Cruz Araneta, recalls that the guitar-playing Leon would give rock “concerts” to his Araneta grandparents and cousins whenever he went on vacation to Manila from Mexico.

I’ve learned that there are other ways to be a rock star. When I cook six kilograms of Basmati Rice before a hungry crowd and see their happy faces, hear their praise... that is the ovation I take with me at night into deep sleep.

“My daughter Fatimah and Leon were listening to rock music even while studying at eardrum-shattering volume. But I never stopped them because they were getting good grades then.”

“Leon does not only serve Indian food at Kashmir; he also puts heritage and culture on the table,” mom Gemma Cruz Araneta says.

Leon spent 26 years in Mexico where his mother, his sister and he took refuge from martial law. Whenever he would visit Manila, people would ask if he was a basketball player in malls and restaurants. Standing 6’3” tall, Leon would hang around with his cousins Carlo and Moris Cruz, who were also more than six feet tall.

Gemma says: “I once suggested that they have T-shirts made saying ‘I AM NOT A BASKETBALL PLAYER.’” Some people even asked if he was a fashion model or was willing to model.

“I’m glad I never listened. I was attracted to outdoor sports,” says Leon. “I used my long legs and reach in track and field. My events were 400m and 400m with hurdles.”

So what were his goals then? “My goals were never deep, they were just large. And while those tender adolescent years and twenties were centered on only material things, today all I wish is to live a life with no regrets.”

A younger, fiercer Leon: Meet the cool guy behind Kashmir, the Indian resto, now in three locations.

Leon’s fave memories growing up in Mexico were cross-country training at 6 a.m. on Saturdays in the Desierto de los Leones; mountain biking with Fatimah on a five-day excursion from the Sierra to the beaches of Oaxaca; discovering the night life in the newly restored heritage district of Mexico City; and enjoying hot Mexican tacos at any corner of the city “at any time when my metabolism could burn anything in 20 minutes.”

What did Mexico teach you? I ask him, and Leon quickly answers: “I have often said that the biggest gift my mother gave me was bringing me up in Latin America, while paying for my education in the British School in Mexico City. A rare and unique heritage I treasure very deeply. And Mexico also taught me that there’s more to life than white rice.”

Mexico did not teach him to open a Mexican restaurant in Manila. Instead, an Indian restaurant. How did that happen?

Leon opened his flagship Kashmir restaurant at the BGC, having closed the well-loved and better-known Kashmir restaurant on Pasay Road just before lockdown.

“Although I did not train as a chef nor did I cook professionally, I learned how Mexican food should taste and should look, what sauces are meant for each dish. Manila was bereft of Mexican food for decades. It was pointless to try finding good Mexican food in Manila until... I discovered Indian food!”

Naan-stop orders: The many Indian dishes popular at Kashmir for dine-in, delivery and catering are now faves of foodies.

Leon narrates how, as a student at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), he made his first Indian friends. He quickly grew tired of the cafeteria fare of white rice.

“And while pondering where else to find a decent meal, I was invited to join my Indian friends who huddled together in a corner, quietly tore at bread and had their fingers knuckle-deep in thick curries.”

Leon explains that although dishes, spices and flavors are different, what Mexican and Indian cuisines have in common is the love of flavor and heat. “Thick, spicy dishes to be enjoyed with flour — chapatis, naan and tortillas. Rice is involved in both cuisines but never as the main character. Both cuisines are colorful, intense with texture and layered in centuries of tradition and culture.”

Putting culture on the table

Culture is key here. As Gemma says, what Leon is doing is not merely serving Indian food; it’s about putting culture and heritage on the table.

A consciousness for culture, heritage and history is surely in the DNA of Leon, whose parents, Tonypet Araneta and Gemma Guerrero Cruz, and their forebears were education, art and culture stalwarts. Jose Rizal was Gemma’s great-grand uncle. One can say the thirst for social justice runs in the blood.

Leon was named after Leon Ma. Guerrero, the older brother of his grandmother, the late journalist-historian Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, who famously wrote translations of Rizal’s Noli and Fili while he was ambassador to the U.K.

He also famously screamed “Basta de barbaridades!” (Stop the nonsense!) when he learned that his niece Gemma won as Miss Philippines and would compete in the US as Miss International —which she won. Ambassador Ma. Guerrero also served as envoy to India when Leon wasn’t born yet. Later, Leon and his wife Karla traveled to India several times, once to attend a wedding in Indian finery.

The bestsellers at Kashmir BGC? Our samosas. We cannot make our samosas fast enough. Actually, it’s our biggest headache, a good problem to have. Whether vegetable, chicken or beef, they are made only as they are ordered.

Is Leon the new rock star in the kitchen? “Yes, I’ve learned that there are other ways to be a rock star. When I cook six kilograms of Basmati Rice in New Deli (Kashmir’s outpost in El Nido) before a hungry crowd and see their happy faces, hear their praise... that is the ovation I take with me at night into deep sleep.

“When I hear the children of our guests saying that our Chicken Tikka Masala is their favorite, I feel like the lead star of Los Tigres del Norte. When I see the true-blue families of Palawan visit our restaurant in El Nido for the second Sunday in a row and try other dishes on the menu, I know we are singing a tune that they like,“ shares Leon.

“We hold Taco Tuesdays in New Deli. Yes, and you’ll see my words converge on the menu. When we sell out the tacos I have made, prepared and served by hand, yes, I may as well be kicking speakers and smashing guitars on the bamboo floors.”

New Deli is nestled away in Lio Estate in El Nido. “We are staking our own claim on the West Philippine Sea,” smiles Leon. “New Deli is the new franchise concept of Kashmir, where Indian classics are created but local ingredients and context are accommodated. Tuna Amritsari Tacos and Shrimp Makhani Tacos are bestsellers on Taco Tuesdays.”

Kashmir BGC’s outdoor veranda, which seats 100, offers an airy view. Indoors, 80 people can enjoy the picturesque interiors.

Aside from Kashmir in BGC and New Deli in El Nido, there’s also Kashmir New Deli in San Antonio Plaza Arcade, the neighborhood Indian kitchen and deli right on McKinley Road in Forbes. It has eight seats indoors and about 30 seats in the outdoor area.

“On Sundays, we fire up our tandoor oven and offer Chicken and Beef Kebabs with our Biryani Classic for only P250. Local and imported beers, and our unchanged and unfazed Margarita is but a beckon away.”

The true and complete Kashmir BGC experience is on the third level of One Bonifacio High Street, with a capacity of 80 seats indoor and 100 seats in the outdoor veranda, which overlooks Shangri-La Hotel and the Philippine Stock Exchange Tower.

Your interiors at Kashmir BGC are beautiful, and the restroom is fabulous, I tell Leon.

“Why hold back? I’ve chosen to live a life with no regrets,” Leon quickly replies. “A trip to India will tell you that the Indian people are as adventurous and free with their interiors and architecture as they are with what they put on their tables. I was privileged to work with the best: architect Arturo Tolentino of ATMA. The Kashmir BGC interiors have about 16 colors, expertly selected by the masterful Cesar Caballero, a famed visual artist and personal friend.”

I should say that the Kashmir BGC restroom is one of the best I’ve seen among restos in BGC.

“We aim to make the Kashmir experience start at the door and to entertain your gaze across its walls even before you peruse the menu. Our restroomwelcomes PWD (people with disabilities).”

Hot spot for Instagram: Kashmir BGC’s restroom is a feast for the eyes.

It is huge! Looking at the Kashmir BGC interiors makes you see that Leon clearly has an eye for art and design. “He likes both classic and contemporary art,” says Gemma, who adds that Leon treasures the paintings he inherited from his Araneta grandpa.

A special dining room at Kashmir BGC is named in honor of Leon Ma. Guerrero, whose photograph with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during his term as Ambassador to India dominates the wall.

The LMG Room: A place honoring Ambassador Leon Ma. Guerrero, who once served as envoy to India, shown in mural photo with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

The bestsellers at Kashmir BGC? “Our samosas,” says Leon, who adds, “we cannot make our samosas fast enough. Actually, it’s our biggest headache, a good problem to have. Whether vegetable, chicken or beef, they are made only as they are ordered.”

Their tandoor specialties are bestsellers, too. “From our three tandoor ovens, the first to go are our Chicken Tandoori and Mutton Chops. Our Mutton Leg is a favorite for delivery. Our Kabsa is a 12kg fresh grilled mutton, a favorite for parties and large gatherings.”

Open kitchen: Samosas, Chicken Tandoori, Mutton Chops, and Roti Chanai are some of the bestsellers from the Kashmir ovens.

Then there are the usual faves: Chicken Tikka Masala, Palak Paneer, Roti Chanai and the Naans.

Kashmir was started by three sisters in 1975 who opened the first Indian kitchen in town, serving curries out of a basement on Makati Avenue. “A picture of this first location hangs proudly in Kashmir BGC. The parents of some of today’s rich and famous huddled there many evenings,” Leon narrates.

”These sisters led Kashmir through recessions and revolutions throughout several Philippine presidents, unfazed and unscathed. These three sisters are the true heroes, and thus represented through the symbol that is above the redesigned Kashmir logo. Today, they are still present in Kashmir as part of the consistency committee tasting our classic dishes regularly.”

I can imagine the handsome Leon singing in front of a tandoor oven, wielding an Indian ladle instead of guitar, giving his best performance in the Kashmir kitchen.

Applause.

Contact Kashmir BGC at 0917-531-6023 or 8844-4927; Kashmir New Deli at San Antonio Arcade, McKinley, Forbes Park at 0917-531-6018 or 8844-4924; New Deli in Lio, El Nido at 0963-334-2060.