This generation has never experienced a pandemic. Some have never even encountered the word. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out worldwide in March this year, the situation scared everyone.
The economy took a tumble. One of the hardest hit was the food industry. For months, restaurants were allowed to open only for pick-up and delivery, and so most of them decided to stay closed until the lockdown shifted to the more relaxed General Community Quarantine (GCQ).
Some chefs—used to stressful situations—decided that they had to do something to break out from their safety bubble and face the challenge. After all, they had rent and other bills to pay, their employees needed their jobs back, they had suppliers to support and customers to feed.
We chose five chefs who made the biggest impact during the pandemic—in a year when we all ordered food delivery.
1. Chef Sau del Rosario
Count on chef Sau del Rosario to adjust immediately to a situation. Forced to stay home alone in his hometown Angeles, Pampanga, in March he easily got bored but quickly turned that into something productive. He headed to the kitchen and started dabbling with baking—his waterloo—and came up with his own modern interpretations of classic favorites, such as buko pie and egg pie. He called them Vuco Fye and Klassic Heg Fye.
“I posted them on Facebook and people started ordering. So I continued developing other pie and bread variants, posted them, and orders started coming in, too,” Sau explains.
Thus, his roster of new bakery items included Tsokolateh Heg Fye, Huve Brioche, Vananah Walnut Tsoko Bread, Henseymadah, and Apple Walnut Cinnamon Bread. He brought all these delightful goodies to Metro Manila and its surrounding areas via a per-area daily delivery schedule. He was happy that it turned out to be a lucrative business and he was able to employ his staff again.
Not long after, he thought of bringing Kapampangan specialty dishes to Manila since chef-driven restaurants in Pampanga had to close down following the lockdown. During pre-pandemic times, city folks loved to drive up to Angeles City to eat. Sau thought, how about bringing Pampanga to Manila via a cloud kitchen?
Brilliant idea, said the other Pampanga-based chefs, and so they formed a team, rented a commissary in Quezon City, and started offering Sau’s Truffled Crispy Pork Belly Macadamia Kare-Kare, chef Den Lim’s Kilayin, chef Leonard Garcia’s Pindang Damulag, and chef Cherry Tan’s Kalderetang Baka, among others. Delivery of these goodies thrived, until the lockdown eased up, allowed dine-in in restaurants, and people to travel. The chefs went back home to Pampanga to open their respective restaurants, including Sau, who reopened his 25 Seeds restaurant.
“It was a short but successful run,” he says.
He also spent a lot of time conducting cooking demonstrations. And here’s the thing: In the midst of the pandemic, Sau is opening a new restaurant during the holidays. Café Fleur is moving from Pampanga to its new home in Poblacion, Makati, where it will offer the same menu that diners loved. His pies and breads, led by his best-selling Vuco Fye, will also be available at the restaurant on a regular basis.
2. Chef Myke ‘Tatung’ Sarthou
Chef Tatung always had his hands full with simultaneous projects. When the lockdown was enforced he was running two relatively new restaurants—Talisay Garden Café, which specializes in Filipino cuisine; and Pandan Asian Café, which features Asian specialties—whose operations he was forced to shut down initially.
When the lockdown relaxed and finally allowed dine-in towards June, he reopened the two and slowly rebuilt his customer base. They are doing well again now.
While waiting for the local restaurant scene to normalize, Tatung reinvented himself and rose to digital stardom via his YouTube channel, “Simpol.” He went full time on it, converting a portion of his house into a kitchen studio, where he and a staff of 10 produced an average of 60 videos a month. He conducted cooking demos that featured easy-to-prepare dishes. Apparently, this was what “quarantiners” needed and wanted—simple yet creative and delicious dishes they could prepare for the family while in community quarantine—and so his subscribers shot up to over a million during the pandemic and continues to rise steadily.
Simpol became such a phenomenon that it spun into a cookbook, Simpol the Cookbook, which was released just in time for the Christmas season. Big hit it turned out to be because it was sold out in a week’s time.
The highlight of Tatung’s pandemic activities had nothing to do with personal or professional successes, however. It had everything to do with his charity work. Right after Typhoon Ulysses wreaked havoc on Marikina City and several municipalities in Rizal, he was already cooking up pots and pans of arroz caldo and menudillo for ravaged communities. For the next week or so, feeding programs occupied his time. He set aside everything else to focus his energies on cooking for typhoon victims.
“It was spontaneous action. I just felt that something had to be done immediately, and I did. Everything snowballed from there. Sponsors started sending their donations, and the team used these in our feeding programs,” he says.
3. Chef Jackie Ang Po
The pandemic slowed down chef Jackie but it did not stop her from doing what she loved most. Yes, she had to close Fleur de Lys Patisserie for a while, but when the strict community quarantine relaxed a little she adjusted to the new setup of pickup and delivery.
She used her extra time to develop new products for the bakeshop, including her now famous Chicken Pie and Beef Pie as well as cakes like Sans Rival, Mocha Caramel, and Graham Apple Crisp.
“It had to be business as usual. We could not afford a standstill because we had a store to run. We had to be innovative with our products especially during the pandemic,” Jackie explains.
She also put together new recipes for her cooking classes, which she held via Zoom, becoming one of the pioneers offering online cooking classes.
She also teamed up with her regular sponsors to conduct free online cooking classes. In a way, she helped shape the food trends that came out of the pandemic because she shared exciting recipes such as Ube Cheese Pandesal and Korean Garlic Cheese Bread.
On top of it all, she was able to give quality time to her family, attending to the needs of her two kids, who started regular online schooling recently, and even helped her 15-year-old daughter Kylie launch her own bakery line, SweetenedPH.
4. Chef Edward David Mateo
Chef Edward is one of the most talented pastry chefs in the metro. At the helm of La Royale Patisserie, which produces an assortment of cakes and pastries for several cafés and restaurants, some of which are located in key cities of the country, he is big in talent and in heart.
He runs a commissary, no physical store, and orders are placed either online or through calls and social media networks.
When the pandemic broke out and strict lockdowns were put in place, Edward had to stop supplying the usual cakes and pastries to his partner establishments due to logistics problems. But he continued developing new products and came up with his new trifle in tubs line—Ube & Custard Trifle Cake, Strawberry Shortcake Trifle, and Chocolate Overload Trifle Cake—which turned out to be a big hit.
It was so successful that S&R decided to carry the line in its New Manila, Libis, Congressional, Commonwealth, Aseana, Circuit Makati and Shaw Blvd. outlets.
Since he had been offering cooking classes even before the pandemic, Edward decided to continue teaching and converted them into online cooking classes.
He scored another triumph by forging business partnership, this time with chef Angelo Comsti, to put up MinatamisPH, a line of kakanins in tubs which people could order online for delivery. Its initial offerings were Biko and Sapin-Sapin, but now it also includes Maja, Cassava Cake, Ube Kalamay, Inutak, Suman Cassava, Palitaw, Kutsinta, Paralosdos, Ginataang Mais, and Minatamisang Saing na may Sago at Langka, available every Thursday and Sunday
When Typhoon Ulysses left many places in shambles, he set up feeding programs and distributed hot meals to affected residents with the Office of the Vice President. When VP Leni Robredo visited Tuguegarao, Cagayan, one of the hardest hit by the typhoon, Edward mobilized some of his students as well as industry partners to join him in preparing hot meals to be distributed by the OVP.
The best thing about him? He always thanks the Lord for all his blessings. “Thank you, Jesus” is a post you often see on his FB wall.
5. Chef Jam Melchor
Chef Jam has two virtual food businesses—Yesplate Delivery, a pioneering healthy food delivery service making calorie-counted meals; and Gastro Grocer, a specialty grocery store offering Kapampangan dishes—which thrived during the pandemic.
“There was a surge in food orders during the lockdown. Our typical 80 pax per day became 160. With Yesplate, one pack comes with breakfast, lunch and dinner, calorie counted, and we cater to people with dietary restrictions,” says Jam.
Jam chose to continue working with the Department of Tourism (DOT) and the Department of Agriculture (DA) as head of the Slow Food Youth Network Philippines and the Philippine Culinary Heritage Movement.
With the DOT, he worked on a food mapping project. “It’s important to do food mapping because you get to discover the true resources of a place and get to preserve its food culture. We’re starting with Pampanga, which is the food capital of the Philippines,” he explains. His job is to train tourism officers and prepare them for the actual food mapping project by organizing capacity building seminars featuring speakers with grassroots knowledge on the subject.
With the DA, he collaborates on preparations for the annual Filipino food month that takes place in April and assists the IATF Task Force on food security.
Just recently, specifically during the pandemic, Jam got to work with the Philippine National Red Cross, which asked for assistance with its food donation drive and feeding program for the victims of Typhoons Rolly and Ulysses housed in evacuation centers in Rizal. It was their first time to produce and dispatch hot meals, since it had always been just canned goods and instant noodles before, and Jam’s contribution as a volunteer chef helped them do it right.