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Why chefs need to rethink food during the pandemic

By BEA TRINIDAD, The Philippine STAR Published May 16, 2021 5:00 am

Mise en place is a French culinary phrase that means “putting everything in place.” Chefs pride themselves on this very act of being prepared for every restaurant service. They spend hours meticulously preparing every ingredient in a dish.

The previous year has turned this act of prepping upside down with what felt like an invisible war over the pandemic. No chef could’ve prepared for the loss of dine-in customers.

Chef Sau Del Rosario, an eternal optimist about opening Café Fleur in Poblacion, is not like any other who would give up. On April 19, he invited three other chefs — Mikel Martija of Cocinalo, Michael Cheng of CCA Manila and Victor Barangan of Eastwood Richmonde Hotel — to an event he coined, “Culinary Diplomacy,” to cook dishes from cuisines they knew well.

Diplomacy is “the art of advancing an idea or cause without necessarily inflaming passions or unleashing a catastrophe.” In this case, it is a tool as sharp as a knife.

These chefs, even with all their accolades and experience, are humbled by the pandemic. They are students again, having to go back to their personal stories to make sense of the puzzle we are all in.

Each chef shared their knowledge in their respective cuisines: Filipino, Thai, Basque, Korean, and Balinese. This idea of uniting chefs was diplomacy on a plate and the start of a series of monthly events at Café Fleur starting this May. 

Chef Sau said, “Especially these days, we cannot travel. There are so many people who want to experience a lot of culture through food. I thought it was a smart way to bring in everything in one kitchen. And we learn how to discover each culture through food. Often we do cooking demos, but we miss the story, the heart of the food. The story behind the food is like the missing (piece of) a jigsaw puzzle.”

Chef Sau served his grandmother’s recipe of bilo-bilo, which she used to prepare during fiestas. He also prepared sisig, Thai catfish, green mango salad, and ulang (river prawn) guava sinigang.

All these chefs had a story to tell that completed the imaginary jigsaw puzzle.

Whether you speak French or Kapampangan, food is a universal language that you can take with you.

Chef Mikel Martija is from Spain’s gastronomic oasis, San Sebastian. He owes his culinary training to Escuela de Cocina Luis Irizar and Michelin-star restaurants like Arzak and Elkano. Compared to Filipino cuisine’s bold flavors, he relied simply on olive oil and salt to bring the best out of the product: Salpicón de Pulpo (Octopus Salad), Pescado a la Menier (Pan-fried Fish), and Torrija (Spanish French Toast). 

He relished learning from the other chefs. “This is the moment to test so many things, instead of being focused on cooking and selling it,” Martija says. “You can do anything. So maybe it’s the moment to learn more.”

In contrast to Basque cuisine, which is all about few ingredients, chef Victor Barangan recognized the punchy and lingering flavors of his dish, Balinese Style Sate Babi (Satay Pork Skewers).

He said, “Bali satay uses ground peanuts, Kecap Manis, shallots, chilies, and garlic.” He is not one to shy away from flavors, a quality that exists in Balinese cuisine. His advice for other cooks and chefs during this time: “Don’t stop experimenting.”

Chef Michael Cheng prepared dishes that brought him back to his days studying authentic Korean cuisine in Daejeon, South Korea, in 2012: Bibimbap, Haemul Pajeon (Seafood Scallion Pancake), and Galbijjim (Braised Short Ribs).

As a culinary teacher at CCA Manila, he has been teaching from home since the start of the pandemic. So this event was a welcome change: “I take every opportunity, even if it’s really hard and things are not going as planned. I think every opportunity should be treated as a learning experience.”

These chefs, even with all their accolades and experience, are humbled by the pandemic. They are students again, having to go back to their personal stories to make sense of the puzzle we are all in.

In a way, food can be a diplomatic tool for chefs to speak amid the chaos.

Chef Sau realized this during his internship days in France: “I was a stage in a two-Michelin star restaurant where people did not want to talk to me. There was a language barrier. But every time I cooked something for them, they started talking to me, and it bonds everyone.”

Whether you speak French or Kapampangan, food is a universal language that you can take with you.

This occasion is an example that shows diplomacy doesn’t just happen in politics, embassies, or international relations; being diplomatic can be applied to our daily life. It is the art of advancing an idea, making people feel heard, and treating any table of people with respect.

In the diplomacy of food, there is a chance to wake up our taste buds again.