Written by Kevin Choa / Photography by Hannah Beltran
For Chef Gene Gonzalez, a perfect world would be one where Filipino cuisine gains a place on the international gastronomic map. With a career full of travels and kitchen trials spanning several decades and a culinary legacy many Filipino chefs could only dream to have, this culinary renaissance man truly spares no expense in fulfilling this dream.
This June 6 marked the launch of two books: Modern Philippine Confections: Tropical Island Flavors and Treats and Breads, Cakes, Pastries, and More – just another important step in re-visiting the country’s culinary heritage and updating it to modern tastes.
Chef Gene helped revive legendary baker Efren Bunquin’s book “The Golden Treasury of Baking”, one of the country’s most comprehensive guides to baking in recent history, and turned it into this book (“Breads, Cakes, Pastries, and More”). He kitchen-tested each of the recipes himself!
Chef Gene signs a copy of his book “Modern Philippine Confections.” His never-ending sweet tooth is on full display here.
With all the new recipes, chef’s tips, and the entire development process it took to kitchen-test older recipes; both books can be considered two new additions to the ever-growing encyclopedia of Filipino cuisine. They not only give new interpretations of classical Filipino breads and pastries such as polvoron, egg pie, and the different varieties of kakanin (pastries and desserts made from rice or root vegetables), but also show a historical background of them.
Chef Gene’s inspiration for writing and testing out the recipes came from the food many Filipinos usually like to eat; in this case, kakanin and bread. He also combined the many experiences and memories he had growing up in and growing out of his grandmother’s kitchen. As the chef puts it: he learned how to cook just as soon as he could stand on a stool.
Cinnamon-Mango Bread: one of the breads Chef Gene recreated from Efren Bunquin’s book
A rather local take on the European or American Cinnamon Roll
Chef Gene is by no means a traditionalist. Throughout his years on the pass at the legendary Cafe Ysabel and at the helm of the Center for Asian Culinary Studies, most of his dishes have seen local ingredients and flavors transformed into new dishes using foreign (mostly European) techniques and flair. Nevertheless, it seems that Chef Gene never fails to leave his roots behind. It’s the everlasting Panlasang Pinoy (roughly translates to Filipino Taste) that always moves and shapes Filipino food as we know it.
The chef’s rule in developing new dishes for either Cafe Ysabel or one of his many award-winning cookbooks is to always ask: “What do Filipinos love to eat the most?” No matter how foreign-sounding a dish is like pastas or breads, you can’t take the Filipino influence away from any Chef Gene dish.
Some of Chef Gene’s books; most of these give new interpretations of classical Filipino cuisine
Looking at how Chef Gene’s passion to spread Filipino cuisine, it’s clear to see the importance of his approach in maintaining local flavors while seeking foreign flair. Developing and serving the future of Filipino cuisine (or any other cuisine for that matter) is hinged on two things: travel and experimentation. The second one is easily taken care of, with kitchens everywhere in the country trying to blend together the most unusual and often unsavory ingredients to create new dishes.
Fusion cuisine has also been on a never-ending rise, with many eateries dedicated to it popping up everywhere around Manila. For travelling, it’s not just limited to foreign countries and definitely not just in the food itself. It’s not just about getting to the place; it’s about being exposed to the local culture and heritage that matters. It’s about finding the answers to what people would eat on a daily basis and what they thought about what they were eating.
Chef Gene and Raymond Bunquin (son of Efren Bunquin) talking about the kitchen testing behind “Breads, Cakes, Pastries, and More.”
Even with the rise of so many international cuisines, going local will still be the dominant fixture of Filipino cuisine. These are flavors most of us like Chef Gene grew up tasting and enjoying as kids. Even if people would think otherwise, whatever we enjoyed eating back then still carries a lot of influence on what we enjoy right now.
No matter how casual or weird these favorites are, childhood favorites and other enjoyable eats growing up will always find its way to any chef’s menu. Forget being trained or overexposed to culture abroad; at the end of the day, a lot of the chefs we know and love eat, sleep, and breathe running a restaurant in this country. Surely, some local influence will slip into the menu. After all, local ingredients are cheaper and much more readily available.
After all this, though, no one can really tell the future of Filipino cuisine to the dot. There’s no way of saying which styles will dominate and which dishes could eventually fade into obscurity. Even then, a few things will always remain: the food, the culture, the heritage, renaissance men like Chef Gene, and our insatiable appetites for the next big thing. I’m saying renaissance men over chefs; it takes an exceptional chef to leave his or her mark on the cuisine of any country. Perhaps even the future Chef Gene talks about, with dominance of local flavors, might not be the only development that’s coming soon. For now, our tastebuds wait and see for what’s coming next, hungry for more.
Chef Gene’s books Modern Philippine Confections and Breads, Cakes, Pastries, and More are both available now at major bookstores or through Anvil Publishing. Also, Cafe Ysabel has since re-opened from its original site in P. Guevarra Street in San Juan! For any inquiries about the restaurant or book, check them out through the contact details below.
175 M. Paterno Street, San Juan
11AM – 11PM
Anvil Publishing, Inc.
7/F Quad Alpha Centrum Building, 125 Pioneer Street, Mandaluyong
477-4752 / 477-4755 to 57