Remember Nomama? It was a ramen shop that came before the Japanese noodles became the rage. It had a strong following, and a buzz that lasted for a full foodie year before everyone moved on to the next big thing. Then came I Am Kim, a hip bibimbap shop that served up what most K-places are now offering. Ping Pong Diplomacy had its run as a progressive Chi-fusion restaurant that offered more than the usual dim sum. All these were concepts crafted by the playfully progressive inner workings of Chef Him Uy de Baron’s mind.
Industry insiders call the chef’s restaurant concepts ahead of their time, and he agrees. “Nomama was four or five years ago. I think this is the time for it. When I fell in love with ramen in Japan, everyone was going crazy for it there, while in Manila it was just a menu option in sushi chains. Even its concrete industrial look, everyone else is doing it na,” he smiles.
This time, it's Peru’s home-cooking that caughthis fancy. His latest interpolation into the Manila dining scene is Cocina Peruvia, now on its third branch at The Podium. “I like doing projects that are not run-of-the-mill also. I really put a lot of thought when someone pitches a concept or idea to me, particularly on it being something that will capture the market.”
The chef in Him is a risk-taker, in the sense that he prefers to create big ripples instead of riding a wave that is already there. He grins and pronounces, “If I think of putting everything in a business perspective, I might not have opened the restaurants I have opened. For me, if I feel that it is a really great idea, I go, ‘screw it, lets do it!’
“If I think of putting everything in a business perspective, I might not have opened the restaurants I have opened."
It is fortunate that he has found an adventurous like-mindedness with the restaurant owners Eric and Imelda Teng. “They pitched it to me and at the time, I didn’t really know much about it except what I watched on TV. So I researched by going around and we got a Peruvian cook who used to work for their embassy. The cuisine is already big overseas, especially in the UK, where two or three of the top chefs are from Peruvian restaurants.”
What makes it a hit with Pinoys is that it is somehow familiar, with its influences from Japanese and Chinese cooking due to their immigrant population there. Their cooking methods, aside from ceviches and grilling meats, include dishes that are cooked on a wok. It also helps that there are authentic Mexican restaurants opening now using ingredients like cumin and chipotle. “We are riding on the education of the Filipino palate to spices such as these,” he explains.
Authenticity is key, he adds, and they made sure they got the right ingredients for the job. They bring in Peruvian spices such as the ajo amarillo, which is incorporated into many of their dishes. He describes it as a cross between a jalapeño’s kick and the sweetness of a yellow pepper. “We don’t substitute our peppers with a jalapeño, for example. That would not differentiate us from any other Latin American restaurant.”
The dishes are illustrative of the Peruvian flavors and cooking methods, ranging from ceviches with chimichurri, and appetizers such as mixto patacones (shrimp and salmon with mayo mix, avocado salsa, and sofrito sauce on fried banana beds), principales or mains like the Peruvian adobo (which does not make use of vinegar, we are told), and a dessert that is recognizably a Chef Miko Aspiras creation called galera de chocolate, which is a dark chocolate ganache with blue chips tTortillas and syruped dried figs for texture.
It took some time for the restaurant to grow, he admits, but the lunch crowd at the mall was quick to show its appreciation for the concept that opened only a few weeks ago. The chef recounts the journey it took before it landed inside the mall’s hallowed halls. It took a while for the second restaurant to open and BGC struggled for a while, because after opening with a neighborhood restaurant vibe to the diners in BGC the call center crowd turned it into a drinking spot. Now that there is a smoking ban, they have to woo the families back. “Being in a mall sort of legitimizes you and it helps to bring back our image to the original concept,” he shares.
He says that with the competitive industry we have at the moment, he understands why chefs want to play it safe. “It is a tough market. The fastest way to lose a lot of money is to open a restaurant. You can be in debt in millions in a matter of months!” He adds, though, that it is still important to innovate. “You need to take steps to stand out, kasi people are always on the lookout for something new. There is no perfect equation, because it is a weird mix of playing it safe while adding something new and keeping longevity in mind. Putting all these things together is difficult and even the big brands try and fail. With all the cuisines coming out today, you need to factor in longevity, standing out and having a safe buffer where it is still familiar.” He believes that he has found the right formula with Cocina Peruvia.
With concepts ranging from Ramen, to Korean bowls, Chitown-American fusion, and now Peruvian Chef Him has a talent for finding and highlighting different cuisines from all over. He shares his secret in keeping it real. “When I approach something, I do it with respect. My first thought is not ‘uy, papasikatin ko ito’. It is more like I tried it and it is really good, and I want to capture it to make it available to more people. I have to love it first rather than thinking of it as a big gimmick. I think that is why the authenticity comes out.”
Cocina Peruvia Ortigas is at the 5/F The Podium, ADB Avenue, Mandaluyong City. The first branch is at Bonifacio One, 31st Street corner Rizal Drive, Taguig City.