“You pay for the view,” so they say. This could not be truer in the case of Tagaytay, the idyllic hilltop destination whose epic views of Taal Lake and crisp California-like weather—just an hour or so away from Metro Manila—make it the favorite quick fix of weary city dwellers.
Chef Jayme Natividad—he of the culinary degree from Pittsburgh’s International Culinary Academy and vast experience working in revered Manhattan kitchens such as Balthazar and Gramercy Tavern—is not impressed. “My god,” he exhales as he rolls his eyes upward, “you can’t even get good bulalo here anymore. I tried. I went to the usual haunts. Wala. Now I just cook my own.” Natividad is executive chef at Taza Fresh Table in the Taal Vista Hotel, an almost autonomous structure at the edge of the iconic Tagaytay institution that looks out to the picturesque view.
Here, Natividad is pretty much given free reign to do what he does best, and that’s mostly Italian classics and modern American fare. The outspoken chef is actually quite restrained when it comes to his cooking, opting for classical techniques rather than flamboyant theatrics. It’s what he does best, and he will never compromise. He implies that the suits have given some suggestions on cost-cutting, an idea that the experienced chef was quick to shut down. “They want us to be competitive price-wise with the other restaurants along the ridge,” he opines. “But, why would I want to do that?”
You do pay a premium on fresh pasta, for instance, which is prepared every day for Natividad’s textbook cacio e pepe, or for an off-the-menu tagliatelle with pillowy octopus in a piquant bone marrow butter and tomato sauce. The pizzas here are good for sharing and crispy-thin, topped with an assortment of imported cheeses or fresh vegetables from nearby farms. Insisting on fresh ingredients—and the first pick at that—does not come cheap, but Natividad is adamant about staying true to his concept. “Good quality ingredients are the heart of good food,” he proclaims. “You go anywhere in the world and they would tell you the same thing. Italian chefs, Japanese chefs—they want good, fresh ingredients.”
Sadly, his newer neighbors do not share the same passion for quality. “Tagaytay’s restaurant scene is not what it used to be,” Natividad candidly admits. “The good ones are still the same players. Of course, there’s Tonyboy’s (Escalante, of the Antonio’s Group) restaurants which have always been about quality,” he continues, “but you can’t eat fancy food all the time. All of the new restaurants are fast food—burgers, pizza, et cetera—and one can only eat so much of the same thing.”
Therefore, when Tagaytay locals and tourists are craving for something familiar but of a higher standard, they come to Taza. The steaks, for instance, have become quite the cult favorite. Natividad had to add more choice cuts to what was formerly a lone steak offering. His bistecca is a good-sized T-bone of Kitayama’s Bukidnon wagyu, seasoned simply and cooked to a deep blush. A supply of prime US Angus is also now readily available for other cuts that Natividad had since introduced. While the concept calls for locally sourced ingredients, quality is still a non-negotiable priority.
Luckily, Natividad’s big bosses have completely entrusted Taza to him. Famously known for their shrewd business strategies, the SM group pretty much lets the seasoned chef adhere to his standards for excellent food. Perhaps, this explains why, despite the vapid restaurant scene being nurtured around him, Natividad had decided to stay put. “Cliché as it may sound, but I stay because I love what I do. Working for SM has been fun—challenging also, they keep me on my toes. At the same time, they allow me to be creative. There’s a good balance.”
Taza Fresh Table is located at Taal Vista Hotel, Aguinaldo Highway, Tagaytay City.