It's 8:30 p.m. on a Wednesday and Hey Handsome is full. All seats are taken, servers are swiftly shuttling through the narrow aisles, replacing courses, topping up glasses, and asking everyone what else they needed. Most of the activity, however, is huddled in the kitchen.
The bustling kitchen of Chef Nicco Santos' two-year-old laboratory has always been a sight to behold, but for two nights, the chef has taken a step back. For these two nights, Hey Handsome has been taken over by five up-and-comers—four assistants to the country's top chefs, and a budding dessert magician—who are all out to reassure diners that the future of Philippine cuisine is in safe hands.
The result: Next in Line, nine courses of promise and potential fulfilled on a plate. The idea of using rising chefs came to organizer Angelo Comsti early on. As one of the curators for Madrid Fusion 2018's regional lunches, he planned on a theme that would highlights sous chefs. The event was eventually postponed, but Comsti decided that he didn't want to put his idea on hold.
"We didn't want to label and market it as a dinner among sous chefs, but among young, promising, and very talented chefs, [which we think is] a description that suits them better," says Comsti. Both Comsti and Santos admitted that they were uncertain about how they could promote the event without bringing in the big names with whom their featured chefs were associated, but both days sold out and there were even walk-ins.
"We believe that the guests too can detect good talent and want something new and exciting from the local food industry," they said.
The instruction for the chefs was simple—well, as simple as being tasked to show off your potential in one meal—their dishes had to be progressive. Proteins were systemically made available and divided democratically; each chef made their own dish then split into pairs to collaborate on two more dishes. Jason Go of MNL Creamery stepped back from gelato to create three composed desserts.
Mackerel, offal, lechon, chicken, and steak were all on the table, familiar yet so stunningly different—and delicious.
Chef Carlos Villafor starts thing off with a palate-opener: a bright pickled mackerel with papaya and seaweed.
Chefs Mikee Lopez and Jorge Mendez pair together for this Hainanese tribute: a Backyard Farms' chicken with green onion and black garlic.
Cucumber and bitter chard balance out the duck in this dish by Chef Mikee Lopez.
Going for a more daring route, Chef Quenee Vilar wins hearts over with this Kitayama ox heart with saba and malunggay. The chef herself makes rounds pouring rich aligue over the portion.
Chef Jorge Mendez of Ohayo Restaurant come sup with a Kitayama wagyu tri tip. Seasoned simply the way you should with any great steak, he dresses it up with onions, white fungus, and seaweed.
Chefs Quenee Vilar and Carlos Villaflor team up for the ultimate crowdpleaser: pork, spice, and everything nice. They've come up with a stuffed lechon de leche and pork rice.
The palate gets some relief with Jason Go's dalandan, buttermilk, basil, olive, Campari, and pomelo. The first of three desserts.
One of the favorites of the night is this coconut dessert by Jason Go. His goal was to modernize the flavor of coconut, focusing instead on its caramelized flavor heightened with coconut sap and coconut oil.
A romantic pair of dark chocolate and rose petals by Jason Go. The truffle uses 70% Guanaja and 55% Cemoi chocolates.
"I wasn’t really surprised [that the dishes were excellent] because I believe in their capacity...What took me by surprise was the reaction of the guests," said Comsti. "Many of them were amazed by the whole meal and they made it known by telling me through SMS the following day. I’ve done many collab dinners before and it was the first time that happened."
As Philippine cooking blazes through the global wall, there's lots of talk on momentum to sustain the cuisine's popularity. Next in Line lasted only two nights (though there are plans for a second one), but the future of food in the Philippines seems to be in great hands.