A Casualty of Metro Manila's Looming Restaurant Bubble?
Nothing seems to faze him. If you ask veteran chef and restauranteur Marc Aubry how he feels about closing down Champetre, the BGC institution he owns with wife, Mianne, he shrugs and says, "I can't be too sentimental."
Months before Aubry formally announced its closure to his regular clients (through personal text message, as he has connected with them for years) Manila's food community has already been abuzz with the news, and, frankly, a little bothered. How could a beloved French bistro that has shown strong form consistently throughout its fourteen years of existence buckle down?
Aubry is a student in the school of life. He learned how to cook in the hellish and frantic kitchens of France, and he did a short stint in the United States before finally coming to the tropics to work the hotel circuit. When he jumped head first into the restaurant business, he knew exactly what he was doing. And when he finally opened Je Suis Gourmand, he decided that he would do everything right—which he did. He cooked food that he knew, and he had a solid fan base following him around town, while the more devoted ones flocked to his restaurant up to three times a week. No matter how late he turned in for the evening, whether it was because of a packed house or a rare night out with Mianne and friends, Aubry would always be in Champetre's kitchen before lunch service began, taking cigarette breaks only when the tables gradually emptied. So, what went wrong?
There's the restaurant bubble that people are only too happy and eager to blame. In Aubry's case, it doesn't feel like a flimsy excuse—it's undeniable. "I live it every day," he says matter-of-factly. When he opened Je Suis Gourmand in 2003, it was easy picking; he had all of BGC to himself, save for three or four others in the same category. Fast-forward to today, and we've all become witnesses to vast changes in the food landscape. Aubry echoes our observations: "With new restaurants opening constantly, it makes it difficult for the older restaurants to keep up."
That strain must have slowly built up until 2011, when Aubry felt the need to "freshen up" Je Suis Gourmand with a new coat of paint and a different name. Champetre continued to serve the same bistro, country-style French that he does best, and in turn, people kept coming. However, Aubry admits, it was "not often enough." He's not embittered; he understands that with the many new and exciting eateries to discover in Metro Manila, he has no choice but to share his price-sensitive market's affections with newcomers. Although many of those newcomers close faster than braising a lamb shank—which, by the way, Aubry does exceptionally well, too—the steady barrage of restaurant openings can prove to be too much, even for popular draws like Champetre.
While he takes a nonchalant stance to the closing of this chapter, Aubry admits that seeing a busy dining room every day since his announcement has been "heartwarming." It proves that while he might be forced to dance to the restaurant scene's frenetic tune, he can rest assured that people will keep coming for his cooking. In June 2017, Aubry plans to reopen a new concept on the same spot with French business partners. It will be called Sagana—a Filipino word which means "prosperous," and it will focus on sustainably-farmed ingredients coming mostly from farming communities in Antipolo and Quezon province. Aubry glows in excitement as he tells us about the concept of terroir and how the French take pride in the products of their land and personal labor. "It's that same pride which I'm hoping to ingrain in Filipinos, so that hopefully we will be able to produce and offer the finest ingredients."
Fresh and trending, the beauty of this "farm to family" concept is that it provides a dramatically young backdrop for Aubry's brand of cooking. Especially since, despite the obvious rebranding, the heart of Sagana remains to be Aubry's mastery in the kitchen. He cheekily retorts, "You can definitely make good food using the best ingredients. Then again, you can also make horrible food using great ingredients."
Although we have to wait a few more months to see exactly what Aubry is talking about, we can be sure that it will be nothing short of exceptional. More importantly, it will remain true to his undiluted style of French country cooking. When asked about the secret to his longevity in the business, he gives incredibly practical advice. "You have to set a standard for yourself," he motions, indicating different levels, "it can be here, or here. It doesn't matter. But, once you have set the bar, you have to stick to it. It's not about being the best, but you must definitely need to be consistent."
As we sit there during a quiet afternoon in Champetre's dining room, sadness pervades the air despite the hope that we have not seen the last of Aubry. We slap our thighs with frustration at the fact that this has to happen, that beloved institutions such as this are swallowed up by the furious local restaurant game. We ask what he would do differently, and he grows pensive. "I have never been big on presentation," he admits, pertaining to the frequent comments from the Instagram generation about his food. "But it's because if I fussed around with the plating, the food might get cold. And I will never compromise quality for presentation." Aubry's reassurance that he will never bend to the whims of this social media-savvy, image-obsessed young market is great news for us, his fans. "I'll just wait for them to discover my food," Aubry quips with a half-smile. We expected nothing less.