Robby Goco: "There's More to Cooking Than Truffle Oil, Foie Gras, and Salted Egg"
One can always count on Chef Robby Goco for interesting, headline-worthy sound bites.
Every time he launches something new, the good chef always manages a packed crowd, with friends and media shoulder to shoulder as they feast on what he's currently cooking up. Recently, everyone was at Souv!—the casual Greek eatery that offers Goco's turn to a more progressive version of the classic Mediterranean cuisine.
It's a joy to watch Goco work the crowd as he introduces dish after dish, smiling and animated—a departure from his reputed intensity in the kitchen. It's this well-known duality that makes Goco such a force to be reckoned with. He has that fiery passion which has him traveling the world, tasting dishes and learning how to make them properly, all with the goal to bring home these exotic cuisines to an adventurous and eager local dining scene. Then, like something of an ambassador, he takes the time to pass on this knowledge not just by serving these dishes in his restaurants, but making the effort to educate diners on the ingredients and culture behind the food.
His latest venture, Souv! (short for souvlaki, a Greek snack of grilled meats and vegetables wrapped in pita bread), is Goco's outlet to play around a bit.
"I couldn't do this kind of food in Cyma," the chef confesses. "I tried it before, but my regulars didn't like it. 'What are you doing?' they asked. 'We like the original way. Don't change it!'"
This "progressive Greek" style shouldn't be mistaken for fusion. "Fusion is the merging of two cuisines. For example, Japanese and Peruvian. Fusion is very tricky because it doesn't always work. Like, Chef Nobu does Japanese-Peruvian fusion and it's delicious! Why? Because, Nobu was a Japanese chef who lived in Peru. He was a Japanese chef cooking Japanese food using local Peruvian ingredients and techniques."
All Meat Platter
Goco continues: "Progressive, however, is still the same local dishes using authentic ingredients but presented in an innovative way. For example, sinigang na spareribs with watermelon. Is that still Filipino food? Of course it is! But, it's modern. It's different."
Think, for example, of Greek Nachos. It sounds like an abomination, but isn't a layered dip of creamy hummus, chopped peppers, tomatoes, crumbled feta, tzaziki, olives, and olive oil so unmistakably Greek? If you're a fan of Cyma's flaming saganaki whose accompanying "opa!" has become such a signature, in Souv, you'll appreciate how the kefalotiri (a salty white cheese) is still served melted on a skillet but this time accompanied by the sticky combination of fig jam and honey sesame. It's an undeniable nod to the world's current fascination with sweet and salty pairings, and yet Goco keeps it authentic with the use of ingredients you will find in any Mediterranean kitchen.
What is, we ask, with this obsession with "authenticity" anyway? Goco pauses before answering: "Greek dishes are usually prepared with all or most of these ingredients: lemon, olive oil, Greek oregano, salt, and pepper. This is the backbone of Greek cooking and should never be substituted."
"There are some Greek restaurants here who substitute lemon for calamansi. Why would they do that? I guess mura kasi, but then, that's not anymore Greek food! There has to be respect for these ingredients," he continues.
While he is a stickler for tradition, Goco understand the inescapable progress of the food scene, something that even traditional Mediterranean cooking is not immune. "During our recent trip to Greece, I noticed that they use a lot of quinoa in their dishes. Bagay naman talaga, and I use it a lot in my other restaurant (Green Pastures). True enough, I discovered during my trip that they use quinoa in Greek salads. So now I serve a Salata Kinoa in Souv!"
Sticky Chicken Wings
This philosophy is a theme in Souv. Goco's sticky chicken wings uses mastic softened with honey, seasoned with oregano, lemon, pickled onion, accompanied by a harissa yogurt dip. It works, and it's about as Greek as chicken wings could get.
While chicken wings as Greek food might be a hard sell for some, most of Goco's progressive Greek dishes have truly succeeded at blurring the lines between modern and traditional. The Lamb Bowl with harissa yogurt, pickled vegetables, sprouts, and miritzra (a fresh, sheep's milk cheese) is a flavorful, hearty dish, the kind of stuff that could give shawarma rice a run for its money. What has Goco truly beaming with pride, however, is his grilled whole lapu-lapu (Lavraki) with lemon EVOO sauce. On paper, the description feels simplistic—but the sauce is actually emulsified until it's a creamy, pale yellow sauce that cloaks the fish and clams. For the uninformed, it actually looks like melted cheese. It's festive and indulgent, and yes, it does stay true to your expectations of a Mediterranean seafood dish. Yet, Goco announces, "I'm the only one who serves fish this way. Anywhere in the world. You can check."
The chef really is teeming with new ideas. "Really, guys," Goco says with a cheeky smile. "There's so much more to cooking than foie gras, truffle oil, and salted egg. Aren't you all sick of seeing the same things over and over again? Nothing wrong with these ingredients, they're great. But, iba naman, diba?"
After polishing off our tasting portions of their house-made frozen yogurt (the olive oil and salt and orange jam flavored variants are early favorites), Goco sends us off with baskets of the basic Greek ingredients. "I do hope this inspires you to cook Greek food at home," Goco cheerily encourages. Although Souv!'s casual set-up ensures more frequent visits than the more traditional Cyma, cooking Greek at home is not as outlandish as it used to be. Did Goco know Greek food was going to be so popular in the Philippines? He thoughtfully replies: "I think I was able to represent Greek food locally the proper way naman," he shares. "Because, any cuisine that you prepare, if you do it right and use the proper ingredients, what's not to love?"
Souv! is at Net Park, 5th Avenue, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City.