This Is What Comfort Food Means to a French-Trained Chef
The last thing I expected to find as I walked into the former Capone’s, a boozy outpost in the early 2000s, was a nervous-looking Ian Padilla. We’re at his newest project Common Table, which is hardly the first outing for the experienced chef who has gone through the rigorous motions of Parisian kitchens, the hectic pace of New York, and not one but two French-themed eateries in fickle Manila. It’s easy to assume that opening a third restaurant would be a walk in the park.
But the thirty-something chef sits across from me, white as a sheet, admitting that he’s a bundle of nerves. “It’s truly nerve-wracking,” he confesses. After his fine-dining restaurants La Girolle and Brasserie Girolle (both an allusion to his French past when he had to clean girolle mushrooms for hours) folded in quick succession, he rightfully took a hiatus from the local restaurant scene. As fate would have it, his wife became pregnant with their first child, and his sabbatical allowed him to focus. "It was a difficult pregnancy for [my wife] Carol," he candidly shares. "You name it, she had it. If I had a restaurant at the time, then I wouldn't have been able to be there."
With the drama of a premature childbirth passed and both mother and son are in the pink of health, Padilla quietly opened Common Table a few weeks ago. With the tentative steps of a kitchen veteran scalded by reckless mistakes, Padilla is decidedly taking it slow. "People would ask me 'How long have you been open?' And I would say, 'three weeks na!' They're shocked that it’s been that long na pala." At a time when restaurants try to one-up each other in terms of social media presence and opening day pomp, Padilla and his partners preferred a more conservative route. Their grand opening, Padilla explains, is happening two months from now.
As for the concept, Padilla and company have picked one that they felt the area needed, which was familiar comfort food done right, plus a barrage of alcohol to satisfy the after-office crowd. The chef consciously veered away from French. "Don't get me wrong, French food is still my passion," Padilla says. His eyes turn dreamy when he describes plating a fine dish that would take him and his team hours to prep and put together and later consumed in a luxe, dimly lit dining room by his adoring fans.
Pull Apart Batard Bread
For now, fine dining takes a backseat to casual, which is currently Padilla's cup of tea. "I just want to cook stuff that I like to eat," Padilla says. An example would be his and his wife's appreciation for the simplicity of cheese on good bread. The Pull Apart Batard Bread is sliced crisscrossing so that the mix of different cheeses, garlic butter, and rosemary melt into the thin crust and airy crumb. Perfect for soaking up bar chow classics like the Wagyu Salpicao and bold Asian starters such as the lush uni-topped baked oysters.
Uni topped oysters
When Padilla declared that he was going to serve local fare, he took it as a personal challenge to offer sisig worthy of Manila’s best. Purists need not worry about the classically trained chef overthinking the Filipino favorite—he knows better than to make a bastardized version of the stuff. Padilla's pork sisig has all the popular components, including a runny egg and chicharon on top. It’s sweetish, so opt to order it with half the usual dose of sweet-chili sauce.
Padilla's magical sisig formula, however, achieves greater success with the oyster version. "I'm hoping it would be in the top two," the chef confidently proclaims. And he might just be right. The same sauce which overshadows the pork becomes the perfect complement to the oyster sisig, giving it the sweet and spicy foil which goes so well with the briny seafood. The oysters are plump and fresh, battered and fried to perfection so that it holds up its perfect texture despite swimming in the unctuous sauce. Proof, once again, that masterful technique is all that's needed to elevate simple, local food. Top two, for sure, if not number one.
Though Padilla is stepping away from France, it’s difficult for old habits to die hard—something his fans would surely be happy to hear. His Angus beef ribs are cooked in sous-vide for hours, before being quickly grilled with a tangy glaze for flavor and texture. "You notice the marbling?" We do. "That usually melts away when meat is grilled or roasted," Padilla explains. "But, if you sous vide it first, then the fat stays intact but cooks through, keeping the meat juicy." The eggs and foie is a Brasserie Girolle classic, and the lemon tart is a dessert that Padilla has perfected in La Girolle.
Sous Vide Angus Beef Rib
Eggs and Foie
The chef's eyes brighten when the macadamia and white chocolate skillet cookie is brought in, and says, "That one is delicious. It's 100% wife-approved." Crumbly, buttery, with just a touch of fresh mint to elevate the flavors, Mrs. Padilla knows her desserts. Throughout dinner, Padilla proudly points out which dishes his wife insisted he keep on the menu, showing the kind of supportive dynamic they have back home.
Macadamia and White Chocolate Skillet Cookie
As the end of dinner service neared, ‘90s grunge blare a little bit louder from the speakers, and Padilla is visibly more relaxed. I ask one of his business partners, Mike Floro what the chef is really like. "As a chef, he's very serious about what he does. Very detail-oriented," Floro reveals. "As a business partner, he's actually very receptive. He listens to our opinions and doesn't resent them." Floro tells us how, as the leader in their kitchen, Padilla cares as much about the members of his team learning and growing as individuals, something truly rare in a cut-throat food industry. In fact, many of the kitchen staff at Common Table came from Padilla's past restaurants. "When they found out he (Padilla) was opening a new restaurant, they left their respective jobs to join him," Floro shares, bemused.
This display of allegiance is not just a testament to his team's loyalty and trust, but speaks volumes about Padilla as a chef and as a person. His business partners are mostly former regulars in his past restaurants who literally shelled out good money to have him behind the stove again. And here you see the possible source of the veteran chef's apprehensions—his intense refusal to let his people down, his resolve at providing a decent and stable livelihood for his team. Common Table is a personal promise to not disappoint the people who strongly believe in his talent that they built a business around it.
With Padilla's fierce determination is a softness brought about by life experiences and fatherhood, and it finally seems that he is in the right place. He doesn’t need to fear anything.
Common Table is at 2/F Forbes Tower, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, Makati City.