What I've Learned

Chef Gene Gonzalez

The chef, and owner of culinary institution Café Ysabel shares with Esquire some of the best lessons life has ever taught him.
IMAGE Artu Nepomuceno
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I first started cooking when I could stand on a stool.

I grew up in a Sulipena household [Sulipan is a town that no longer exists], the prime area of eating in Pampanga. It’s a little like New Orleans, very Creole, with influences from the Basque, the French, the Spaniards, all the seafarers who’ve docked on the riverside.

The Kapampangan household revolved around food. Poetry, everything, it was all around food, and the house was big enough to have parties all the time. My grandmother was kind of a socialite, but in a foodie kind of way. You had all the big names coming during lunch. The Escuderos, Lopezes, Cojuangcos, they were all there.

Since I was the eldest kid, I got to hang out with the kitchen staff. It was nice because you always got the best delicacy portions. The heart of the chicken, the tail of the lechon, and the lechon was done in-house, slaughtering was done there. In the morning you wake up, grab an egg from the poultry. You want fresh chicken? Kill it. You want kalapati, we had big pigeons. And turkeys.

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My father was very astute about putting value on things. And also of family representation. He didn’t want you to make an ass of yourself in front of other people, he was very strict about that. He was a disciplinarian, so you had to be prim and proper. My mom was a little different, she was from the artistic side. She was very musically inclined. Give her an instrument—she could play anything.

My dad actually wanted me to work corporate. I went into the money market. I did a good job of learning things because you get to eat from the best tables, you get to treat out the treasurers of other companies, and you get to call them by their first names even though you’re a kid.

When you are entertaining, you should know what they want to eat. Or what their propensity for eating would be. But you have to take charge of their lives while they’re seated on the table.

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When I watched Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? after I resigned, I really wanted to become a chef. I was cooking for my friends, but a year after I set up the café it was pretty boring. I started running out of ideas. I couldn’t sustain what I was doing. I was just empty.

In the late ‘80s I studied in France. In between I washed dishes and worked odd jobs. I worked in Michelin star restaurants. In Europe, I saw how people dined. Then I came back and I was filled with ideas again.

After Europe I traveled all throughout Asia and the learning experience has never stopped. I’ve attended several schools and I wanted to set up a school that was set up by chefs. If you go full circle you go back to your roots. You go back to Filipino cuisine and Filipino ingredients.

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We had formed a group called Alta Cucina Filipina, and we were lucky to have the late Doreen Fernandez as our patroness. She loved the work we were trying to do, but it was actually in the guise of having nothing at all. We didn’t have any imported meats, any imported wines, we would scrounge around for anything we could get. So any-thing homegrown, which is now coming back, the farm to table concept. But we were getting homegrown stuff back then because there was really nothing else.

The restaurant scene now, it’s not pretentious, it’s just that you have a lot of risk takers who just repeat a concept that they pick up abroad, and the concept would be haphazardly done and it will fizzle out eventually.

Unless you have a unique selling proposition you want to introduce in your restaurant, Manila is a very cruel place to try to compete in. If you open, in six months you’ll know whether you have to close shop or not. And you’re going to be amassing losses of millions in six months.

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A national cuisine will take more than just a national consciousness. It will be a total effort of the business sector, the artist sector, and the government. We need foodie politicians, or we need politicians like Joey Salceda, we need people who have the foresight to say, “We can make this appeal to the foreigners by doing this.” We cannot just stick to what looks like crap. The way they did it in Thailand, it took an American PR firm to do the look of their food. And now if you order a Tom Yum, more or less you know what you’re going to get.

The satisfaction in doing all this is getting a compliment from the guest. That’s all. You can have all the reviews but you get a compliment from someone who’s gastronomically adept and you get a compliment from someone with a very innocent palete, that’s the best reward that you can get for toiling your way, giving up your vacations.

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Chefs can be very subservient people in the sense their ultimate goal is to please people, get a compliment. We’re in the pleasing business.

I was a karate instructor for 12 years. You never perfect a technique. You always aspire for that one punch or blow where you devastate an opponent, but you never really get there.

My grand aunt would actually say [about food] “It’s to die for.” And she actually did die. All my relatives died because of food related ail-ments or food related experiences. My grandma had a heart attack because she was snacking on peanuts. Her mother died after consuming a whole bottle of champagne and a whole small platter of paella.

I went through cancer surgeries, radiation therapy, and two times I went into a crisis. Not because of the cancer. Not because I was going to die, but because one of the two things I like best in this world would have to be cut out. Those two things are food and sex.

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The difference between love and sex is just like in food, if you add a little love to it, it becomes richer.

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Erwin Romulo
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