After traveling the world helping other chefs build their dreams, the boy from the Basque country realizes his own dream – opening his first independent restaurant in a city far from home.
The yolk, cooked at 48°, is poured swiftly onto the bed of potato purée, and is mixed briskly. Diners are told to dig deep into the bowl, to get all the elements: crumbled ham; caramelized onions; creamy potatoes; and of course, the thick, beautiful egg.
It’s certainly comfort food—breakfast for dinner, so they say. And this is Chef William Mahi’s famous dish—a simple concoction that can make even the most jaded diner roll their eyes in glee.
His restaurant, 210° Kitchen + Drinkery, has been open for a few months now. Throngs of hungry customers have sampled his fare (“We call it elevated comfort food,” his elegant wife, Heather, the restaurant’s Director of Communications, says with a smile), but what many don’t realize is that the place has been brewing in the chef’s head for quite some time now. “This was something that we planned for in retirement,” Heather says wistfully. “You know, maybe in France, five to ten years from now.”
The Birth Of A Dream
But as they say, life happens when you’re busy making other plans. Chef William Mahi’s story in the kitchen is almost poetic, the stuff movies are made of. The scene: a young boy of 14 in Biarritz, working in the kitchens, going against the wishes of his family. It was a time when the culinary world was a secret society, unlike the glamorous world it is today—where chefs have become celebrities with their own TV shows.
Now cue the montage: He wins the accolade of Best Apprentice, and is given a myriad of options to work in Paris. He chooses the legendary Plaza Athenée with Alain Ducasse. He works in more Michelin-starred restaurants with world-renowned chefs. He goes to the Far East. He falls in love with a beautiful woman. They marry.
They travel some more, he cooks in more kitchens: Shanghai. Luxembourg. Istanbul. Athens, where William became the chef of Spondi, a two-Michelin starred restaurant. Their journey continues in a place that’s foreign to them both, but somehow familiar: Manila, the Philippines.
210° Kitchen + Drinkery is anything but humble. Its dim Edison lights pique the curiosity of passersby. Mason jars of spices and preserved fruits line the shelves.
The kitchen is open, so diners can see if the chef is working his magic. The ceiling is high, hinting of the bar hiding upstairs. The private dining room is hidden behind sliding shelves, with a clear view of the kitchen below. It is a happy place, “like a chef welcoming you into his home,” so the restaurant write-up says. And just like his home, it is the first time he and his wife Heather are working closely together. “I’ve known her for ten years,” he says. “She knows me best.”
The place fills up, and the dishes are served. While it is rude to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, you can tell they enjoy the food because every dish of the four-course introductory menu is wiped out, their plates cleaned, crumb-free.
A colleague, then later a friend, I first met William in an integrated resort. He was the Chef de Cuisine of the fine dining restaurant; I was Director of Public Relations. He was amiable, but also temperamental; I was “nice,” but also headstrong. Both of us knew what we wanted and how we wanted it done—which often meant a clash of opinions. So while we spent afternoons collaborating over coffee and chocolates, we nonetheless had our own tiffs.
But I was always impressed with his talent. The edible stones on his plate? They were actually potatoes. The amuse bouche? It was a forest of jamon iberico, apple chips, and caramelized gorgonzola sitting on sticks. His signature dish, then called the 52° Egg (perhaps named after the 52 cards on the deck? We did have a casino, after all), was pure delight. It had shavings of black truffle, egg, potato, and pancetta.
His steaks impressed me. The calamari was divine. I got to know him a bit better; I became close friends with his wife. We both left the resort. And when the time came to collaborate again, I jumped at the chance. William was talented. Insanely talented. And the city of Manila needed to know, without having to brave the traffic to get to his previous restaurant, situated in a geographically undesirable location.
Here’s the thing with independent restaurants: while you, the diner, only see the Instagram-worthy food shots, behind every tasty morsel is the proverbial blood, sweat and tears of the people behind it.
The menu handed to you by your server had been mulled over, the final product of countless hours of debates among the restaurant’s stakeholders. The décor, the fixtures, the design—they are a result of long nights of construction and emotion-filled arguments with a contractor. The staff—they each have stories of their own, but they have come to the restaurant to support the chef, to support their families, and to take part in something that could be infinitely bigger than what they had expected.
As I sit in the restaurant for the first time, a small smile escapes from my lips. Yes, the food is fantastic and impressive, and wonderfully comforting. While William shines in fine dining (as that was his training), it is his bistro food that truly makes him a standout chef. There is still his signature, artful plating: the calamari is served like a painting, with squid ink, tomatoes and tentacles as his palette. The buttery duck liver is served with elements of corn: corn purée, pop corn, corn kernels—somehow both tempering and enhancing the flavor. The food is, simply put, absolutely delicious.
A few weeks in, and Chef William Mahi’s 210° Kitchen + Drinkery has welcomed its share of fans that come to sit in his always-full restaurants. For a restaurateur, that is truly a dream come true. But the picture that will always remain in my heart is that of William and Heather, on the eve of the restaurant opening.
The place was empty, save for the couple and a few friends. William was seated in a corner, taking it all in: the décor. The kitchen. The restaurant. His baby. His wife glanced at him, her head on his shoulder. Their baby. Their eyes sparkled in accomplishment and hope. Their faces were beaming. It was a journey of a hundred thousand miles, of living out of suitcases, of long arguments, of sleepless nights.
After traveling the world to cook for others, William was finally cooking the food that made him happiest. After packing and unpacking, and after saying goodbye and hello to friends in different cities, Heather, originally from Malaysia, was finally home, for now.
And in that empty, dimly-lit restaurant, both William and Heather would begin the next chapter of their lives: the birth of their dream.
210° Kitchen + Drinkery
Unit 1D, G/F Icon Plaza
25th Street Corner 6th Avenue
BGC, Taguig, Manila
This article was originally published on www.ideiya.com.