It was a magazine article about a private chef who’d come back from several years abroad and decided to make Manila his home. At the bottom of the page were his contact numbers and the words, “Menus begin at P2,500 per head, minimum of 6 heads.” I remember my jaw dropping and I thought, “P2,500 per head??! Is he out of his f–ing mind??!” I snorted and tossed the magazine aside. Some months later, I actually got to meet this chef and so nice was he to me that I immediately felt bad about my previous thought. But I still believed he was out of his mind to charge so much…
…until the night I spent with two private chefs catering a dinner party in an upscale Makati condo. It’s an 11-course meal for seven people priced at P5,000/head. Good grief, it just gets worse, doesn’t it?
Cooking tonight are Chris Bautista, the executive chef at Gourdo’s, and Farah Tolentino-Ylagan, whom I consider to be Manila’s master of foie gras. Both are trained in classical French techniques from years spent studying in Paris. They jokingly call their catering company “Farah’s and Chris’ Food House,” the product of two friends whose hearts belong to cooking.
Like a dance they’ve perfected, the duo hardly talks to each other while going about their tasks. I arrive just 30 minutes after them and already pots are whistling, knives gallop on the chopping boards, and somewhere, a blender whirrs. There are two waiters, a cooking assistant, plus me all huddled in the small kitchen, as well as added competition for space from assorted tableware and flower arrangements. I try to make myself as invisible as possible, an almost-impossibility. So I hover by the door to the pantry looking, staring, absorbing.
There’s a crumpled menu taped up on a cabinet door complete with plating diagrams. Several plastic containers hold mysterious ingredients and sauces in captivating colors. Aromas waft about, tickling my nostrils. Surprisingly, I’m not hungry. There’s too much activity.
After an appetizer of dill and salmon puff pastry sticks, the group sits down at table for their first course, oysters on a half-shell served in three ways: raw with red wine vinegar and shallot granita, another one softly poached with Pommery mustard cream and gelée. Genuine pearls (heirloom pieces from the client’s family) are scattered onto the plate, adding even more “ice” to an already luxurious dish. The last oyster appetizer is poached and dressed in black caviar with a white wine-saffron sauce dribbling sexily from the shell. I barely have time to snap a few photos before the plates are whisked away. I can’t complain ”“ I don’t want to hold up a meal.
The beef consommé makes up the next course. It’ll be poured over a flan of foie gras garnished with wild mushrooms and truffles. There’s one extra flan, I eye it greedily ”“ how can I not? Two of my favorite things, eggs and foie gras together. My heart beats faster as Chris places the remaining flan onto a saucer and hands it to me with a fork. I slip some of the flan into my mouth. I hear myself groan inwardly. It tastes like sin. But one bite is all I have. It doesn’t feel right to be eating while everyone around me is working feverishly.
As if to increase my torture, the next course is prepared, the one I’ve had my eye on: poached eggs on asparagus spears, crispy prosciutto, browned butter, and truffle vinaigrette. I have this urge to pierce one of the quivering yolks just for the glee of watching the yolk flow over.
Soon, a rhythm sets up. After a course is served, Chris and Farah assume the following tasks that make up the next dish: final cooking, prepare garnishes, plate. Oh, and since I’m here tonight, a few clicks from me, and then the dish goes out the door. In between courses, the two chefs nibble to keep their energy up ”“ Chris on some leftover Choco Knots, and Farah, who I notice likes crumbs, grabs a stray spear of asparagus and some grapes. The hot kitchen forces all of us to rehydrate often, so liquids ”“ water, Coke, Powerade — are consumed in quantity.
Watching two chefs work gives me a peek into their cooking personalities. Chris tastes every dish he’s attending to, whether it’s a sauce or meat. “It’s the most important thing I learned at Ritz-Escoffier [at the Hotel Ritz],” he tells me. “How will you know if something’s good if you don’t even know what it tastes like?” Farah, on the other hand, shows me sauces she’s made ”“ “Lori, smell this,” she says, motioning to a container full of a cocoa-colored sauce ”“ “… it’s browned butter.” Later, as she readies the vegetables for the next course, she holds them up to me. “These are done ”˜a la grecque’. Taste.” A la grecque literally “in the Greek style,” consists of cooking vegetables in a liquor along with water, olive oil, lemon juice, and spices. I fish out a tournéed zucchini from the mix. It’s tangy with an undertone of wine. The vegetables ”˜a la grecque’ will be served alongside pan roasted prawns dripped with a mild curry emulsion.
Being a lover of all things French, Farah sighs in content as she takes the next course out of the oven: grilled Muscovy duck breast. “Ah, canard,” she whispers almost ceremoniously in French. “My favorite meat to cook.” “You must’ve been French in your past life,” I tease. “I believe so. I was raising geese in my back yard,” she replies. I giggle. Occasionally, I hear Farah utter various French phrases of joie and wonder while she goes about her cooking. I don’t understand what she’s saying so I only smile and wish that I did.
Into the seventh course is when I begin to feel the fatigue. Of course I have no right to be complaining about this when Farah and Chris are the ones doing all the work. I’m wearing my new Crocs, a Christmas gift, which are no match to standing for almost four hours straight. “I’m a loser,” I moan to the two chefs. “I can’t do what you do.” Farah sighs contentedly and says, “Ayyy, Lori, we do this for love.” I crumple to the floor. “But sometimes love just isn’t enough,” I whimper. My feet are killing me and I smell like a hundred different ingredients.
The next course is a sight for sore eyes (and feet), a brilliant orange sorbet floating in a crushed ice pool of tangerine-hued water. Long cinnamon sticks add visual texture.
Main meat courses come out fast, but since the guests are nearing satiation (if they haven’t already gotten there), the lull is longer in between courses. A gorgeous loin of lamb has just emerged from the oven. It has a tapenade stuffing (capers, black olives, anchovies) paired with something I’ve never seen before, a charlotte of eggplant and zucchini enclosing eggplant caviar. Ultra gourmet.
I catch Farah closing her eyes briefly. “Tired?” I ask gently. “Just sleepy,” she smiles. “I can feel the fatigue settling in.” And then she’s off like the wind to her next plating, her very own foie gras marinated in red wine and spices coupled with mango-ginger chutney. As she lays the duck liver onto the plates, she uses a hot knife to smoothen out the surfaces. I swear I can almost hear a hiss as the knife glides over that glorious fat. I want to weep that I can’t have any of it.
Chris has started on the desserts and Farah breathes a sigh of relief. “It’s Chris’ turn now,” she says. She moves into the pantry for a breather. Meantime, Chris is busy whipping some cream with a whisk. “Couldn’t you use a mixer or an immersion blender? It would be easier for you.” I’m astonished that he has the patience to whip cream the old-fashioned way. I, for one, could never do it. Chris smiles good-naturedly and shrugs. It would take a lot to ruffle this man’s feathers, he’s cool and collected — the perfect demeanor for a chef.
Dishes are piling up dangerously in the sink and the kitchen’s gotten warmer. I note that there isn’t much laughter coming from the dining room anymore. I imagine what’s replaced it is a quiet fulfillment only achieved by an exceptional meal. As the Red Globe grapes wrapped in Roquefort and chopped walnuts are served, Farah states wryly, “They’re at that point where they’re just staring at their balls.” Chris and I guffaw as we catch the double entendre.
I feel an adrenaline rush as I watch Chris preparing the dessert. Dessert never fails to make me feel this way. Large, crunchy meringues with marshmallow middles are draped with a passion fruit coulis just a gasp away from scoops of mango hugged by a tradizionale sabayon laced with aged balsamic vinegar. And in a graceful fluted glass rests a mélange of fresh fruits bathed in sugar syrup infused with lavender.
Tonight is an evening into the world of the private chef and his version of fine dining. It’s a world that I want to experience ”“ as a dinner guest next time. And I promise I won’t complain about the astronomical fee. It’s worth every centavo.
Farah Tolentino-Ylagan and Chris Bautista
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