Immortalizes old family recipes with modern comfort food
In Cebu’s highly competitive culinary market, it takes guts to plunge into a field already populated by major players and big names. Yet Sarrita Pimentel did just that when she opened Café Sarree two years ago at Escario Central Mall. Although she has a degree in interior design and a two-year course at La Salle Bacolod International Culinary Arts to her name, she was confident in giving it a try knowing she had a secret weapon no other restaurant in town could claim: delicious heirloom recipes that have been in her family for generations, and the benefit of growing up with a mom who, early on, introduced her to the world of cooking.
To hear her tell it, she had all the makings of a child prodigy who would definitely be a shoe-in for Pinoy Junior Masterchef today. “I just grew up in a household that knew how to cook,” she says. “My mom had a little business before when I was 10—she would sell lasagna. At one point she asked me to cook and take over, and I just did it. I just kept on doing it, and she paid me!” You may think that this makes for an unusual playtime, but for young Pimentel, it didn’t occur to her that her childhood was out of the ordinary. “I thought that all girls knew how to cook,” she says. “In grade school, I was already cooking. I didn’t know that it was unique to me.”
Food was a constant presence in her closeknit family, growing up the only girl in a brood of three boys. “My parents are hippies, until now,” she says, smiling. “They’re very liberated.” Aside from an open mind, a love of cooking was ingrained in each of them. “All of us know how to cook: my dad, mom, and older brother. We have our own style and dishes.” The rest of the extended clan would regularly meet for Sunday gatherings and naturally, bonding over mealtimes was a favorite activity. “We have Spanish blood from both sides of the family, so most of our food is Spanish-inspired, like paella,” she explains. “My grandparents, my grandmas, they would always cook, so I think that’s where I got it.”
Still, a future in the food industry was not one that she automatically pursued. She initially leaned more towards the field of her dad, architecture. But she flexed her entrepreneurial muscles by baking cookies and pastries every Christmas and doing a little catering on the side. Friends would also look forward to the meals she’d whip up for them whenever they’d visit, particularly her grandma’s specialties: callos and bacalao. “Those are the things I used to prepare when I invited my friends over. And they kept encouraging me to open a restaurant!”
The technical side
Pimentel was already known in her circle for being a foodie, and at one point, the opportunity to polish her skills presented itself. She was living in Bacolod and building up a business in Negros with her husband, Jacob. La Salle Bacolod had just begun offering a culinary course at the time, and so she enrolled as part of its pioneering batch.
Many of her fellow batchmates were not entirely green in the food department, either. “We were all professionals already. My classmates had jobs and owned their restaurants,” she says. But what she did pick up in culinary school was the technical side of cooking, learning how to work as a team, and of course, the skills to retain your composure in the pressure-packed atmosphere of a professional kitchen.
“It’s really experience in the kitchen that teaches you, in general—when it comes to life lessons and in business,” she reflects. “No matter how good you are in school, it doesn’t matter if you don’t learn from your experiences.”
International comfort food
Armed with her diploma, she and her husband moved back to Cebu, where she decided the timing was finally right to open the restaurant her friends had long been
waiting for and that she had been dreaming up in her head. “I always had a binder with me that had everything I wanted my restaurant to be,” she confesses. The concept: a cozy, intimate joint that offered international comfort food such as pasta, tartine, open sandwiches, jambalaya, and of course, her grandmother’s perennial favorites, callos and bacalao. “There are a lot of things in the menu that I used to offer to my friends … it was a mixture of food that I cooked for everyone for the past years.”
It’s these traditional dishes with her unique twist that are the most precious tools in her arsenal. “Most of the recipes there are the recipes I grew up with, and I just changed them,” she says. Of course, she has the additional benefit of continuing to receive the guidance and advice of her very first mentor, her mom, now living and working in New York as a chef, often participating in the lively food fair scene. “I’m always updated with the trends—we correspond on what’s the latest, and sometimes we travel together.” In fact, fans of her tartines have one of her trips to New York to thank for that; she spotted it in a restaurant and was inspired to create a version of her own.
Making her mark
Café Sarree has just celebrated its second year, and it looks like her personalized take on comfort food has found its place amongst Cebu’s established culinary greats. No small feat, considering her preferred approach to flavors is the stronger, the better. “I lean towards very pungent, salty types of ingredients or food,” she admits. “I like lamb—one of my specialties in my restaurant is the lamb adobo.”
She has also learned to trust her palate as far as flavor is concerned. “You never really know how (the customers) will react. But I get to learn that taste is your own. You cannot please everybody. Some like it salty, sweet… if you keep on following them and adjusting your dishes, you’ll go crazy!” says, laughing. “I do compromise and take a second look, but if I believe it’s good, I will stick to my menu.”
So far, her formula is working, as Café Sarree has just opened a second branch at the new Rustan’s. “Cebuanos are a bit hard to please because they have a very discerning taste,” she concedes, not least of all her own. But it looks like her mom, grandmothers, and all the women in her family before her have prepared her well, and she is upholding their traditions for many more people to experience and appreciate.
SOME OF CAFÉ SARREE’S SIGNATURE DISHES: (CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT) LAMB ADOBO, FLUFFY PANCAKES, SMOKED SALMON TARTINE, LIVER PATÉ WITH CRANBERRY JAM, AND FRIDAY NIGHT SPECIAL SALAD
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