SARRITA PI­MENTEL

Im­mor­tal­izes old fam­ily recipes with mod­ern com­fort food

Cebu Living - - Front Page - By NANA CARAGAY Images by SAM LIM

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

PRINTED COL­LARED LONG-SLEEVED SHIRT, P1,940, BORDEAUX SHIRT, P1,750, BOTH MANGO, AYALA CEN­TER CEBU. GOLD NECK­LACE, P250, FOR­EVER 21, SM CITY CEBU. TROUSERS, P2,295, ZARA, AYALA CEN­TER CEBU. FROM THE HOME TO THE CAFÉ, PI­MENTEL BRINGS HER FAM­ILY’S

TRA­DI­TION OF COOK­ING AGEOLD RECIPES PASSED DOWN TO HER OVER TIME. THE NAMES OF THE DISHES ON CAFE SAR­REE

ARE TES­TA­MENTS TO THIS: CHURROS NI LOLA, JAM­BAL­AYA A LA MAMA, AND POP’S BA­CALAO.

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