THE ZAMBALES RENDEZVOUS
In this charity dinner, the country’s celebrated chefs, artists, and designers offer something unexpected on the table
Soothing music from a wind and string ensemble welcomed guests to the gardens of Casa San Miguel in early October. The event was a charity champagne luncheon for the benefit of violinist Coke Bolipata’s Cuerdas Cuatros community arts program.
“This program started in 1996 with me and my sister, Plet, teaching local kids underneath mango tree,” Bolipata recounts. Since then, the community outreach project has produced five generations of teachers, “and the most number of musicians distributed among orchestras,” Bolipata proudly continues. The project also expanded in Tondo with teachers mentoring 24 children in the area. The event’s proceeds will go to planned expansions which include purchasing instruments, harnessing more teachers, as well as renovating an attic space to add more teaching cubicles.
For the charity event, Bolipata called on a fellow Zambaleño chef, Victor Magsaysay, to craft the menu. Magsaysay spent several years in Paris manning the kitchens of Japanese tapas bars Ito Izakaya and Ito Chan, and before that, he worked as a chef at Sakebar, a sister restaurant of Michelin-starred Sola. He gave a lot of attention to the details, drawing a stellar cast of creatives for the tablescapes, saying, “the total experience was deliberate because, to me, having dinner is like having mass—it’s almost religious.”
The repast’s high-concept profile starts with a starkly simple menu printed on brown paper—its cover designed by celebrated artist Elmer Borlongan with the cuisine written at the back. Fashion designer Vivien Ramsay, a Zambales resident herself, created the outsize linens which were meant for reuse as a neck scarf or pocket square. The giant prawn on the table napkin—silkscreen printed individually with
talisay leaf paste—was “an image that would signal a feast,” Ramsay shares. “I chose the pigments because the harmony of indigo and amber makes you feel both calm and hungry,” the designer continues.
New York-based floral designer Joji Duque gathered pieces from Mia Casal and Eric Paras for his arrangements to evoke the province’s terrain, displaying cone-shaped vases crowned with local flora set on water-filled trays that he decorated with moss. Plet Bolipata’s crocheted fishes dotted Duque’s assemblages. And just to make sure everything ran smoothly, Magsaysay brought Douglas Senes on board. The Frenchman is a restaurateur, and he trained the staff of Casa San Miguel on the high art of waiting.
As guests settled in their seats with Duque’s dazzling scenography before them and Ramsay’s linens urging
their appetites, the mood was set to sample Magsaysay’s presentation of Zambales flavors. For the chef, the event was an occasion to rediscover local food after being away for so long, further saying that “I went away as a designer and here I am back as a cook. Even if I grew up with these vegetables, spices, etc., I now taste them with a new education about cooking.” The menu was thematically directed with the chef ’ s home province in mind. “The way I cook right now is very much informed by the movement in Paris. Modern French cuisine is very simplified with a lot of influences, especially Japanese influences,” Magsaysay explains.
From start to end, the dishes would reveal the chef ’ s art and refinement. Magsaysay introduced an unusual fusion of spices, so delicately aligned that it leaves the palate chasing after the flavors. His command of his method is evident, not just with the taste and textures but in the visual outcome.
The repast starts with a reference to the chef’s childhood favorite, the sugar-coated tinudoktudok sold in the markets of his hometown, Castillejos. Magsaysay presented it as a savory starter. The round glutinous balls skewered on bamboo sticks look familiar but a bite into the morsels reveal an exotic twist. Instead of sugar, the glutinous orbs are dusted with toasted coconuts mixed with palapa spices from Maguindanao. Magsaysay’s ceviche is a more delicate take on the traditional kilawin where the chef replaced the robust taste of onions, garlic, and chili with subtle hints of mint, guava and red radish.
The babayote (or barracuda) was a favorite among guests. While most would have simply fried or cooked the fish as the standard sinigang, Magsaysay chose to smoke it in guava leaves served with a side of singkamas stewed in tapuy (a local brew), seaweeds and a dash of soy sauce. The fish was served with a mound of fish roe soaked in squid ink, its form alluding to the lahar that mantles swathes of the Zambales landscape. “I like to put black in my platings,” Magsaysay says. “It provides a contrast and highlights the other elements of a dish. It’s like eyeliner,” the chef says with a laugh.
The chef ends the seven-course degustation with a simple dessert of vanilla ice cream, with just a trace of lime rinds. “It used to be complicated, but now everything is simpler and more direct,” Magsaysay explains. “You know what you’re eating and what you’re getting.”
After the hearty degustation, guests wandered off to the concert hall where Bolipata treated his program’s patrons to music. Plet and Borlongan also opened up their private space to tours. For those who wish to lend support to Bolipata’s advocacy, there will be another farm-to-table fundraiser slated for January 2016. This time, Magsaysay will be looking further North for inspiration. The menu will be designed by Paris-based Ifugao artist Gaston Dimag, and the fare will be centered on the upland province’s produce. With good music, and Magsaysay’s delightful cuisine, it’s something that all enthusiasts of culture and culinary shouldn’t miss.
Chef Victor Magsaysay, with the help of restaurateur Douglas Senes, put together a luncheon for the benefit of Cuerdas Cuatros community arts program.