A new cookbook tells of a family legacy and the intersection of cultures
Xavier Btesh’s latest endeavor is a testament to the storytelling power of food
Chef Xavier Btesh doesn’t believe that food is a form of art. It’s a bold statement to make amid the local culinary scene’s fusion cuisines and plating techniques that seem to borrow from architectural formulas, and especially with food posts crowding social media.
He says, “Food is something that comes from you and that you can change totally. Art is owned by people, museums, and collectors. Food—nobody owns food.”
Unlike a finished artwork, food is also something more interactive, according to him. It’s dynamic as it leaps from recipes to personal stories and cultural backgrounds easily. To Btesh, food is personal and can be manipulated to the liking of both chef and audience. “Nobody owns a recipe. It’s important for cookbooks to share that because it’s knowledge, and knowledge is meant to be shared for people to adopt it the way they like.”
Testament to what he’s talking about is his new book French Kusina, where he presents French and Mediterranean dishes within the Philippine setting. It’s Btesh doing what he does best: playing in the kitchen and showing off (in a good way) the possibilities that can be done with a simple recipe. It’s apparent that deep inside, the chef is still the young boy who would cook for his father. “Cookbooks were my adventure books,” he says, adding that he used to sneak into the kitchen in the middle of the night to whip something up. The first dish he made that his dad liked was fairly simple, but still a feat considering he was a child then. “It was eggs with cream and salmon.”
Btesh also emphasizes that food is an experience heightened by the company. “When I [used to] travel a lot and [was alone], what I missed was being around the table with my family, and sometimes with friends whenever I had time to entertain. It’s not any particular dinner or lunch that made me realize that [aspect]. It was all the ones that I had missed.”
In French Kusina, most of the recipes are about sharing. It’s very Filipino to share your food, and Btesh points out that it’s a French trait as well. “The Filipino family and my family, most families in Europe, we have this common thing where we’re always sharing. [Meals are] the only moments in our lives where we can gather. I always think about that. I think that when you do a dish, you also think about the other people you’re doing it for.” In narrowing down the recipes for this book, from the Parisian Lentil Salad to the Saint Tropez Chicken, Btesh also thought about the everyday Filipino setting. “I wanted recipes that people can do here in the Philippines without having to go to fancy places to buy the ingredients. Whether you live in a small town or in the city, I want people to be able to find all the ingredients. And I wanted recipes where people can bring something personal, where they can add their own little touch.”
Such experimentation and the need to express one’s story through food are why Btesh’s cookbook doesn’t read like a stiff guide. Peppered with anecdotes about his favorite experiences, the destinations he’s been to, and the people who have inspired him, French Kusina is a reflection of a life celebrated through food. Writing the book wasn’t a challenge even though he had written his previous cookbook 10 years ago. “It just came out easily. I [showed them that I have] French, Italian, Moroccan, and Syrian recipes. I truly believe that recipes in a family serve as a kind of family book. It’s a family history. It tells where you’re coming from.”
Btesh didn’t compromise his beliefs. “First, [the publishers] wanted it totally French, and I said no because I have Syrian blood and that’s my history. This cookbook is my biography. This says where I’m coming from.” He invites everyone to do the same: to tell their story through food. “We all have the recipes of our grandmothers.” He recounts one he got from his Syrian grandmother, who had perfected the dish when she had lived in Aleppo.
Above all else, food is transcendent and summative of human experience. “To me, food is a legacy,” Btesh concludes. “It’s the only legacy you’re sure to keep.” •
Easy French and Mediterranean cooking for the Filipino kitchen