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

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