A History Lesson

Where do I even begin?

The kitchen is in my bones. My dad, Antonio, is a master chef. I say that knowing he has no formal training, no diploma or fancy title or Michelin stars, but I say it all the same, because it’s true. His mom, bless her, had ten children – nine boys, one girl (dad was number five) – and taught each and every one of them to cook. He did the same with me, and I grew up watching him in the kitchen, throwing things together with an effortless, often recipe-less ease after raiding the pantry and the fridge. And I mean, I didn’t just sit on the counter and watch. I was all up in there. Measuring, sifting, stirring. Later on I was (and am) chopping, mincing, filet-ing. Tossing in a bit of this, and a bit of that… and just knowing from instinct and experience that it’ll all work.

That’s how my dad taught me to cook.

Having been raised both in Ontario, Canada and Manila, Philippines afforded me the privilege of a wealth of experiences and cultural influences I’d have otherwise missed out on if I’d only been to one or the other. My dad would do things like bring home live lobsters in a bucket. I remember being in Ancaster, dressed in jammies, with my Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (the original and the only ones that matter) slippers on, watching him come in through the laundry room from the garage, hauling them in. Family Sundays usually brought us to Swiss Chalet, and a grilled chicken leg quarter with mashed potatoes became my staple. For special occasions, my mom Sunny would bring out the hand mixer and bake the most amazing chiffon cake with this to-die-for caramel, dulce de leche kind of sauce. For even special-er occasions, she whipped out the blitz torte – a recipe learned from dad’s aunt that’s so delicious, my brother had it as his wedding cake. While kids were watching cartoons 24/7, I was watching James Barber, Biba Caggiano, and Pasquale Carpino.

At the age of five, I – the youngest of our brood of three – was taken out of Kindergarten for a week or two, and I traveled with my parents to the Philippines (where they’re from) for the first time. A five hour drive from the city, a two hour ferry, and another hour’s jeepney ride later, I was out of the polluted, congested city streets and in a small barangay in the much quieter, much more rural Naujan – a town on the island of Mindoro where my father was born and raised. There, at my grandma’s house, I watched a pig get slaughtered (and ate it for dinner as humba and for breakfast the next day as bacon), had an awesome nun teach me how to properly drain blood and cut up a pig’s heart for dinuguan, and had my grandma Adela teach me how to make everything from suman, turon and maruya to macaroni salad and bulalo. I’m sitting in my apartment in Vancouver right now, listening to a freezing cold thunderstorm outside as I write this, but if I close my eyes right now, I can feel and smell and taste everything as if I were there.

Needless to say, I didn’t shy away, get freaked out, or wrinkle my nose at anything. I was fascinated. Hooked. Wanted to learn even more. During that trip, 5-year old me told my grandma that I would be a chef one day – get a proper diploma for it and all – and make them all proud. Mind you, 5-year old me also wanted to be an astronaut and Kimberly, the pink Power Ranger… so that little proclamation didn’t seem to mean much. Yet.

We moved to Manila a year later, and I remained there for over a decade. I went through several phases, wanting to be everything from an interior designer to a marine biologist (that one stuck out for years, until I got to high school biology. Much interest, little patience). I wanted to be a professional musician. A museum curator. A novelist. A history professor. All the while, I still had dad teaching me how to devein shrimp one day, or bake pineapple upside-down cake another. I went back and forth between watching things like Batman and Star Trek: Voyager to watching people who eventually shaped and influenced me greatly: Alton Brown, Jacques Pépin, Gale Gand. No matter where my academics took me, I was always in the kitchen, cooking or baking.

I was still in my history professor mode when I moved back to Canada in 2006. Here in Vancouver, I went to Douglas College, receiving my Associate Degree in history, and I went on to Simon Fraser University to carry on, majoring in British History and minoring in Religious Studies. While I was and still am very much passionate about history, and continue to read and learn about it every day, I fell out of love with the academics of it all, and couldn’t imagine another decade of it, trying to get my PhD. When my university discontinued my major altogether due to budget cuts… I took it as a sign.

For nearly a year of my life, I was officially a college dropout.

By summer 2010, I had taken a 180… or, more accurately, a 360. I looked back on my life to see what my passions were, and at the end of the day, I remembered 5-year old me, talking to my grandma. In September, I was decked out in chef’s whites and attending Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts for their baking and pastry program. Cooking has always been something I’ve had a hand at quite naturally, but baking requires precision, some good chemistry knowledge, and a hell of a lot of artistry… which is why I chose to learn it in a professional academic setting. Six months later, I came out with a diploma in one hand and a whisk in the other. The place changed my life. My chefs and mentors there inspired me, taught me, and made me sure that this was truly what I want to do for the rest of my life.

There’s one major thing I learned and realised while I was there. Not just how to make a good baguette, or a perfect crème anglaise… though both are incredibly important indeed. I realised that while I learned rules and structure and experience in-class, that’s only half of it, in the end. The other half – and arguably the more important half – is everything I’ve had in me since birth. The nitty-gritty, flour-dusted, cinnamon sugar-scented memories of my youth and continued education in anything and everything I see; the influences of my culture, of the culture I live in, of all the travels I’ve had or dream of having.

When I look back on all my travels, some of my fondest, most vivid memories are of the food. Whether it’s a 99 Flake (that costs £2.49 now!!!) from a truck on the side of the road in London, some odd, probably questionable and entirely unpronounceable deep fried something-or-other from a street vendor in Hong Kong’s night market, a delectable croque-madame overlooking the Louvre pyramids, or a 15-course, $200 molecular gastronomy fine dining meal at a Chicago hot spot… each experience taught me something I hadn’t known before: a new taste memory, a new flavour profile, a new way of service, or presentation. All that and more, I learn every day, everywhere.

I have plans and I have goals, but I have no idea what life is going to throw at me. And honestly? That’s kind of the best part about this whole journey.

So here’s to being a lifelong student of the creative process, a lifelong lover of food, and here’s to – hopefully – plenty of good stories to share with you all along the way.

04 May/04 November 2012

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