Victor Neri in a scene from the 1997 film 'Amanos, Patas na Ang Laban.' Video grab
MANILA - The goal was to become a stranger, Victor Neri said of his 7-year break from showbiz, which he spent, for the most part, rising through the ranks as a professional chef.
"Sabi ko lang, 'I need to take a break.' Balik muna ako sa totoong buhay," he told ABS-CBN News' Mario Dumaual on the sidelines of filming for "Hawak Kamay" on Thursday.
"Kaya kailangan na nangibang-bansa muna ako, para maranasan talaga kung paano tumira nang normal, paano mamuhay nang normal, [kasama] ang mga taong hindi nakakakilala sa akin," he said.
Neri was only 14 when he started his acting career via "Ang TV" in 1992. He went on to become an action-drama star, and later bagged an acting prize for his supporting role in the 2003 film "Filipinas."
After consecutive years of being in the limelight, a 30-year-old Neri felt it was time to regain perspective. He decided to fly to France to study culinary at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu.
He could have taken up a similar course in the Philippines, but Neri said residing in a foreign country was actually his foremost consideration.
"Kasi mahirap, noong bata palang kami, kilala na ako. Kung dito ako nag-stay, parang magiging madali parin para sa akin," he said.
When Neri earned his degree, he moved to Thailand where he worked in several restaurants. Here, as he had intended, Neri was not a celebrity and was given no special treatment.
Noting that among his past bosses were Spanish, Vietnamese, and American, Neri added: "Hindi nila alam kung sino ako, eh, so mas madali 'yung progress ko sa kung ano man 'yung gusto ko i-achieve as a person."
"Doon sa isang restaurant na trinabahuhan ko, hindi sila nahihiya na, 'O, can you please throw the trash?' Pantay-pantay tayo, eh, doon sa restaurant. Aakyatin mo ang rango. Dito, hindi siguro mangyayari sa akin 'yon. Mahihiya sila magsabi na, 'Paki ano naman 'to,'" he said.
Over time, Neri learned the ropes of culinary as a business, and developed his specialty after traveling around Asia. Today, he is most in his element when cooking Cantonese, Szechuan, or Thai.
"It's more Asian flavors and French-prepared dishes," he said of his specialty cuisine.
Neri explained that his years of experience as a chef -- and away from showbiz -- have also helped him become a better performer.
"I think that's the [major reason], para sa pagkatao natin, and to become a better performer also. You tend to go back to what's real, na ang mas nakaka-interact mo ang real situations," he said.
Apart from the ongoing "Hawak Kamay," which airs on ABS-CBN's Primetime Bida, Neri is earning raves for his performance in the Cinemalaya film "Separados."
"Pag nagbabasa na ako ng script ngayon, dahil nangyari sa akin 'yung 7 years na iyon na iba ang buhay ko, mas iba na ang intindi ko sa mga roles," Neri said. "I think it's more mature -- siyempre tumanda narin ako -- it's more disciplined. It's a different angle already. I think now, if I do my other roles before, I would totally do it differently."
Despite being active again as an actor, Neri clarified that it is merely one of the many hats he is wearing. He is also a family man -- with a 13-year-old son and another on the way.
"Tahimik na, steady na," he said of his personal life. "I mean, dati, we were young, nagsasaya tayo. Ngayon, iba na, eh. 'Yung reasons mo for working is totally different."
Being a chef, he added, will always remain a passion.
In fact, Neri has been tapped to help put up a restaurant in Fort Bonifacio in Taguig. He is tasked with coming up with a complete menu and training chefs, in time for the opening in September.
"Hindi ko na iiwan 'yon (being a chef), kasi tingin ko iyon na 'ko, eh. Actually, iyon na ako," he said. "I think masasabi ko na equal na 'yung pagiging chef ko sa pagiging artista. Same passion, same fulfillment, same everything."
"That's what happened."