LONDON – Filipino food favorites like okoy, lumpiang sariwa and others have gained popularity here by word of mouth and the Filipino couple who owns the restaurant serving them shares their gratefulness and excitement.
Filipino investors who have expressed desire to come here are actually looking at the food business, not just as a way to make money but to further introduce Philippine cuisine abroad.
For Filipino husband and wife, Felix and Tess Peñas, who have been residing here since 1990 after they got married, getting Filipino foods appreciated through their restaurant is their way of helping the Philippines become recognized abroad.
It was Felix who first came here in 1979 as his mother, who had been here since 1972, petitioned him. “I was just 18 years old,” he said.
Tess used to work in an accounting firm while Felix was manager in a hotel run by his family.
Tess was asked by her husband to quit her job after she bore their daughter so she could take care of her personally.
The couple admitted they first thought of putting up a French restaurant but changed their minds and took the risk of introducing Filipino food in Europe.
“Our aim is to promote Filipino food in London. We also eat in Filipino restaurants here and sometimes the guests... so I told my wife, we better start our own, and if we do start our own, we better make it big, so people can make a good impression of the food,” Felix said.
“Actually, it’s a driving force in opening up the restaurant. I really don’t want to open a restaurant, I said it was going to be really hard work. But he said no, we better … he’s the one who’s pushing me to do it,” Tess added.
“I told her we have to try. Even if we don’t succeed, we have to try,” Felix said.
Tess said it was good they tried because four months later, they received an award from an organization recognizing the quality of food they were serving.
“She was successful anyway, a lot of people say that Filipino food is good and they want to go to the Philippines to taste some more food. So in a way, we’re also promoting the Philippines,” he said.
Tess proudly shared that one time a customer from the countryside told them they were going to visit the Philippines and they wanted to try the local cuisine, so they searched the Internet web which “said we’re the best.”
“We got a nice review so when they went there, they were surprised, all the way, they started the okoy, lumpiang sariwa, down to the halo-halo and the selection of dessert. They finished everything. Okay, it was positive. At least they know that they ate some Filipino food,” she said.
Aside from the taste of the foods, Felix said “the ambiance of the restaurant” also contributed to its appeal to foreigners.
Tess said she was the one personally in charge of the cooking, practicing what she learned from her mother.
“Her mom is a very good cook,” Felix said.
“When I was young, I used to stay, looking at her kitchen, staying on the table and then watching her... I’m always the critique of my mom, and I said there’s something missing with this and everything,” she said.
The couple said they also took up culinary arts just to be sure.
Felix said their customers were initially surprised they took the gamble of opening up a Filipino restaurant.
“Surprisingly good, fantastic food (for them). (They said) you should go out, you should come out,” they quoted customers as saying as they found their foods unique and must be out on the street and not just in an exclusive place.
Tess said they did not have to modify the tastes for foreign customers and the trick was simple. “Don’t overcook everything – the potato, just blanche it, and even the pinakbet,” she said.
She said they got a good mix of customers now after those who had sampled the menu promoted the restaurant on their own.
“When we started, may (there is a) Filipino (restaurant), they bring their friends, different nationalities, their neighbors – they tried the food, then lookout, lookout, and then apparently one of our neighbors says don’t you know, the very, very rich lady came to your restaurant and tried the food and (is) the one promoting you. And we didn’t know her,” Tess said.
“ We didn’t even know because we’re downstairs, and that comment is very positive. You can see in our website, so people are saying ‘oh don’t you know that you have a very good review?’
And I said I have no time looking at our website, but it’s good to know,” she said, adding it was great to learn that other Filipinos were proud of them.
The couple will be able to meet President Aquino during his visit here starting Tuesday until Thursday.
“I would like to tell the President to help us, we’re in the restaurant business, and we want a big back-up from way back, back home. We would like him to support us in his way, his own way or maybe the government could put some, I don’t know ha, if I say this, put some funding for the Filipinos it’s because it’s happening… it’s helping their people like… to put up different restaurants just to promote their cuisine. Now, here it’s very hard because financially, you have to have a big, big capital but we don’t know, we don’t know how to support us but Mr. President, if you’re watching this interview, can you please help us in a way, if financially, you could give us loan,” she said.
Tess said they would love to have more and more people try and love the Filipino cuisine.
“They’re really, do you know the bistek tagalog… and they were surprised when they said ‘oh my God,’ and they always come back, they like the bistek tagalog,” she said.
Even other nationalities ask for her afritada, the Bicol express and other recipes.
“No wonder, a lot of them taking pictures of our dishes and then the ingredients. And now they want to cook it at home. And they come back and say they are not the same,” she said.
Felix said they were optimistic that they could make it because of good comments from people everywhere.
“Our plan is actually to make it bigger, and we want to go to supermarkets and put Filipino food in the shelves,” Felix said.
Tess agreed: “Yes, why not adobo?”
Felix said Chinese, Thai, Indian foods were already in the supermarkets here.
“Maybe next time, they see adobo – Filipino adobo in the supermarkets,” he said.
“And afritada... It’s in the oven. That’s our dream,” Tess remarked.