The story is one for the books. Rose was in her mid-40’s and was the most sought-after hairdresser in a Salcedo Village salon. She'd send her wages to her family and had taken on the role of surrogate mother to the children of various nieces and nephews. She took care of her eighty-five-year-old mother, and was known to stuff her tips into the tip box, not slip them into her pocket—on any given day, thick clumps of paper overflow from the slot. She’s that good and her clients know it. What most of them don’t know, however, is that this sometimes serves as a makeshift relief fund. When disasters blow into town, these are delivered dutifully to various relief efforts.
Rose is on her feet practically the whole day—she'd call herself a shock absorber when clients brought their problems to her and the different members of the staff: a salon is a second confessional, after all, and your trusted hairdresser is the next best thing to a priest. Even then, suitors weren't scarce—there’s a wide expat community in the immediate vicinity and Rose is popular among them. She was in no rush to settle down and was known as something of a hard customer. They come and go, she’s been known to say, maybe she'd missed her shot at love. “Masaya naman ako sa work at pagtulong sa pamilya ko,” she says, “Hindi lang dahil nasa edad ako, kahit sino na lang [papatulan].”
Alain Raye is a Michelin-starred chef—he was the man behind La Regalade and is now the chef of Q&A Kitchen+Bar, the neighborhood dive of the moment and one of the best pasta places in town. Now in his 60s, he’s an established chef who’s lived his life and has nothing left to prove. Life was slow-moving before the restaurant opened some months ago. His friends knew he was in search of something.
It happened that Raye was friends with one of the salon’s habitués. One day, she showed him a picture of Rose; two weeks later, he took a chance and gave her a call. “’Yun na nga,” Rose says, “tinatawagan niya ako. Sabi ko huwag niya ako tawagan kasi mano-nosebleed ako—mas nakakaisip ako pag-text,” she laughingly recounts. Shortly after, Alain invited her out for a drink but she insisted on meeting at the salon. She wanted to study him from a distance. Assess him in a safe place. “She was in the back,” he says, “she wasn’t coming out. And then I see these eyes.” Two hours after their meeting, smitten and dogged, he sent her a bouquet of roses and a card inviting her to dinner. “I waited so many years to find a lover, and for me she was different. She has something pure. She’s not naïve, but she has something pure.”
For her part, “nahihiya ako tanggihan,” Rose says. She agreed to meet him for dinner after work. She had to be late, she says, because her last client had a Keratin treatment, the biggest time-suck of all salon potions.
The first date
By the time she arrived, the kitchen was almost closed, and the waiter nudged her to order something easy—no time for a table and manners, just two seats at the bar. “Pagod ako, gusto ko kumain ng kanin. Gusto ko ng patis, calamansi, sili. Kumain ako, wala akong pretension,” she says, ‘Sabi ko ‘bahala ka kung ayaw mo ng ganito, jologs ako.” She adds, comically, “Pero hindi ako nagkamay, nag-kutsara naman ako.”
The dinner played out for hours but no one checked their watches for the time. “Before ‘pag may ka-date ako na foreigner, may kasamang takot, kaba, nagmamadali ako kasi may work the next day. Pero this time, sa kanya, parang okay lang.” People soon asked if she knew she was dating a Michelin-starred chef. “Hindi ko naman alam kung anong Michelin, eh,” she says. Early in the relationship, well-meaning friends warned Rose that things were going too fast. This is the one time in the conversation she won’t crack a fast joke. She’d been living for other people her entire life, and this was the only time she wanted to live for herself, she says; if it was a mistake then it was hers to make.
Today, they’re an improbable couple in a European bistro in Manila. She cuts a slight figure, and a lifetime in the industry has thickened him kindly at the waist. He’s quick to emotion, and she draws from a deep well. He loves the classic French poets, Manila has taught her to be savvy. “My life was like a roller coaster,” Raye tells us on this rainy morning, just two days before Christmas. “So many times I’ve been on top, so many times, I’ve been at the bottom, and with Rose, I find I am at peace.” Alain turns wistful, and there’s a shine in his eyes, a crack in his voice. You could make a movie out of his life, he says. He’s been previously married, has sired now-adult children, and has had careers and businesses in France and Canada. “I went to Canada, I had a business there, I didn’t have time in my life for personal reflections. And Rose—she brings me that.”
Time is relative but lovers live fast. Something happens to you in a blink, but you’ve been prepared for it all your life. The story of Rose and Alain is short and direct, but it seems like it’s taken a lifetime to happen. Paradoxically, it reads almost like a telegram: Met in March. Engaged in April. Married civilly in June. The narrative only slows down in November when they’re finally married in a church in Pampanga—he arranged everything, she says, and all she had to do was show up. “Siguro totoo ang reincarnation,” Rose says. “I told him, maybe we’ve met before. Sabi niya, ‘kung nag-meet tayo, hindi kita makakalimutan.’ Bolero, di ba? Siguro dati, siya yung daga, ako yung pusa.”
He proposed in the salon, sending a bouquet of roses and a three-page letter before booking an appointment. A manicurist saw the box and saw the ruse right away. Rose was in the bathroom when she heard the fuss outside about a ring. “Nasa CR ako,” she says, “nagpadala muna siya ng bouquet of roses with a letter—naku, three pages yung letter niya. Siyempre yung ‘will you marry me?’ nasa last page pa ‘yun di ba? Dumating siya nasa second page pa lang ako. Paglabas ko, alam ko na magpro-propose siya.”
For the wedding, he wrote something, too—a poem. It said in part,
“Ever since you walked right in, the circle's been complete,
I've said goodbye to haunted rooms and faces in the street,
To the courtyard of the jester which is hidden from the sun,
I love you more than ever and I haven't yet begun.”
And ended with—
“You're the other half of what I am, you're the missing piece
And I love you more than ever with that love that doesn't cease.
You turn the tide on me each day and teach my eyes to see,
Just bein' next to you is a natural thing for me
And I could never let you go, no matter what goes on,
'Cause I love you more than ever now that the past is gone.”
Despite their differences, the one thing they share is a passion for their work. Whether it’s in a kitchen or in a salon, both are damned good at what they do. Rose tells us that Alain never wanted to take her from the life she was living before she met him—he wanted to enter that life and dip into it. To this day, Rose still works at the salon and won’t quit anytime soon, wrecking the cliché of messiah and third-world woman. Maybe he’s a savior but she doesn’t need saving.
In a curious turn, Alain has been chef in various bistros but Rose is chef at home. She whips up traditional Filipino dishes. A repertoire she says she’s exhausted, while he never cooks the same thing for her twice. “She cooks well,” he says, “she has a good hand for cooking. She cooks Filipino food from what we have in the fridge. It has the right taste—not too salty; just right; she has a good hand.”
What she doesn’t have the hand for, he confesses, are pastries. Those take precise measurements; one wrong ingredient can set an entire recipe off. Rose does improv. She’ll take what’s on hand and whip up something hardy and substantial. A beef broth or chicken with wedges of papaya, labuyo, and ginger.
He’s been in the business long enough to know how to crack a glaze with a spoon, the hardness short, and the sugar lasting.
Photographs by Jilson Tiu
Photographed at the Q&A Kitchen+Bar