The country’s first cookie bar. The burnt Basque cheesecake. Sky high layer cakes. Remember when those ideas first hit the local dining scene? Those ideas belong to one talented young pastry chef who made a big name for himself in the Philippines since he first burst onto the scene in 2011 as a gold medalist at his first international pastry competition, the Hong Kong International Culinary Classic.
Since he started working professionally in 2007, Chef Miko Aspiras has accomplished great things—launching pioneer restaurant concepts like Scout’s Honor, Le Petit Soufflé, and Workshop; speaking at Madrid Fusión Manila in 2016; being listed in Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia in 2018; writing a gorgeous book, A Piece of Cake, in 2019; among many others—and all before he turned 30. He became the Philippines’ most acclaimed pastry chef, and dare I say it, perhaps the country wasn’t quite big enough for his talent and ambition.
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In June 2019, Aspiras said goodbye to his friends and colleagues, and together with his husband JV of two years, quietly moved to Sydney, Australia to start a new life and career. This wasn’t a surprise by any extent, as the move was something that he and JV had been planning for some time. But it has left a void of sorts in the local dessert scene. There isn’t quite anyone like Aspiras who galvanized and energized the industry with his forward-looking ideas, bold flavor combinations, and knack for creating just the right product for the right time.
I have known Aspiras since 2011 when I wrote about his first gold medal win in Hong Kong, and have followed his rise ever since. After almost a year of missing his presence in Manila, I was delighted to catch up with him in Sydney last December to see what he had been up to since his departure from Manila. It so happens we were meeting at the Hilton Sydney where he now works as its youngest executive pastry chef.
Unlike many immigrants, Aspiras didn’t have to start from the bottom when he moved to Australia. While he was already looking for a job prior to his arrival, it was fortuitous that he got an interview at the Hilton only three days after arriving in Sydney, and landed the top pastry job at the hotel just a week later. It’s an impressive feat, not only because Aspiras is considered young for the position, but that he has only ever studied and worked in the Philippines.
At the Hilton, Aspiras heads a lean pastry team of just seven to oversee all the pastry requirements of this very busy, centrally located hotel involving several dining outlets, in-room dining, and very demanding banquet operations. It’s a source of pride for many of the other Filipinos working in the hotel that he got the position straight from the Philippines. He shares, “The other Filipinos working in the hotel tell me, ‘Sobrang proud namin first time nagkaroon ng executive (pastry chef) na Pilipino.’”
Right now, Aspiras has been slowly introducing new desserts to the outlets, with his full dessert lineup to come out by March of this year. But already, as we were sitting at the sunny Caffe Cino, the hotel’s lobby café, I could already see Aspiras’s touch in the café’s dessert display, where he has introduced Filipino-inspired desserts like sans rival.
He’s still adjusting to the work environment, especially Australians’ emphasis on having a work-life balance, rather than clocking in long hours at work. But the famously workaholic Aspiras just can’t let go of the work ethic he developed in the Philippines. “It’s what brought me to where I am now.” he says. But he has been able to relax somewhat, since he can focus on his one job, without outside projects to distract him. He recalls, “In the Philippines, I was skipping from one restaurant to the other, hopping from one event to the other… I got to a point na sobra akong stressed every day. JV told me, monster na ako.’” While work still stresses him out, it’s nothing compared to what he was doing in the Philippines. He shares, “This is just part of my new journey and I’m fortunate that this is my first job here and they trust me. That’s not going to stop me from teaching, from doing my best.”
Aspiras is settling down nicely in Sydney, acquiring his permanent residency status, buying an apartment, getting a dog, with plans to eventually buy a house and even start a family. He muses, “Life is good here, but that being said, I want to do more.”
Aspiras has already started to make the moves to make his presence felt in Australia’s largest city. First, he has striven to understand the dessert scene in Sydney. He explains, “Kailangan kong malaman sino ang pinakamataas, ano ang target ko. Ano ang ginagawa niya. You have to know why a dessert is working, why is it popular.” He sees the desserts scene, in fact, as Asian driven with many of the country’s most innovative pastry chefs of Asian origin, and surprisingly, with 60% of the market being Asian as well.
Second, Aspiras is getting his name out there. “I have more time to be involved in the scene, introduce myself,” he says. He has already made a splash with a feature in Chief of Staff Magazine, and an online profile in Harvard Business Review Ascend. Last September 2019, he participated in Mabuhay Nights, his first dessert degustation organized by Filipino Food Movement Australia, a highly successful affair that saw around 80 people partake of his original creations.
In late March, he will be doing another degustation called Cakes & Chikahan at Melbourne Food & Wine, Australia’s most-talked-about culinary festival, together with fellow Filipino-Australians Santiago Cuyugan, head chocolatier of Bibelot; cookbook author Yasmin Newman; and Grace Guinto of The Entree.Pinays and Sweet Cora Cakes.
For those who think that Aspiras cut all his ties to the Philippines, he is proud to say that he is still involved with the businesses he left behind like Scout’s Honor and Workshop, helping with marketing efforts and guiding the chefs. He started those concepts, and like a proud father, he continues to be excited to see them grow, especially Scout’s Honor which is already opening its 11th branch. He still keeps abreast of the industry goings-on back home, and laughs about missing the chance to meet Martha Stewart when she came to Manila in August 2019. He hasn’t been back to Manila since he moved last June, but promises he’ll be visiting soon.
Aspiras admits that he misses the support he gets from people back home, but he also realizes that he became too comfortable in the Philippines, and perhaps needed to become “uncomfortable again” to grow as a pastry chef. He declares, “I miss a lot of things in the Philippines, but I think I’m happier here.” While he has no plans of leaving his job just yet, the end goal, he knows, is to open his own restaurant. “Absolutely!” he emphasizes. And he is not shy about announcing, “I want to make a big name.”
Sydney photos courtesy of @chefmikoaspiras on Instagram