How 9 Filipina chefs and restaurateurs kept their businesses alive amidst a pandemic 2
From left: Happy Ongpauco-Tiu, Malou Fores, and Kriza Palmero. Photos courtesy of the chefs
Food & Drink

How 9 Filipina chefs and restaurateurs kept their businesses alive amidst a pandemic

With smarts and chutzpah, these women have kept their food careers and ventures afloat in a year that threatened to wipe out all that they worked hard for   
CYRENE DE LA ROSA | Mar 12 2021

It has been an extremely tough past year for the restaurant and hospitality industry. But amidst the challenging times, these strong Filipina chefs shone through, continuing to transform the Manila culinary scene.

 

How 9 Filipina chefs and restaurateurs kept their businesses alive amidst a pandemic 3
Photo from Ongpauco-Tiu's Facebook page

Happy Ongpauco-Tiu 

Chef and owner, Pamana, Le Chon, Private Dining by Happy Concept Group, My Happy Home

Forced to close most of her restaurants due to lockdown restrictions, Happy was prompted to quickly pivot her dining services to take-out/delivery service and her private dining operation to a contactless service. But the earnings were not enough to sustain salaries nor her rental payments.

This led Happy to think outside the box—she opened an online home line called My Happy Home (@my_happyhomeph on IG). It was an overnight success, which led to the opening of a maiden physical store early this year. Born out of prayers, hard work, and employees who helped her through many challenges, the success of the business is something Happy hopes to be able to grow even after the pandemic. 

 

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Tina Legarda 

Chef and owner, Bamba Bistro

Like other restaurants, Chef Tina Legarda’s Bamba Bistro initially shifted to a take-out/delivery-only service at the start of the pandemic. Later on, she launched a Drive-in-Dining service at a vacant lot across Bamba. She also organized a series of special menu pop-ups to cater to the needs of her loyal clientele, who mostly still choose to stay at home but constantly look for ways to safely go out and celebrate special occasions.

According to Chef Tina, it took a pandemic to make her realize how important it is not only to listen to what guests want but to listen to what they really need when they are going through tough times. Addressing her clients’ needs also led her to build a bigger and more “new normal-friendly” Bamba Bistro just a few meters away from the old one—now on soft opening. 

 

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Malou Fores

Chef/owner of Mamou, Mamou Prime

Mamou’s thrust has always been to serve comforting and heartwarming dishes influenced by Malou Fores’ local and foreign travels.

However, when the pandemic struck, it became difficult to deliver the Mamou experience. At the onset of the pandemic, co-owner Jorge “Oye” Forés immediately ensured safety guidelines were in place when it comes to food preparation. Later on, Oye and the Mamou team, including sister restaurants Recovery Food & Made Nice, developed and implemented more practical and safety guidelines to adjust to the pandemic. This included utilizing some of the servers in the actual food delivery.

Malou shares they are still continuing to learn and develop better ways to ensure the safety of their customers as well as their employees. The experience taught her to listen more to the ideas of people around her and to be grateful for every little help and hard work handed their way.

“Every success that you will earn are made possible by your team—from the dishwashers, servers, cashiers, all the way up to their assistant chefs. Be thankful and show appreciation; tell them yourself. They are the secret soldiers that will be by your side throughout your career,” she says.

 

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Katrina Kuhn-Alcantara 

Executive Chef/Entrepreneur, Mesclun Restaurant + Cafe (about to open in Ascott Makati), Mesclun Events Catering, CDP Global Table, Chuck’s Deli, GrowceryMNL, LIT Manila

“The pandemic is a game-changer. We had to close our restaurants and catering, which were my busiest businesses; they went on full stop,” shares Chef Katrina.

Out of her desire to keep most of her workers employed, she immediately put up an online shop called GrowceryMNL as an alternative platform to sell her restaurant meal kits as well as the products of her family’s food-related businesses.

This was followed by the opening of Chuck’s Deli online, which sells sandwiches and breads. She set up their own delivery system so that she can hire her furloughed servers to deliver.

Mesclun Catering, on the other hand, started selling packed meals for online meetings, birthdays, and weddings—they deliver these meals to multiple addresses. CDP restaurant eventually reopened when Rockwell started its Streetside Dining.

As for her intimate Japanese bar LIT, she converted it to an open-air set-up, with fun restaurant pop-up events like socially distanced Yakitori nights. 

 

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Kriza Palmero 

Chef, Pilya’s Kitchen 

Manileños no longer need to travel far to satisfy their cravings for Biangbiang noodles, a Northern Chinese staple from the province of Shaanxi. All they have to do is check out Stall 11 at The Grid of the Power Plant Mall. Chef Kriza Palmero of Pilya’s Kitchen will be there pulling, stretching those chewy noodles that you can enjoy with your preferred sauce or soup. 

Who is Chef Kriza? This young chef honed her cooking skills in New York, working for the Restaurant Associates group before landing the sous-chef position at Very Fresh Noodles in New York’s Chelsea Market. After being based in the Big Apple for seven years, she finally went home last December 2019 with initial plans of opening a food truck in Siargao that will offer Mexican street food. That plan got derailed when the pandemic happened. 

After much prodding from her siblings, she ended up pursuing a quarantine home-based business with an opening menu comprised of biangbiang noodles. It became an instant hit. She later on grabbed the opportunity to open Pilya’s Kitchen at The Grid when a stall was offered to her last January.

Reflecting on how she finally opened her first own food venture, Chef Kriza shares there are still a lot of things she needs to learn along the way. But she’s ready to do what it takes. “Don’t be discouraged if things don’t go your way,” she says. “You have to want it so bad. But you also need to be patient with the process and, of course, with yourself. You’ll never know what can happen if you don’t give it a try.”

 

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Quenee Vilar

Chef/partner, Sambar

Quenee Vilar has always considered herself an F&B baby, growing up in a family of good cooks and restauranteurs. But it wasn’t until after taking a culinary elective in her senior year when she realized she was really destined for the same path.

At 28, this young female chef had already shown she’s a force to reckon with in the restaurant industry, after working stints at two highly-regarded local restaurants—“Your Local” and the now-defunct “Hey Handsome,” where she worked alongside Chef Nicco Santos, who she considers her mentor.

Last May, Quenee partnered with Chef Nicco and launched Sambar, an Asian food delivery service operating out of the latter’s condo pad. Theirs is undoubtedly one of the most exciting concepts to open during this pandemic. The two chefs have been churning out restaurant-quality Southeast Asian food despite the space limitations, with the desire to also inspire other restaurant industry people to not lose hope. 

“We are working hard and smart to showcase that we can still produce the same vibe and quality in such a small and limited space. We also wanted to recreate the same feelings with our guests, just like how we were doing it in the restaurant. Little by little, we are learning how to do things better after each encounter,” Quenee shares.

 

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Miko Calo

Chef de cuisine/partner, Metronome and Lazy Oeuf by Metronome

The Philippine-born, Paris-educated chef Miko Calo trained and worked hard in the kitchens of Joel Robuchon in Paris, London and Singapore, before she opened her first restaurant—a modern French bistro called Metronome in July 2019.

Like many other restaurants, Metronome temporarily closed its doors to the public when the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) was implemented last March 2020. It reopened shortly after to help feed medical frontliners, before going back to business with a new bistro lunch menu. 

During the lockdown, Chef Miko was also able to create a new take-away brand called Lazy Oeuf by Metronome with the goal of helping her staff weather the current crisis. 

“The pandemic allowed me to explore other concepts within our Metronome brand. It also tested our character and resilience and gave me a deeper appreciation and admiration of our team’s dedication. I also learned a lot from my business partners, and drew strength and guidance from them,” Chef Miko shares.

 

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Rhea SyCip

Executive Pastry Chef, The Fatted Calf Farmhouse Kitchen; Executive Chef, Flour Pot Rum Cakes Manila + Café; Food and Beverage Director, Holiday Inn and Suites Makati

I sometimes wonder if Chef Rhea SyCip has time to sleep, with everything that’s on her plate. She is probably one of the busiest chefs in town—running the kitchen of a resto and a cafe, and serving as F&B director of a hotel. So I can imagine the big adjustment when the pandemic struck. 

According to her, the first few months of the pandemic were the toughest. “It was like being caught in uncharted territories that was impossible to navigate. With no books, operation manuals nor references on what to do.”

But she quickly managed the situation in all her forts with flying colors. She did this by providing services that seemed impossible to do during a lockdown. She shifted the hotel’s direction to providing a full-meal delivery service and pivoted her Cavite-based bakeshop operations to offer direct-to-home deliveries of premium cakes and pastries all over Metro Manila. 

And as if she wasn’t busy enough, Chef Rhea surprised everyone by opening her dream café, Flour Pot Al Fresco Cafe at Cliffhouse Tagaytay, last December 2020. It’s like a reward to herself for surviving the year. 

“As we continue to adjust to this new normal, we need to encourage, appreciate and affirm not only our people but, ourselves, too,” says Chef Rhea. “We need to continue to create and inspire as we thread this pandemic carefully.”

 

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Photo from @analorenzanadeocampo on Instagram

Ana Lorenzana de Ocampo

Co-founder and CEO, Wildflour Bakery + Cafe Corp.

During the start of the lockdown last March 2020, there were only a few restaurants able to pivot immediately to a take-out/delivery operation. I wasn’t surprised at all that the Wildflour group was one of them. 

“While we continued to remain as active as ever during the entire duration of the quarantine, the start of the pandemic (especially the lockdown and ECQ period) served as a pause button for us to reassess the strengths of the business and the resources and channels we had at our disposal to be able to reach our customers despite the complete disallowing of dine-in service,” says Ana.

Soon, they launched Wildflour-to-go, their own in-house e-commerce platform for ordering, delivery, and pick-up. They did this simultaneously with the Wildflour Pantry, their in-store and online marketplace that carries a substantial selection of ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat staples. Both are accessible at wildflourtogo.com and the new “Wildflour app.” These new innovations “solidified our place in the online and retail spheres,” says Ana.

To make being stuck in the world’s longest lockdown even more manageable, Ana who is actually a trained pastry chef, introduced new cakes and pastries. This included a new line of cronuts with proudly Pinoy flavors and specialty cakes that included the heavenly mixed nuts sansrival.

Wildflour also just opened their biggest branch yet at the Bonifacio Global City that features a larger outdoor dining area, aside from a “new normal-friendly” layout indoors that includes a grab-and-go counter area with the biggest selection of breads and pastries to-go. 

“All of these initiatives helped establish new pillars of revenue potential in our company that have ultimately allowed us to diversify our portfolio and we hope to emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever,” says Ana.