People just come and go in carinderias. Eat and run, they call it. But not students. Students hang out, chat, take forever on their phones, claim their spot—like Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey claiming that huge sofa at Central Perk. Students get territorial with these places, which sometimes become second homes. They form connections with the wait staff, or the nice lady who runs the operation. Like the batches and batches of UST students to Nanay Gay (pronounced like the English word ‘guy’) of Heaven’s Taste in Sampaloc, Manila.
Nanay Gay, or Ligaya Piadoche, passed away a week ago and messages of shock and sadness poured out from Thomasians ex and present, many sounding like they lost a relative, and some a second mom. Her death surprised many, not least her family. She had hypertension but had maintenance medicine for it, says eldest son Reggie, and as far as the Piadoches know, there was nothing else ailing the 57-year-old matriarch. “She died in her sleep,” says the eldest son—but Nanay Gay did not complain of any ache or pain the nights and days prior.
In fact, when Tatay Roque, her husband, arrived home from overtime work last March 6, Nanay Gay was her normal self. The couple chatted past midnight. Reggie’s twin brother, Alvin, who works from home and was on a night shift, even checked on his parents’ room later and saw Nanay Gay resting but still awake.
In the morning, however, around 6, when Tatay Roque turned to embrace his wife, her body had turned cold. “Binuksan ni Tatay ang ilaw,” says Reggie, “at doon niya nakitang wala nang buhay si Nanay.”
Stunned by what he saw, Tatay Roque immediately called Alvin who rushed to his parents’ room. “Akala ng kapatid ko, inaatake o nahihirapan huminga si Nanay,” Reggie recalls. “Hindi niya in-expect na wala nang buhay.”
Later at the hospital, attending physicians tried to revive Nanay Gay a good 10 times but failed. The family opted not to have her body autopsied but according to the Piadoches, on her death certificate, the mother-of-three died of cardiac arrest.
Nanay Gay’s death may have possibly been brought about by a recent event, Reggie tells ANCX. “Siguro kasi madami siyang iniisip. Kasi almost two weeks ago, namatay ang kapatid niya. Galing siya ng Bacolod. Siguro dinamdam niya ang pagkawala ng kapatid niya.”
Finding a better life in Manila
Ligaya was only 17 when she decided to move to Manila from Bacolod to find work. She needed a steady source of income so she could send money for the treatment of her ailing father. The young Negrense initially worked as a kasambahay. “Naging mabait naman ang amo niya,” says Reggie. “Itinuring siyang parang kapamilya na. Pinag-aral siya.”
Gay would later discover her penchant for cooking while assisting her boss’ wife in managing a company canteen. When her boss retired from work and the family moved to the province, Gay put up her own humble food delivery business.
It was around 2006 when, thru a sibling, Gay met the owner of Heaven’s Touch, an eatery in Asturias St., Sampaloc, Manila, a stone’s throw away from the UST campus. “Noong una, wala halos customer [ang karinderya],” Reggie recalls. “Kaya in-invite si Nanay kung pwede niyang saluhin.”
At first, Gay was just a cook in the eatery, but in 2009, she was entrusted by the Heaven’s Touch owner to take over its management. “Nung nagsimulang i-manage ni Nanay ang Heaven’s Touch, doon na siya nakilala ng mga estudyante ng UST,” says Reggie.
She also wooed people in nearby establishments to her eatery. “May computer shop doon. Nakikipagkuwentuhan lang siya sa mga nagko-computer,” Reggie says. Nanay Gay would invite them over to Heaven’s Touch for a bottle of soft drinks and later on to try the food.
Word about Heaven’s Touch spread fast in the area. UST students started dining there in 2007, but the very first “tambays” or loyal customers, says Reggie, were from UST batch 2009. The son shows us framed graduation pictures of the batch hanging on the wall of the eatery, which is now located in nearby Concepcion Street.
Reading through the messages on Heaven’s Taste and Nanay Gay’s social media accounts, it’s clear the lady and her eatery own a special place in the hearts of many Thomasians. They appreciate the fact that her food remained good and budget-friendly thru the years (the priciest meal on the menu is P110). They remember the bestselling Chicken Barbecue, Chicken Americana, Auntie Belle (hotdog omelet), Pork Chop a la Fran, and Pork Sisig. But it’s really how Nanay Gay treated the students, says Reggie, that made all the difference.
“During the eulogy, someone shared na si Nanay ang parang tumayong ina niya,” offers Reggie—which explains the Nanay Gay moniker. Reggie describes his mother as “caring pero prangka, palaging nagbibiro at nang-aasar, at sobrang masayahin.” A mother, yes, but also a friend. Which is likely why the kids were drawn to her.
She was generous and looked after the students. She allowed them to dine in the eatery if she found out their allowance didn’t arrive on time. “Nay, pautang muna,” they would tell her.
“Hindi naglilista ng utang si Nanay. Bahala na ang estudyante na ilista ang utang niya. Bahala na din sila mag-compute. Nasa kanila na din kung kailan sila magbabayad. Hindi raw magaling na businesswoman ang nanay ko,” Reggie says with a knowing smile.
Nanay Gay was a trusted confidant to students. “Minsan pag may problema ang mga students, mas nag-o-open up pa sila kay Nanay kaysa sa totoong magulang nila. Yung bond kasi nandoon,” he says. When a student needed to bring a guardian to school, Nanay Gay would agree to show up. She even brought a student to a hospital one time after the latter got into an accident. A UST alumnus once visited Nanay Gay when he received his first paycheck. “Nay, sumuweldo na ako,” the alumni proudly told her.
Heaven’s Taste became the official tambayan for many batches of UST students since 2009. “Actually yung mga grupo noong 2009, 2010 hindi sila magkakakilala sa school mismo kasi they were from different colleges. Dito sila nagkakilala sa HT,” Reggie offers. “May mga nabuong friendship, love life, may nagkatuluyan at nagpakasal pa. Parang naging tahanan na ito ng maraming taga UST.”
For Reggie, the reason his mother formed a natural connection with many Thomasians all those years was because she was largely away from her three kids. The Piadoche children growing up had to live with the family of her former boss in Laguna where their school was. Meanwhile, Nanay Gay and Tatay Roque, a mirror installer, had to work in Manila.
Nanay Gay was stationed at the eatery from Monday to Saturday. She did the laundry Sunday mornings and sat thru the three-hour commute to Laguna in the afternoon. Since there’s work again the following morning, she could only briefly check on her kids before heading back to Manila. “Minsan uuwi siya ng madaling araw para makita lang kami saglit tapos babalik na agad siya ng Manila kasi kailangan na niyang magtinda. Tapos pag gising namin, makikita namin na may mga pasalubong na iniwan si Nanay,” recalls Reggie. “Para sa akin, si Nanay ang definition of hardwork.”
Nanay Gay’s eldest proudly tells us he and his siblings were able to complete their college education thru the combined efforts of their parents, relatives, and friends. Twin brother Alvin graduated with a degree in computer engineering and currently works as a a security system engineer in a BPO company. The only girl in the brood finished Education and works as an HR recruiter for a US-based company.
It was Reggie, who graduated with a degree in Mass Communication and finished his Masters in Marketing, who volunteered to help Nanay Gay in managing Heaven’s Taste. During the pandemic, the eatery’s owner sold Villa Maria de Asturias, the building where HT was housed, so the Piadoches had to look for a location to start their food biz anew.
They almost closed shop. “Kasi ang hirap mag-start ng business. Kailangan mo ng malaking puhunan,” says Reggie. What convinced them to continue was the support (seed capital) they got from the original owner of HT, their student-customers, and Angat Buhay Foundation. “Nakapag-start ulit kami dahil sa kanila.” The Concepcion Street Heaven’s Taste is the eatery’s latest incarnation, fully owned by the Piadoches.
While the family wanted to continue what Nanay Gay has started, they had hesitations, especially now that the carinderia’s heart and soul is gone. “Kasi ang nag-push talaga sa business na ito ay yung mother-and-child relationship. We can continue serving the same quality of food, pero yung motherly care, yung ganoong pag-aaruga ng isang ina, hindi namin kayang maibigay,” says Reggie.
But the Piadoches hope to keep the business alive if only to continue honoring Nanay Gay’s legacy, and to keep her memory alive for past and present Thomasians. Of course, things will never be the same. “Sabi nga ng isang [former UST] student,” says Reggie, “‘Paano na kami babalik ng UST? Wala na kaming babalikang Nanay?”
Photos courtesy of Reggie Piadoche