“It’s a great experience being in the kitchen, when you see people enjoying the food you prepare and when you rise up to a challenge,” Chef Gene muses. Photograph by Patrick Mateo
Food & Drink Features

After being diagnosed with cancer, Gene Gonzalez found his way back to the garden and the kitchen

Despite the health and business setback, the chef maintains the same fervor as the twenty-something that opened Café Ysabel in 1982. He's also more patient after he was diagnosed with the Big C six years ago. “I probably became less of a bastard in the kitchen [after that]."
Nana Nadal | Apr 21 2019

It’s been almost a year since Café Ysabel opened at its new address, a 1917 structure along M. Paterno Street in San Juan, after having to close down at its longtime P. Guevarra Street location. “We lost the lease and at the price the property was being sold, it was impossible to come up with monthly amortizations, so we said we will just get out,” says Chef Patron Gene Gonzalez, explaining the reason for the transfer.  

The new site is still a work in progress. But the habitués are back, ordering favorites they’ve enjoyed since the restaurant was established in 1982. “We’re pretty traditional here, our regular menu is basically straightforward. Grilled steak, fried chicken, nothing really that fancy. It just has to be done well and there’s always that element of excitement in the peripherals,” describes Chef Gene.

 

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It took them 14 months of construction before they could open at the new site.

Café Ysabel’s kitchen can also whip up haute cuisine, but that has to be arranged in advance. Chef Gene shares that he has been receiving more requests for degustation menus again, which he introduced some 30 years ago. The kitchen team can prepare a special tasting selection for as few as two persons. “It has to be personal!” he exclaims after seeing our incredulous reaction.

A graduate of Behavioral Science, the then 23-year-old Gene Gonzalez had no formal culinary training when he opened Café Ysabel. He cooked by oido and sharpened his skills by preparing meals for his friends on weekends. It wasn’t until a few years later that he signed up for classical cooking classes and enrolled at the California Culinary Academy and Culinary Institute of America.

These days, Chef Gene invests a lot of time connecting with his guests. “I really wanted to get back to being grounded with my clients and doing it on a daily basis,” he claims. For a while he was taking on too much corporate work. “I was busy cooking the food of other restaurants. At the time, lost ako,” he reveals. Having direct contact with his market now makes him happier and provides him a better inkling of what dishes would click. This helps him develop seasonal blackboard specials. “We always want to carry a touch of innovation, and these keep the staff on their feet and excited.”

Looking at how the dining tables are configured, Café Ysabel has obviously transformed into a family restaurant. But a special area has been designated for those out on a date. “We want to bring back being a date place,“ shares Chef Gene.

Chef Gene has always been big on learning new things. “You always have to update your skills. It’s important because you have to be in touch with the whole world. Food is not static, it’s dynamic, it’s evolving. Ever since I started, I said I’m going to put off some of my time where I’m going to study once a year,” he recalls. “But studying in terms of skills development is like 40 percent of what you take. It’s when you go outside and look at what you studied and see the applications and then suddenly you get all these ideas and you get inspiration. When you come back you’re fresh,” he continues.

Polly’s Pasta is a combination of Calumpit sausage, Kalamata olives, basil, and torched kesong puti. It is one of Café Ysabel’s staple dishes, named after a frequent guest.

Lately, he has been collecting knowledge on gardening. “I was gardening before, but this time I am serious about it,” he declares. He’s been joining online discussions, making new friends in the industry, and visiting farms. The idea is to get into foraged food. So expect to see edible landscaping in the 3,000-square meter compound shared by Café Ysabel and his school, the Center for Asian Culinary Studies (CACS). “I’m finishing my greenhouse here. Every morning we harvest wild Talinum flowers and Ternate. Also wild cucumbers, yung pipinito.

He’s also growing figs, which he looks forward to serving more of by next year. But this new venture of his has taught him more than just about flora. “Gardeners are very hopeful people, they’re positive thinkers, they are very patient people.”

“I was gardening before, but this time I am serious about it,” he declares.

Chef Gene also developed patience after he was diagnosed with cancer six years ago. “I probably became less of a bastard in the kitchen, I was probably more forgiving,” he laughs. His treatment, which included surgery and radiation, lasted for about a year. He took an active participation in his healing by working on his diet and preparing his own meals. “I was very deep into researching. That whole phase, I was vegetarian. I was eating everything that could kill the cancer. I became fair-skinned because of all the antioxidants I was taking,” he chuckles. “I was hardly working because I was quite shaken,” he admits. “You will always have the fear but it’s what you can do. You prepare for whatever has to happen, you get through it.”

He also found his way back to praying. “I guess if you feel that you’re near death, you sort of try to make amends with people and with the Lord. It’s being a spiritual person and you get to respect people who are also spiritual, it could be other religions,” he emphasizes while showing us the mukhi beads he is wearing around his neck.

Through the years, there were several times when Café Ysabel almost had to close—when trouble was brewing during the Marcos years, during the brownout years of Cory, and in the middle of the dollar crash during Erap’s term. “It’s devastating because you’re in a rut but you have to keep on praying, keep on working hard to get out of it,” he says.

He has been on remission for the past five years. All is good, life goes on. He is back to fencing and is training for a competition in Taipei this October. He is also setting up his art studio so he can continue painting, he’s had seven one-man shows so far. And of course he still does consultancy and teaches at CACS.

But he’s really focused on making Café Ysabel better than ever, unfazed by the setback of having to start anew. “It’s just a career problem. You have to try to find ways, you have to adapt. There’s got to be some touch of reinventing yourself,” he shrugs. “It’s going to be a long hard climb,” he acknowledges. Clearly, he’s up for it.

 

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“You always have to update your skills. Food is not static, it’s dynamic, it’s evolving."

Another item under the Summer Specials menu is the enormous and very Instagrammable 450-gram pan-seared pork porterhouse with citrus mashed potato and wild fig confit harvested from the Café Ysabel garden.

The Habladurias is definitely something to talk about. Slices of the rear portion of the ox tongue in tomato brown sauce is topped with toasted onions, and served with runny citrus mashed potato. The meat is creamy with an element of game, perfect with wine.

The Grilled Sardines was recently introduced as part of the Summer Specials. The humble yet flavorful Tuway are served with fruit salsa drizzled with Greek-style dill vinaigrette, plus saffron rice.

A combination of then and now, this Strawberry Shortcake has evolved to become the new iconic dessert of Café Ysabel.

Parts of the old building were incorporated into the structure such as the paintings, the ceiling, and the façade.

The complete provenance of the structure has yet to be researched but it is a home built around 1917.

Cafe Ysabel accommodates private functions, you can have the entire place for your exclusive use or occupy any of several small function rooms.

Chef Gene constantly likes to surprise his guests - whether it's with a complimentary amuse bouche concocted spontaneously, an interesting twist added to a classic dish, or a completely new creation that's off menu.

 

Café Ysabel is located at 175 M. Paterno Street, San Juan. The restaurant can accommodate private functions and offers catering services too. For inquiries, call (02) 725-5089.

Photographs by Patrick Mateo