In today’s rapid restaurant scene, not a lot of brands are able to withstand a fickle, discerning, almost faddish market. We’ve seen the quick rise of gastro pubs, food halls, and other new concepts—Instagram-perfect ambiance, truffle oil-laced dishes, “artisanal” beverages, and the list goes on. Sadly, we have also seen how some of these restaurants, cafés or bars’ queues have shortened, their visibility lessened and doors ultimately shut.
Milky Way is an example of how some brands, though not immune to changes in the economy and Filipinos’ dining preferences, have displayed an inspiring example of resilience. In its case, Milky Way’s decades’ long success can be credited to the legacy of a brilliant woman, the late Julie Araullo Gamboa.
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The man who continues to share and live out her story is her son, J Gamboa, Executive Chef of MilkyWay Café who, along with his sister Malu, also run Cirkulo, Azuthai, and Tsukiji Restaurant. This Mother’s Day, Chef J recounts how his mother’s sharp mind, attention to detail, and passion for good hosting have rubbed off on how the siblings manage MilkyWay and their portfolio of other restaurants.
How did your mother’s journey as a restaurateur begin?
It all began right after the Liberation of Manila, during World War II when a Spanish lady, Señora María de Tomás, put up an eatery and ice cream shop to cater to American GIs and to Filipinos who renewed their love for all things American.
Eventually, my grandfather, my mom’s dad, bought the ice cream factory and told my mom and the rest of her Araullo siblings that all of them can use the “Milky Way” brand but with the requirement that none of them can be socios or business partners. This was to encourage a healthy independence and to protect themselves from sibling rivalries.
Soon, my mom had Milky Way in Aguado in San Miguel across Malacañang Palace while my titas had theirs in Malate, EDSA, and in many others. However, my mom had the most and at one point, she ran 16 Milky Way branches. She did executive catering, office cafeterias in Citibank, Development Bank of the Philippines, the Stock Exchange, branches in Shoemart, Greenbelt, Anson Arcade, Jupiter Street. Can you imagine?!
Eventually, in 1982, my parents bought and built this building along Arnaiz Avenue here in Makati and turned it into a one-stop-shop, a culinary hub with a Milky Way turo-turo on the ground floor, a bar and lounge, and several function rooms.
How hands on was your mother in running the business?
My mom loved growing the business. She was very persistent and spotted where things had to be streamlined. She liked making menus, instructing cooks what to create, tested the dishes herself.
She was a CPA (certified public accountant) and was extremely detail oriented. Her keen eye can survey a dining area and she’d spot, for example, a wrongly-placed piece of cutlery even if it was on a table at the far corner of the room. It may sound exaggerated but my mom had an inherent talent in perceiving what was off and what works.
What was her mantra in business?
My mother knew that this business is about service, and she really loved managing the dining experience. From the moment the guest enters the building, she knew you had to create great experiences at every touch point: from the guard who helps you with parking, to the entrance that has to be bright and clean, to the dining room with good temperature and beautiful environment, until the moment you are helped to the car when you leave. These, apart from good food, are aspects of dining she valued and ensured were all in order.
For mom, to be successful in the restaurant business, you didn’t just manage the quality of food but you also had to make sure your chairs are sturdy, your staff are pleasant and that when you leave, you properly bid them farewell and thank them. Simply put, each moment is an opportunity to delight.
How has MilkyWay and your other restaurants managed to keep loyal clients through the decades?
It’s doing the same things in the most consistent manner. We noticed that once we change even the tiniest ingredient, our loyal customers notice.
Our recipes are classics and are from way back, and I am their guardian. They’re part of our heritage. They have been standardized, and followed day-in, day-out. Same recipes, same ingredients or better. If we find a new ingredient that makes the dish more delicious, more tender, or if it’s easier to procure or takes less time to cook, maybe we’d consider.
A dish is a sum of its ingredients and proper technique. Just because something is cheaper, it doesn’t mean we’d choose it.
And I think this is another secret of our restaurants: we believe we have value for money, and our customers know and appreciate this. We give you the best that we can provide by using ingredients and employing techniques that are best for a dish.
I also believe in investing in equipment. I go to trade shows and check out the latest products available because these can really make your restaurants more efficient and improve the overall quality of your dishes. Good equipment is what will help you reach the finish line.
You and your sister Malu are known for your personal approach in running your restaurants. Can you describe your management style?
Yes, Malu and I are very hands-on. She manages front of house while I run the kitchen. Malu or I would always be here. The guests see us, we welcome them and make sure that they receive the experience they came for. Whether it’s just having an afternoon halo-halo at MilkyWay, a kaiseki dinner at Tsukiji, a 50th birthday in Cirkulo, or they have vegetarian guests at Azuthai—whatever they need, if we can do it, we will do it.
Our staff here too have been with us for decades, and the managers are my mom’s A-team. We don’t have employees on contractual basis; everyone is regular. Because of this, we can train and invest in them. Thus, they have been loyal and truly engaged. This creates a big difference and enables them to render hospitality that is superb. Since they have been around for a while, they know our guests and some of them are treated like they’re part of our guests’ own families.
Our staff know what our clients like, when their birthdays are, they know everything! This seamless and instinctive brand of hospitality keeps us on top of our game.
They are also part of our own family.
How have your dishes achieved their “classic” or emblematic status that when you crave halo-halo, kare-kare, dinuguan, or chicken asparagus sandwich, you think of MilkyWay? Or if you want cochinillo, paella, and gambas, Cirkulo comes to mind?
Making the same things the same way, every day. It’s about demanding the highest standard for each and every item that comes out of our kitchen. It’s about being consistent, which entails a lot of hard work.
I had a guest who told me once, “J, your gambas here tastes like how it tasted on Day one.” I told him, “I know.” And he asked me how could I know and I said, “I know because I make it.”
Doing things the same way always is not simple. If a recipe has, for example, 20 steps, I have to make sure the cook does not short cut it because the dish will not come out the same way.
All this comes full circle to your mother. Do you credit this approach to hospitality to your mom?
Absolutely! My mom set the example, and she’s far better than me and Malu combined. She would be here early in the morning and make sure that all our restaurants were ready for lunch service.
Malu and I believe that you have to go out, travel a lot, eat out, see the best out there—and these we can credit to our mom.
In the 1970s, when all the five-star hotels were being built here in Manila, my mom would bring us to have merienda in these new establishments and exposed us early on. Among the stuff she kept, she had menus of these luxury restaurants and cafés, and this left a lasting impression on us. Our mom was always on the look-out for the best and finest.
If you think we’re busy, we’re doing just half of what she used to do! She was relentless. She ran 16 restaurants in a time when there were no mobile phones and the Internet!
Was your mom supportive of you becoming a chef?
I have to admit, I myself avoided being a chef in the beginning. Back in the day, a profession in the kitchen wasn’t seen as cool. I went to UP and took up Political Science, and I truly enjoyed my time there. Upon my sister’s invitation, I transferred to the United States. Surprisingly, I took up a course related to hospitality and finished my degree in Hotel, Restaurant & Travel Administration from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I had one cooking course, though, which I really enjoyed and excelled at. Upon graduation, I worked in Boston doing purchasing for all these restaurants, and guess who I dealt with for five days a week from 7 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon? Chefs!
Eventually, I went to the Culinary Institute of America and my mom was very supportive all through out.
“J, do what you want to do?” she told me. She never really expected or asked me to join her but when Malu came back from Spain wanting to open a tapas bar in Manila, that’s when I decided to help out. Eventually, I became the creative and executive chef of all our restaurants, and I think we continue to honor my mom by successfully running them with gusto.
On a day like Mother’s Day, how did you celebrate it with your mom? Would you stay home or would you dine out?
She would have been here, in the middle of things, busy! Mother’s Day is perhaps one of the busiest days for our restaurants and she would have made sure everything would be running smoothly.
MilkyWay Café, 900 Arnaiz Avenue, Makati City, (02) 843-4124; Power Plant Mall, Rockwell Center, Makati City, (02) 898-0794; www.cafe.milkywayrestaurant.com
Photograph by Pat Mateo
Food photos courtesy of MilkyWay Cafe
Black and white image in banner published with permission from Malu Gamboa.