Go back around ten years, and Chef Rob Pengson was literally on top of the local food world, winning accolades for The Goose Station, the pioneering degustation-only restaurant that he opened with his then-wife Chef Sunshine Puey. This was followed by other restaurants (OTKB, Shine Bakery Café, Hungry Hound, Niner Ichi Nana, Hive, to name a few) and a culinary school (Global Academy). Pengson was known as one of the country’s most forward thinking chefs, innovating in his restaurants and cooking school. Then in 2016, beset by personal and business problems, he closed down his restaurants, sold off his shares to his school, and basically left the culinary scene.
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This could have been a cautionary tale, one of an uber-successful chef getting brought down by mistakes and misfortune, never to be heard of again. But this is a far more nuanced story, with Pengson having slowly emerged from the “darkness” he came from, older, hopefully wiser, and still brimming with forward-looking ideas that get him excited to go to work every day.
Just before the Metro Manila quarantine was enforced, ANCX met up with him at his new fine dining restaurant Beso Beso in Chino Roces Avenue Extension in Makati, where he shared his plans about his restaurant, school, catering and food delivery business. But since then, the scenario has changed drastically, and ANCX caught up with him again as he has pivoted his business amidst the current crisis.
How did the ECQ hit you when it was first announced?
All our work with the restaurant and the catering, it got annihilated pretty much. And since we’re a small company, it was very fast for us, we couldn’t sustain keeping the entire team. We really shut down for a good portion of two weeks.
How did you get back on track?
After I went on a drinking binge, I came to the place and cleaned it up. Then we had to redo our entire business model. Now we’re doing delivery and food manufacturing. We opened a new brand called Aleanza Kitchen. We serve international food, like an online cafeteria or online lobby menu, like when you go to a hotel, but super affordable. Anything from paella, Asian, Mexican, bakery.
Before setting up Aleanza Kitchen, take us back to your “dark” years.
For a good part of two years, the first year was hell, super hell, 2016, my gosh it was hell. Everything, personal, chismis, family, fighting, strife, business. It was very difficult and very painful, but then I had my children to motivate me. When I was younger, I went through a lot so I’ve never been someone who gives in. I’m a fighter.
What did you do during your time away from the food scene?
What I realize, what worked in my life is every time I learned, tried to grow, I was able to overcome stuff. So I learned like crazy. I took six (online business) courses in Harvard and two in Wharton. I took a ramen class, sushi class, and now I’m learning how to paint… Every time I would finish a course, I felt good about myself in a time when all the noise around me was telling me, you should not feel good about anything of yourself.
When did you start to bounce back?
For three years, I was teaching entrepreneurship… Then last October (2019), I set up this place called the Aleanza Institute. It’s me coming back to what I love the most which is education and foodservice. Then (last year), we needed a small commissary (in Poblacion) for our catering. We had catering events and I couldn’t cook out of my mom’s house anymore. Then three months into Poblacion, this place (in Chino Roces Avenue Extension) pops up. Wow! It’s beside the MRT, so much parking. So all the equipment, we moved it here.
With ECQ, how have you been able to staff your kitchen?
I’m fortunate that I have a pool of students. Since I got into education, I think the students I have taught are around 10,000 already. A lot of them are friends on Instagram and Facebook. (So I asked), “guys, who’s willing to go back to work?” But condition is, no COVID cases near where you live, you haven’t gone out, and you have a car to get here … If one person gets sick here, everything we’re going to do will stop all over again. Right now, there’s four in the kitchen and then there are two who work from home who handle all our marketing and delivery. And then there’s me… We do temperatures every day, gloves, masks, the works.
How are you setting up your business to help your staff?
I think what’s new in we did is the social economic impact (of our business). As an example, some of our staff cannot come to work and they have no income. So now we’re developing products that are complementary. For example, if they’re in Caloocan, they can sell our tapa, longaniza per order, and they’ll get a cut of the sale… You live in a building where everyone’s cocooning there, then that’s a captured market, may konti kang kita.
And how are you getting the word out?
I realize the power of social media, not so much the whole influencer thing, but more on how it’s connecting people. And to be honest, it’s the only way that we can connect… I started a YouTube channel much to the delight of my children who both want to become YouTubers! To make the channel different, everything that we make in the channel, they can order it. So now, if they like what they see, they can order it through us, and we deliver it on the same day or the next day.
How are you different as a chef today?
I’m calmer now, not like the old chef. Now I’m more understanding of other people’s mistakes, especially when they’re young. I know in my head, my gosh, there are worse things in this life than having the wrong wine on the wine list… I realized that sometimes when you’re a chef, you can get very self-centered. It’s all about me, my food, it’s not a healthy frame of mind.
How do you think the role of chef has changed, especially now?
On a personal level, I used to live for fine dining and everything, but then now, everyone needs healthy food, affordable food. You realize that our role as chefs has gotten to be more important, especially that the food supply is limited, so you have to work with the constraints. In a way, it forces us to be creative. We can’t back down.
What’s life like for you now?
It's very different now for me. My mind was always before in fine dining and whatever. Now I’m so concerned about the lasagna, the paella, the chicken wings when it gets to our customers, how it looks. But I enjoy it. I guess it’s the industry I chose. Also at the same time, you know when you’re a younger chef, you’re always chasing after the accolades, fame, and all that. But I think now, what this crisis may teach people is that the real value of it is the experience you give your customer, no matter if it’s high end or affordable. Can I say that maybe I’m used to a little crisis? So there you go. I like to fight back.
Visit Aleanza Kitchen on Facebook and @aleanzakitchen on Instagram
Photos by Pat Mateo