After only making it to the semifinalist and finalist lists in the past several years, Filipina pastry chef Margarita “Margie” Lorenzana Manzke finally snagged herself a James Beard Award, the Oscars of the culinary world. Manzke prevailed this year in the Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker category over 19 semifinalists from different restaurants and bakeries across the United States.
“Many are comparing me to Susan Lucci, [Erica Kane on the long-running soap opera “All My Children”], who was nominated 19 times before she finally took home an Emmy,” Manzke says with a laugh speaking to ANCX. The pastry chef has been nominated a total seven times before her win.
The award holds a lot of meaning, she says, because it recognizes not only her work but also her French-inspired café and bakery Republique, and the work of the team behind it. Unfortunately, Manzke was not able to attend the awarding as she had to be in Tokyo for an event.
Republique, the Los Angeles café, is famed for its wide variety of pastries from croissants, pain au chocolat, and Danishes to macarons, seasonal fruit pies and cakes. But it’s really popular for its baguettes which are a must-order any time of the day, and best paired with homemade jam or with rodolph le meunièr butter and the café’s infamous pan drippings. “Our customers say it’s the best bread and butter,” Manzke volunteers, smiling.
The pastry chef says she actually adheres to simple rules when making her creations. “Our philosophy is less is more and definitely using the best ingredients, what’s in season. If it’s peaches, we start thinking of what we can do with it to make it shine. We don’t put too many ingredients, or do too much to it that the flavor of the peach gets lost.”
While Republique is a French-inspired café, the Pinay chef also tries to incorporate Filipino flavors in her menu whenever she gets the chance. “Growing up in the Philippines, siyempre nami-miss ko rin yung flavors sa atin. I get excited when I see Manila mangoes or pandan or ube kasi hindi naman yun masyadong common dito,” she says. “Pero it has to make sense din. Yung hindi forced.”
At her new fine-dining concept, Manzke, she has more freedom to do this since it offers a tasting menu. “Like right now I have pandan honey cake with coconut. We also have mangoes on the menu because it’s in season and the mangoes here are very similar to Manila mangoes.”
Growing up in the kitchen
Manzke’s parents and grandmother were restaurateurs, so it comes as no surprise that she and her siblings developed an affinity for food. “I grew up in the restaurant kitchen,” says the sixth among eight children. All eight, says Manzke, are involved in the food business in some capacity. Manila diners are quite familiar with her sister Ana Lorenzana de Ocampo, who runs the widely popular Wild Flour Café + Bakery, which Manzke co-owns.
The pastry chef studied culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu in London and at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. “The original plan was to come back home and help with the family business. But along the way, I met my husband [Southern California native, Chef Walter Manzke],” she says.
Manzke initially worked for Chef Walter at the fine-dining restaurant Patina. Then as a couple, they formed a dream team that opened several restaurants across Los Angeles—the Parisian bistro Bicyclette, the Mexican joint Petty Cash Taqueria & Bar, the Filipino restaurant Sari-Sari Store, the café and bakery Republique Café and Bakery, and the Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurant Manzke.
“We've been working with each other for the past 20 years now,” she offers. “It’s a real partnership in the sense na he has his own part and I have my own. Me in the pastry section, he in the kitchen, that’s how it works.”
Management wise, it’s also inevitable they won’t agree with each other all the time. “But we know that we have to compromise and we always do what's best for the business instead of [what’s best for] our own egos.” The two have “opposite personalities” and look at things differently. “But in the end, I think both of those views come together and then we compromise on something.”
Dealing with competition
Since she and her sister Ana are both in the restaurant biz, does she feel some kind of competition between them?
“I think between Wild Flour and Republique, maybe there’s like a healthy competition,” says Manzke, “because the concepts are very similar. But of course, they have their own systems and their own creations.” While the sisters co-own Wild Flour, it’s Ana who’s based in Manila and in charge of the chain’s daily operations and expansion.
We ask the pastry chef if she’s aware of the recent online criticisms on the food at Wild Flour, essentially saying the offerings there can be too expensive. Manzke says “yes, the reviews are important to a certain extent.” They certainly like to get the general consensus of diners but they also know they can’t please everyone.
“One thing is for sure: we always try to use the best ingredients. It’s not cheap to import these expensive ingredients. At the same time, we're also very supportive of the farmers. We keep the quality high and maintain a certain standard. We're okay with criticism because, like I said, you can't really please everybody. But as long as the majority is happy, our employees are happy, and the place is doing well, then that's good for us.”
The real competition, says Manzke, is in Los Angeles because there are many restaurants that offer the same food. This is why it is highly important to get good people, she says, that will keep the food quality and customer service satisfactory.
“We want to make sure that anybody who comes in our doors would leave happy and want to come back,” she says of their business philosophy. “Healthy competition is good. We don't see it in a negative way. It keeps everyone on their toes, so everyone gets better.”
Not a piece of cake
Being a female pastry chef is, well, not a piece of cake, Manzke has found out, especially in the US. “The business is male-dominated and sometimes female chefs are regarded as weaker than a male chef,” she says. “But I think that’s a misconception because now it’s definitely getting better. Some of the strongest chefs I know that I admire are females.”
But being a chef, whether one identifies as male or female, is not easy. Chefs have to put in very long hours in the kitchen. “Yung chefs namin dito work 13 to 14 hours a day,” says Manzke. “The work is very physical, you have to be always on your feet. So, it’s obviously tiring.” Before the pandemic, she used to be at the restaurant as early as 4AM, sometimes 3AM. But since they opened their new restaurants, Manzke and Bicylette, which are geared more towards nighttime service, she’s able to adjust her schedule to come to work later but come home a little later, too.
The upside often outweighs the downside, she says, especially “when you love what you do. The work is very gratifying as well, especially when the restaurant is full and madaming customers na lumalapit sa’yo saying how happy they are and how much they love the food. They’d bring their friends over and they're very proud that they have that restaurant in the city.”
Almost 50, Manzke has achieved a lot in the culinary world—she has opened several restaurants in the United States and in the Philippines, won the James Beard Award, and even published a cookbook called “Baking at Republique.” What’s her next goal? “Now, we're really focusing on trying to get a second Michelin star which would be really, really big for us if we do,” she says. “Kung makuha namin yun, yun na siguro ang pinaka-peak [ng career ko]. Yun ang minimithi namin ngayon.”
But there’s a bigger thing that keeps Manzke going. “I think if you’re really into what you're doing and you love what you do,” she says, “you don't need a lot of motivation because you love doing it.”
Photos courtesy of Chef Margie Manzke