Chef Sau del Rosario has had a storied career since he started cooking more than 20 years ago. From his upbringing in Pampanga to the United States, he then honed his culinary chops in France, Singapore, Thailand, Shanghai, before returning to the Philippines where he soon gained prominence. While he is equally adept in French and Asian cuisines, in the past several years, it’s his Filipino cooking that has become his raison d’etre, as he decided to settle back in his hometown of Angeles City in Pampanga to cook his own approach to Kapampangan and Filipino food in Café Fleur and 25 Seeds.
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Del Rosario was invited to represent the Philippines, along with fellow Filipino chef JP Anglo, in the San Sebastian Gastronomika this October. This annual event brings together the who’s who of the culinary world for four days of demonstrations and discussions in the Basque Country’s San Sebastian, a city renowned for its pintxos bars and Michelin-starred restaurants.
This year was the first time for the Philippines to be represented at the Gastronomika, a rare honor that allowed del Rosario to share several stories—his family, his fellow Aetas, his province of Pampanga, cacao, and sisig—in one grand narrative that ties in to this year’s theme, the galleon trade.
Fresh off his Gastronomika presentation, del Rosario recounted to ANCX the highlights of this unforgettable experience:
How it happened
Six months ago, I got this e-mail invitation from the organizer of the San Sebastian Gastronomika. At first, I turned it down because I thought I would be very busy for the SEA Games. They insisted, “You should come because this is once in a lifetime and we want the Philippines to be well represented.” They eventually convinced me to say yes.
The Gastronomika is even more prestigious than Madrid Fusion because, I was told, Madrid Fusion focuses more on techniques and personalities, while Gastronomika focuses more on the food and the story. I think the reason why this is the first time Filipinos were invited is because we played a big role in the Spanish galleon trade.
I asked Felice Sta. Maria (a writer and food historian), “Please help me out because I’m so nervous to present this. The people who are invited are the likes of Arzak, Berasategui, Roca (Spanish culinary giants, all with three Michelin-starred restaurants).” She told me, “Sau, don’t be nervous. I’m at your disposal.” Felice bombarded me with so much information about our food history, how the galleon trade affected our country in terms of cuisine, culture, religion.
In San Sebastian, I brought my assistant, Bong Sagmit, who is a very promising chef in Pampanga. For my presentation, I brought 75 percent of everything, even the plates. I was scared we wouldn’t find what we needed there.
On family and struggle
On the day itself, I was so nervous. Before my presentation was the one by Elena Arzak who is the star of San Sebastian. The expectations were so high and I was watching her the whole time. And then, after me, it would be Roca and Berasategui. I felt so privileged and at the same time pressured!
In my AVP, to present myself, I gave a short story of where I come from, Pampanga, the generations of chefs in my family, and what brought us to the United States during the Mount Pinatubo eruption. I decided to move to France and struggled and worked in Michelin star restaurants in Singapore, Thailand, and Shanghai before coming back to the Philippines. One of the reasons why I came back is to give back.
I felt very emotional because I talked about my relationship with my father who was a chef. I didn’t want to be like him because he was nowhere to be found at home since he had to work. As a young kid, I never understood that. But since I became a chef, the more I love my father. Then I had to stop talking, because when you press the wrong button, like my father, I end up crying. It’s really my life story. That’s why whatever I do, I dedicate to him.
My AVP also told the story of the Aeta (indigenous people, some of whom live in Pampanga) and their struggle. We cooked together, we hunted, I spent overnight with them. And the people watching loved it, they cried, they clapped.
After the AVP, I was told that I received the biggest applause because the audience liked the diversity I showed them. I thanked them for giving this opportunity to introduce our food and culture, then I cooked two dishes—champorado and sisig—and both were well received.
I’ve been reading a lot about our cacao and chocolate, and it’s world class. I found out that cacao came from Mexico or Peru, and it was brought to the Philippines through the galleon trade. So my story is about cacao.
One half of the cacao, I used for champurrado de bacalao with sticky rice, made more Spanish with bacalao instead of tuyo. In Mexico, they have something similar, also called champurrado, a beverage with rice crispies. The other half of the cacao, I fermented the flesh of the seeds for three months, and it became a vinegar which turned out beautifully. As it aged, it developed a sherry flavor and a little chocolate note towards the end. The vinegar became a little sweet which is very good.
Everytime I go anywhere, I bring sisig. It’s always a blockbuster, and to think, it’s something new in Philippine cuisine. We submitted the recipe of sisig to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. If it’s included in this list, that means sisig will be ours. Nobody will take that away. There are so many versions of sisig nowadays, using mayonnaise, pig’s brain, chicharon. With UNESCO, we mark it as ours and it’s not from Spain or Mexico, it’s ours.
I demonstrated sisig using my cacao vinegar, serving it inside a cacao pod. In preparing the sisig, imagine how many pork masks we had? To get rid of the hair, we were blow torching, grilling them, and everybody was taking photos, even Berasategui. After the demo, I received 17 messages asking for the sisig recipe!
When preparing in the kitchen on the first day, we were with all the big chefs. They were very nice to us, like Bel Coelho of Brazil and also the Arzak group were beside me. I was working with Bong, but at the same time, we were looking around like fanboys. I think that’s the beauty about the experience, getting to know the chefs, other cultures, taking photos with them. We became close, we exchanged numbers, we exchanged Instagrams, and then I learned their techniques. They’re very generous.
After my presentation, there was this petite woman in a blue shirt and jeans who approached me and said, “Chef, that was wonderful. I love the presentation. You were great.” And she said, “I love the Philippines. I’ve been there and I’m so glad you’re here to represent your country.” I said, “Oh, thank you!” And then, she smiled and left, and I asked my assistant, “Who is she?” He said, “Chef, she’s Elena Arzak!” Oh, my God! So I had to run and catch up with her, saying, “Chef, chef, chef! Thank you for the kind words. I’m a big, big fan of yours but I didn’t recognize you. I’m really sorry.”
There were probably 20 chefs who were asking for a photo with us, not because of me but because they’re in love with Philippine cuisine. They came from Algeria, Romania, Russia, Ireland, chefs from Berasategui, from Arzak. They said, “We remember you, the one who almost cried on stage.” I replied, “No, I didn’t cry. I was just so emotional.”
Adventures in Spain
It was my first time in San Sebastian. Of course, I had to immerse myself in what’s going on, with all the pintxos. The food was glorious. I memorized all the places in San Sebastian, eating Galician meat and drinking the local wine txakoli. We went to all the top pintxos bars and we made friends with the locals. My most favorite pintxos is called Gilda (olives, chilies, anchovies on toothpick). Of course, I went to La Viña, one of my highlights because I’m a big fan of their burnt cheesecake. And I got the recipe!
After eating all those pintxos, on the last day, I told Bong, “We did a very good job. I’ll treat you to France.” So we drove to Bordeaux and drank wine in St. Emilion. We came back at 11 o’clock and then we still went for pintxos! The following day, I flew to Madrid, then visited Murcia and Toledo. I also went to Valencia to learn how to make the real paella Valenciana.
For the country
Overall, my experience was the best time of my life. It was so emotional. JP Anglo’s and my presentations were well-received. I told the organizers that I’ll be coming back next year. And they already want another Philippine representative to speak next year. So it’s going to be a yearly thing!
What brought us to San Sebastian is because of Philippine cuisine, not because we are Chef Sau or Chef JP. I wanted to show the diversity of our cuisine. I get emotional because of how deep it is, how colorful, like a kaleidoscope of flavors and textures, and a collage of different cultures. That’s the beauty of it. I hope they now have a clear picture of what Philippine cuisine is all about. The story of our food, our heritage, and I think the relationship with Spanish cuisine.
People ask me, “How come you’re successful as a chef?” I say it’s because I’m Filipino. I grew up surroundeed by cooks, that’s why I’m doing this for Pampanga. I went back to where I came from to give thanks. I’m paying back now. Maybe they might not remember me, but one thing’s for sure, they will remember Philippine cuisine and that’s my task.