The gourmands of Instagram adore her cooking.
The food influencer @jinlovestoeat says that of the dishes she’s tried since the start of quarantine, she’s only had a few that trumps those served in restaurants—and the dishes at @jencooksph are on top of that short list.
The writer JJ Yulo, or @nekkidchef, says @jencooksph is now one of his go-tos for Chinese comfort food, having recently fallen in love with her latest offering: the silken egg with seasoned pork.
“Jencooksph has only three items on her menu but all are very good,” writes foodie and lifestyle chronicler Pepper Teehankee. And they all “remind me of home-cooked meals when I was young.”
People often remark about the nostalgic quality of her dishes, as often perhaps as when they say her food tastes clean—which I take as their way of saying it does not leave a greasy coating in the mouth, the ingredients are fresh, and nothing in it tastes artificial. I’ve tried all her three original dishes recently and it became one of the more pleasurable dining experiences I’ve had since March. Her stuffed eggplant will take you back to a Chinese resto you think of with fondness; her braised beef with tendon is sweet and soft and flavorful; and her hand-pulled aromatic chicken just ended my search for an excellent Hainanese chicken alternative in Manila.
Who is she?
@jencooksph is actually Jenny Chan Tan. She says each of her dishes is inspired by a different country but they all find their roots in China. “China has many provinces and each has its own specialty," she says. "From there, these dishes spread all over Asia, and were adapted by locals. Hence, I did too—adjusting the flavor to suit the Filipino palate.”
Jenny never had any formal training in cooking. The dishes on her menu were built from trials and mistakes. “Let's just say I am simply matakaw!” she says over Facebook Messenger. “I only learned how to cook the day after I got married. Before that, cup noodles was my best friend! I couldn't even tell a garlic from ginger and onion!”
She’s had one memorable epic fail in the kitchen early on. “I recall the very first dish I made: Lasagna. I was so proud to serve it to my then fiancé, now my husband. I heard crunching sounds as he was chewing. Then he commented, ‘This tastes good, but did you boil the noodles?’”
Jenny had no idea. She baked the pasta raw along with the sautéed filling.
The mistake challenged her more than anything. From then on, she continued to study. “Cookbooks were my professor. Too bad they can't talk or else my journey would have been easier,” Jenny says. “I made hundreds of dishes. Failures and successes were a part of it. There were times I wanted to give up but the feeling of accomplishment when I make a good dish keeps me going.”
Her family owning a Chinese restaurant—the Tong Kee Restaurant in Shaw Boulevard—didn’t hurt either. Jenny managed it when she was younger. “We had an authentic Chinese chef, who made claypot dishes, congee and other specialties. I would always go to the kitchen, watch and ask questions. Maybe that was how my interest was piqued!”
Unlike many stories of exquisite Chinese cooking, Jenny’s journey doesn’t involve an ahma who ruled over the family kitchen. What she has is a supportive other half with an exacting taste. “He wants clean-tasting dishes. So I made meals that are simple, fresh tasting and savoury," says Jenny. "He was my staunchest critic and greatest supporter. One time, he made a comment about my dish: ‘It is good but people might compare your cooking to their ahma or grandma and say their ahma made it better.’
“I replied, ‘Well, my ahma never cooked for me so I wouldn't know.’”
Waiting for umami
It’s easy to understand why Jenny decided on a modest menu despite her obvious talent for cooking. Every dish is so well-thought of in @jencooksph and each must have taken her hours and days to get right. They are fragrant, Instagram-friendly and they travel well.
To get an idea of the kind of work that went into them, she said it took two months of trial and error to get her Braised Beef Tendon just the way she wanted it. When she got the flavor right, she realized she had to change the meat—the part she used bordered on the pricey and will make the dish expensive. “I had to find an alternative that will provide the same tenderness and flavor,” she recalls. “Everyday, I would go to different butchers and ask them questions. I would buy their suggested part and cook it. This was a process I went through until I was finally happy. My family and I are very particular with our meat. We want it tender, juicy and perfect!”
She says she wants her clients to experience the same satisfaction. She would sometimes stay up until 3 AM cooking, “watching over my dishes and making sure they were perfect,” chasing that umami goodness. She’s never worked this hard in her life, she says. Jenny was exclusively housewife and mother for 17 years before this new adventure came along and started occupying a lot of her time. She used to have a seasonal product—Custard Apples—that she would sell, but that was it. “My days before were spent focusing on my kids: bringing them to and from school, helping them with school work, cooking for my husband and twins, and making sure our home was running smoothly.”
Now she’s running a business. She started with a staff of three and now there’s four, each “angel” assigned her own task. “But overall, I still make the sauce, marinade, cook, and oversee, making sure everything is perfect!” says Jenny. The work is no joke, she discovered. The dishwashing is no joke.
She seems thrilled, though, especially when the good reviews come. Whether it’s from from her husband, her family, or her clients. “Now, the prayer I have long asked for happened: I have my own business. Unforseen, accidental and yet, well-received!” The praise continues to push her to do better, inspire her to create and R&D everyday. “I cannot find the perfect adjective to describe what I feel!” she says. “It is surreal!”