Cuenca in his Upstairs Bar in BGC. Photographed by Miguel Nacianceno
Food & Drink Features

Elbert Cuenca on scotch tape, snob appeal, and why he names his restaurants after their owner

"I use my name on my establishments because I want it to feel like a personal approach." 
As told to The ANCX Staff | Nov 29 2018

If you sum up what I do and what drives me, my focus is really on the customer experience. I use my name on my establishments because I want it to feel like a personal approach. It’s straightforward: Elbert’s Steak Room, Elbert’s Riedel Room, Elbert’s Sandwich Shop, Elbert’s Upstairs Bar. This is me, inviting you to come to my place. I’m assuring you, as Elbert, that it’s going to be the same quality as what I’ve always been doing.

"This is me inviting you to come to my place," says Cuenca on using his own name to call his establishments.

The Steak Room is on the third floor of a nondescript, dilapidated building. When we first opened, we hadn’t really completed the place yet because we ran out of money while building it. So I had to delay any media coverage—every request, I said, “We’re not ready.” But we were so successful that we realized there was a value to this whole discreet approach. So that’s when I learned: why not not engage the media, do our own thing, and let people come organically? I learned the value of word of mouth and the importance of focusing on your product and having that be your driving force. The Steak Room, to this day, has no signage. I’d like to think that it helped create an image of the brand wherein we’re just quiet and do our own thing, but hey, look—the restaurant is always full.

The steak room's main dining area. Courtesy of Elbert's Steak Room.
Riedel Room Cigar Bar. Photo courtesy of Elbert's Steak Room. 

I just opened the Upstairs Bar on the mezzanine of Mendokoro at BGC. The idea was to create a space that people my age are looking for: a quiet, elegant drinking experience. We wanted to go back to the simplicity of drinking; a comfortable space where you can have a conversation. The result is what I consider a swanky speakeasy, with a focus on the beverages—not too many cocktails, but we do have the basics, plus some really impressive scotch and gins, a decent wine list, and champagne. If you want to just relax and have a proper drink, this is that kind of place.      

When I travel, all my money goes to eating and drinking. What I like to take home are experiences. I’m like a sponge—always observing. We can be at a Starbucks and I’ll look at the noise levels, how they talk, the air conditioning. All these little things I will take notice of and see what I can pick up, either things I shouldn’t do or things I can adopt. There is no single inspiration; it’s more of a combination of things.

Per Se, for example, is Thomas Keller’s Michelin-starred restaurant in New York. I can’t even recall what I ate; I just remember it was good. I remember how graceful the staff was, how synchronized the sequencing of the food, how impeccable the timing was between dishes. It’s almost like they had cameras on our table and knew when to serve the next dish. There, they invest in training their staff—supposedly, they go through ballet lessons for grace and fluidity, which explains why the whole meal felt so good. It’s a sensory, elevated experience, where every sense in your body is taken care of. This is why I’m so happy to be in the service industry, because we’re in the unique position to cater to every sense in the human body. 

When I do things, me and my staff, we all understand that our main objective is to deliver that experience. It’s entertainment, but multi-dimensional. A movie is typically two-dimensional. Us—we’re all dimensions! That’s what makes us unique, and that’s what really motivates me: to be able to please as much of your senses as possible. It’s entertainment, at the end of the day. It’s like a play where, instead of actors, the food are your performers, and the table is your stage. We’re just the stagehands that put it together.

"The result is what I consider a swanky speakeasy, with a focus on the beverages—not too many cocktails, but we do have the basics, plus some really impressive scotch and gins, a decent wine list, and champagne."

My one big takeaway from Per Se was when the bill came—and you know what tipping is like in the US, especially in New York—the bill said: “Service Included.” I had to find out what it meant. I went to Quora.com and I asked: do you tip at Per Se? One guy said, “I work here, and I’ll tell you what: don’t tip. We already have a tip built into the bill.” It’s their version of a service charge. In the Philippines, service charge is added after, and for me, service charge essentially is a forced tip. I realized how good it felt not to have to add to your bill—what they tell you is the price that you pay, and that’s all you pay. And since you didn’t have to tip because they already included the tip in the price, I thought, why don’t I include the service charge in my pricing? Because that’s the tail end of the customer experience—when the bill arrives. And we’ve been doing that ever since. When you get the bill at any of my establishments, whatever the menu says, that’s what you’re paying. So now the challenge is to deliver an experience that’s worth the price on the menu.

I believe in the saying that the customer is king, but we have our limits. If you tell me you want a well-done steak, we will insist on not serving it well-done, because you transform what is otherwise a premium steak into a really cheap one. If someone says they want ice with their wine, I’ll do it, because that’s your choice. Wine is just peripheral to what I do anyway. But my main attraction is the steak, and I’m not going to compromise that steak.

When something that’s basic and common sense is not given, that’s when I’m disappointed. Scotch tape on takeout boxes—that, for me, is annoying. It’s almost like you’re telling me, “I’m going to give you a hard time opening the food that we just sold to you.” Just yesterday, I bought doughnuts that came in a box with a slip-on sleeve. They taped the sleeve with four pieces of scotch tape, and I wanted to eat one doughnut in the car. I was driving and I had to look for something sharp just so I could open it. Why are you making it hard for me, when all I had to do was slip off the sleeve? It’s already designed that way! I don’t know why but Filipinos have an obsession with scotch tape. I already wrote in my head the plot for a movie where the Philippines runs out of scotch tape, and all the fast food establishments run amok. Even plastic cup lids are scotch-taped. Why? If there’s a flaw in the design, change the lid, but don’t tape it. Tape on everything… I don’t understand.

"The idea was to create a space that people my age are looking for: a quiet, elegant drinking experience."

When I go through things like this, I share them with my staff. It’s just me guiding them and reminding them: don’t do nonsensical things. Everything we do has a reason. I don’t train my staff on the how-tos, I train them on the whys. Bawal ang relo, bawal ang singsing. Why? Because it’s unhygienic, it’s anti-food safety, and it’s distracting. If I serve you food and you see the red strap on my watch, you’re going to notice that strap. You’ve just taken away the focus from the food. So those are the things that I do when I train my staff: everything has a reason. If they can’t justify something, that’s something we shouldn’t do. I never say, “Because I said so.” There’s always a reason. And if I can’t find the reason, forget it.

The dining scene in Manila has a lot of potential. There’s so much room for growth. But what’s missing is restaurant owners taking risks. Everyone’s playing safe; that’s my problem. I don’t blame them—when you’re investing millions in a restaurant, you want something that will surely give you a return. But the truth is there’s no guarantee that a restaurant—no matter how safe or typical or tried-and-tested—there’s no guarantee it’s going to be a success. It’s still a gamble. It’s no different from rolling the dice. And there is no formula. I’ve proven with the Steak Room that location is not the only thing. In fact, we have a lousy location. When we opened 11 years ago, there was nothing in Salcedo Village. But in the end, what I think people are looking for is the food itself and the experience.

Who are my inspirations? Locally, Tony Boy Escalante of Antonio’s and Sonya of Sonya’s Garden. If they can get people to drive two hours to their establishments, I can get people to walk up three flights of stairs in Makati. I’m only asking you to invest a few minutes of walking up the stairs, whereas Tony Boy will make you drive. But the drive is worth it, because when you enter the establishment, you say, “Wow. This is nice. This is something I don’t see anywhere else.” That’s what I want to do—I want to surprise people. The Steak Room is that—you walk up the stairs, it’s dark, it’s awful, it’s like a leap of faith. But when you slide the door open… surprise! Margarita Fores also is an inspiration because she’s so focused on quality. She doesn’t rest on her laurels, and she’s always trying to find some way to improve what you already do.

"Everything we do has a reason."

The thing is, I’m not a chef. I don’t have any creativity in cooking. I’d rather enjoy other people’s creativity. I like the new guys—people like Nicco Santos of Your Local and Hey Handsome, Bruce Ricketts, Josh Boutwood, because they’re taking bold steps and introducing new flavors to the market. They’re the ones who take that leap and say, “Hey, guys, I have something different for you.” I respect that. It’s not just a concept, it’s not like, Oh, we’re serving fried chicken a different way. Fine, the idea’s there and all, but when it’s just a concept, it fails. In the end, it’s the experience that’s important. With these guys, you leave their place thinking, “Wow, what just happened? That was good.” I like that.

I look up to even the younger guys, like the guys from 12/10. I don’t remember what I was doing when I was 25 years old, but man, to be holding your own business at 25, and be a success at it? And they’re so creative. I’m glad people like that exist. I’m just hoping that other millennials take notice and say, Hey, I want to be that too. Because that’s what brings us forward. What’s holding us back is this conservative approach. But when you’re bold and you want to do something new, I’m all for it.        

 

Photographs by Miguel Nacianceno (except photos of Steak Room and Reidel's).

Elbert’s Upstairs Bar is located at Icon Plaza, 26th Street, RCBC Building, BGC.