Chef Sau del Rosario greeted us at the entrance to the enormous kitchen inside the Athletes’ Village, proclaiming, “In my many years of being a professional chef, this is by far the most challenging one!”
It was the day before the opening of the 30th Southeast Asian Games, and ANCX was granted exclusive access inside the Athletes’ Village in New Clark City, Pampanga to visit its kitchen and witness how del Rosario and his team are set up to feed up to 4,000 athletes, delegates, and workers over the course of the next 11 days. With the kikiam scandal and other negative news trending online the week before the opening, del Rosario was eager to show us that his kitchen is indeed prepared and ready. After the tour, we also got the chance to sit down with the SEA Games Executive Chef Bruce Lim for his thoughts on preparations for the event.
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After the obligatory security check, we entered the Athletes’ Village, catching the morning ceremony where athletes from the 11 countries of the ASEAN were lined up in the front courtyard. Just a few steps away, the kitchen and dining areas can be found inside massive white air-conditioned tents, adjacent to the low-rise buildings that house the athletes.
Del Rosario waited for us by the entrance to the kitchen, accompanied by a food safety officer who checked each one of us before she allowed us to enter the kitchen area. No large bags, no earrings, no watches or bracelets, no open-toed shoes, and no bare legs allowed. We donned masks and hair caps and entered the sprawling kitchen with del Rosario leading the way.
How did Sau del Rosario end up heading operations at the Athletes’ Village? It was his group, Kulinarya Pampanga, a consortium of 30 chefs and restaurants based in Pampanga that won the bid to feed the athletes. They were big enough to handle the scale of the operations, says del Rosario, investing P20 million in a full kitchen set-up inside what was then a bare tent, as well as committing to extensive training in food safety, sanitation, and Halal standards for all those involved.
Admittedly, it’s a new and challenging role for del Rosario, who made a name for himself as a talented French-trained chef and restaurateur (currently with Café Fleur and 25 Seeds in Angeles City, Pampanga) and celebrity endorser. Just a few months ago, he gave a much-lauded presentation on Philippine cooking at the San Sebastian Gastronomika in Spain with top Spanish chefs in attendance. But that was a far cry from the work he is doing now.
“This operation is basically 24 hours. My longest sleep has been three hours, actually,” admits del Rosario, mentioning that his chef Bong Sagmit had been up for 48 hours straight. What makes the work so daunting? His team is tasked with feeding the athletes and delegates, numbering in the thousands, all day long, and with food safety and quality as the top priority.
As del Rosario toured us around the kitchen, he talked temperature, holding areas, equipment, ingredients, sewage, timing, water quality, citing the hundred and one factors that need to happen to keep food safe. Every step in the food preparation process is monitored by his team of food safety officers, while food safety representatives from each of the delegations check the kitchen as well. He shares, “The water is very safe. The Singaporean team checked the water, they were impressed with our water system.”
For food transported to other sites, like the VIP lounge at the Aquatics Center, the food is properly labeled, then placed inside thermal containers, separated by hot and cold. A food safety officer checks the temperature of the food upon packing, then checks it again once it arrives at the destination before it can be served. “There’s no room for mistakes,” says del Rosario.
What del Rosario stressed throughout the kitchen tour is that the kitchen is 100% Halal compliant. “Halal” means lawful or permitted, and in reference to food, pertains to Islamic dietary laws that forbid certain food items like pork, and that prescribe specific ways of preparing the food. With many athletes and delegates of Muslim faith, it was imperative that the kitchen follow strict Halal standards. “Toyo, patis, water, everything must be Halal!” he declares.
While Sau del Rosario and Kulinarya Pampanga are in charge of the Athletes’ Village kitchen, along with other sites scattered around Pampanga and Tarlac, it is up to Chef Bruce Lim to oversee the entire food and beverage operations of the SEA Games. We caught up with this very busy chef right after our kitchen tour, as he had a bit of free time before he had to meet a Brunei prince who was visiting the Athletes’ Village that day.
Many may remember Lim from his days as a celebrity chef hosting such shows as Tablescapes and The Boss on the Asian Food Channel, and from the various restaurants he set up in the city. While he closed his restaurants, he has kept himself busy these last few years with consulting jobs and running his Mise en Plus food manufacturing business, before he took on the daunting SEA Games job just this February.
When asked about the sheer enormity of the operations—feeding approximately 5,000 people over the course of 11 days at multiple locations around the country—Lim admits, “Honestly. I was a bit naïve thinking that it would be something that would be a walk in the park.” He was in charge of selecting all the caterers for the event, auditing more than 100 caterers together with his food safety team.
He also had to make sure the caterers were all Halal compliant. “It was really a tall order, I’m not going to lie, for doing Halal in the Philippines is not easy. A lot of our products had to be imported from Malaysia and Indonesia, just because our country doesn’t have a lot of Halal suppliers.” According to Lim, the Department of Science and Technology brought in Dr. Rafek Saleh of IHI Alliance and the Malaysian Halal and Consultation and Training Agency to ensure that all the caterers for the SEA Games, including the Kulinarya Pampanga operation, are 100% Halal compliant.
Lim found himself at the center of the firestorm of negative news about the food operations, prompting him to address these issues in a press conference held the week before. “It takes its toll,” he admits, but assures that his team does make an effort to investigate these reports, finding out many of them were “fake news.” With the SEA Games about to officially begin, Lim promises, “I want to make sure that the food here goes out without a hitch. We’re feeding 11 countries so we don’t want to blunder it up. I’ll try my best to get it done.”
After the kitchen tour, we checked out lunch being served with buffet stations spread out across the massive dining area reserved for athletes. There was a fresh salad bar, a row of water and iced tea dispensers, and a hotel-style array of mini desserts and petit fours produced by well-known Pampanga-based pastry chef Judy Uson and her team.
According to del Rosario, the menu includes Western and Asian specialties, including dishes from the teams’ home countries, plus Filipino and, of course, Kapampangan specialties. They also handle special requests like gluten-free, vegan, and vegetarian diets, and for those with allergies, del Rosario declares, “I had to ban all the nuts, I don’t want to see a single nut here!”
On the menu that day was Chicken Noodle Soup, Chicken Binakol, Hot and Sour Soup, Cabbage Fritters, Mongolian Barbeque, Beef with Broccoli, Steamed Fish Fillet with Ginger Scallion Sauce, among other offerings. The facility was clean and orderly, with the athletes and other guests lining up for their food, and bussing their plates afterwards. And yes, there was no kikiam in sight.
As we were bidding Chef Sau del Rosario goodbye, he showed us several pins attached to his lanyard, and told us that they were given by some of the athletes he has fed.
He explains, “What’s good about our job, in spite of all the hard work, is that somebody from a different country comes to you and says, ‘Can I give this to you,’ and they pin the medal on you. They said, ‘You do a great job, you take care of us.’ For me, that’s priceless… I’m deeply honored.”
Photos by Chris Clemente