If breakfast has become such a popular event in these shores, you have got to credit the breakfast boom in Manila earlier this decade. And thank that boom for bringing British chef Matthew Hornsby-Bates to the local restaurant scene. As one of the chefs at Early Bird Breakfast Club, his English breakfast staples of bangers, roasted tomatoes, and beans complemented the adobo flakes and silog combinations that Filipino-Chinese chef Matt Lim—another Matthew as the Brit would often remark—created for the then fledgling restaurant.
A few years and a couple of food trends later, the two Matthews decided to set up shop and without much fanfare, opened the first CargoFish at an alfresco nook in the new Uptown Bonifacio Mall in the summer of 2017. The booth, culling inspiration from the British Matthew’s cultural and culinary roots, served authentic fish and chips (options range from Pinoy-friendly dory to cod and cobbler) and eventually created a following among workers from nearby British School Manila, bigwigs from the British Embassy, and a massive BPO crowd that considers 2:00 AM the start of “lunch” hour.
CargoFish’s community feel was reminiscent of the neighborhood pub feel that Matthew misses about the United Kingdom—and was a critical factor in deciding a location for branch #2. Eventually, they signed a lease with reliable haunt City Golf Plaza along Julia Vargas to open both CargoFish and new barbecue concept Burnt Bamboo.
We sat down with the British chef and talked about how he and partner Matt are on a mission to create a new community—amidst the Ortigas area’s posh villages and throng of graveyard shift workers—founded on proper fish and chips and then some.
Together with your business partner Matt Lim, you sought to create a niche serving fish and chips. How has the Manila diner received the British staple?
I think it’s been well-received. If there is something the British and Filipinos have in common, it’s their love for fried food. Some diners have been confused with curry sauce and mushy peas; however, we’ve created options that make the fish and chips experience more Filipino [such as rice].
I also felt that there’s not a proper fish and chips shop in the city. There is fish and chips but it seems to be higher priced but usually just a dory offering and not anything else. We’ve brought CargoFish to a more affordable price, with a more street food style that I’m used to back home.
What makes it proper fish and chips?
The fish is important. Here, we carry a range of choices for diners to choose from. Personally, I think it should be cod. It’s the most familiar in the UK. And the chips should not be the processed chips that come in a bag, frozen, and deep-fried; it’s about taking the potato, cleaning it, and having it go through three cooking stages. We blanch it, finish it with another for a few minutes, and the third is the final [cooking]—just before the person receives it. (“That’s not a trade secret,” he shares after.)
You have built a community with fellow British nationals living in Manila. How did this happen?
We’ve brought people from the British School, the embassy, and have formed relationships and made friends that way. It’s good to keep in touch with fellow Brits—bring people together, for that matter—over something as simple as fish and chips.
It feels a little bit like home but with much better weather.
At our Uptown branch, we get a fair crowd from the British School after school hours. They tend to pop over, have fish and chips, and finish the evening with a few beers. We’ve also catered for the embassy, and many events at the British School where we’ve come over and set up a mobile to cater for bonfire night, battle of the bands, and summer events.
You work with a Filipino staff and a Filipino business partner. How has that worked for you?
Overall it works well because we have different backgrounds and upbringings and so there is a lot we can share with one another. When it comes to food, I respect that fact that Matt is a local and he understands the local palate so he has a good knowledge of the flavor profile that people expect. That’s usually the stronger flavors like salty, sweet, and things like that. Whereas myself, being British, I have a calmer flavor profile. It took me sometime to understand the flavor of the Filipino: the punchy, instant flavor that explodes in your mouth that if it does not happen, it’s not good. I’ve had to get used to that and Matt’s been a great help.
In your experience, what can the British learn from Filipinos when it comes to the dining industry?
Certainly to adapt to this warmth in character that Filipinos have an abundance of. The lifestyle in London is quite hectic, people often seem quiet, busy with their own lives to the point of seeming rude. In the Philippines, the mentality is different. They have the time for a smile and are happy.
And what can we learn from the Brits?
What I’ve understood, the restaurant environment that I see that exists in the city seems to be strict. The way the staff is trained comes off as being rehearsed. “Hi, sir. Hi, ma’am,” it’s kind of the same thing. It’s not the way it is at home.
In the UK, the server would be very friendly and natural, if not sit down with you to take your order. It’s that kind of a casual experience—at least in a casual restaurant. It’s something I’d like to work on with the staff here, to bring out their character, make them feel that they are not just “numbers.”
This new dining concept that shares space with CargoFish in CityGolf, Burnt Bamboo, how much of you and your influences are in it?
The idea from Matt was to come up with a local barbecue. From the barbecue that I tasted around Manila, I found some to be good and some not too good. But what I’ve realized is that they all taste the same flavor. It’s almost the similar glaze, it’s the same sweet and salty.
I like meat sticks, and when we were talking about meat sticks, I’m thinking satay, tori, and realizing how everyone’s got a claim to it. I felt that if we’re going to do a barbecue, we have to offer more than just a house glaze and a range of meats. So we came up with flavor profiles for everybody—something for children, something spicy, clean flavors like chimichurri or yogurt, and more sweet/salty like teriyaki.
Manila’s dining scene is at a high. How are you future-proofing CargoFish and Burnt Bamboo?
I think a lot of it is the mentality. When we set out to open a chip shop, it was all about a certain loyalty. In the UK, everyone’s got a favorite chip shop and in every town or village, there would be an abundance of chip shops but somebody will always pick a favorite, make friends with the chip shop, almost becomes the environment where you see similar colleagues ending the day at the same chip shop, it’s where you chitchat, and order your takeaway. It’s very robust and long-lasting.
I think in Manila there are a lot of food trends that pop up and disappear. I don’t wish to be included in sort of that variety as a newfangled concept. The idea of fish and chips is to be stable.
Cargofish and Burnt Bamboo are located at Units C106-107, City Golf Plaza, Julia Vargas Avenue, Barangay Ugong, Pasig City. They are open from 11 am to 4 am on Mondays until Thursdays. They are open until 6 am on Fridays and Saturdays and 1 am on Sundays.