With her eponymous culinary school, her own cooking show some years back, and even a book to her name, Heny Sison has taught countless Filipinos how to find their place in the kitchen. Through the years, she’s had a whole range of students—from housewives to celebrities to small-time entrepreneurs who would become success stories, among them the Lorenzanas behind Wildflour, the owner of Costa Brava, even Baby Yulo of Forbes Park’s famous strawberry shortcake. Those who want to come armed before facing the challenges of culinary studies abroad make sure they go thru her classes first.
Her name is synonymous to the most elegant cake designs and the most decadent desserts, being the chief pastry chef, stylist and co-owner of Heny Sison Desserterie. More recently, she has also successfully transitioned to the role of restaurateur, being the co-owner of eight-year-old Scout area favorite Victorino’s—QC’s go-to for Ilocano food. In November, she added another feather to her cap with the opening of a second restaurant, Deo Gracias, which, despite opening at the height of a pandemic, and despite a menu pricier than the usual Quezon City fare, has been steadily packing it in.
While she showed the way for many aspiring chefs and restaurateurs through her school, Chef Heny herself took a while to find the path that would fit her best. With her success in the culinary field, it’s curious to learn that she never imagined she would embark on a career in food. This she reveals to us one Tuesday afternoon at Deo Gracias. Joining our table after tending to the restaurant's guests and overseeing the day's lunch operations, she is looking as elegant and pulled-together as one of her confections—even as she keeps trying to fix the placement of her surgical mask. She is wearing a deep blue blouse and skirt, a structured belt bag on her waist, and a classic black and white Pop Swatch. She tells us it was drawing that she loved to do as a young girl and that she wanted to take up Fine Arts in college.
Girl from Orani
Heny was born in Orani, Bataan to entrepreneurial parents. Her mother, Lolita Sioson Banzon, loved cooking for the family and made all of her daughter’s birthday cakes growing up. “My first baking and cooking lessons were from my mom,” says Heny, sitting at the kabisera and recalling the first few baked goodies she made: chiffon cakes and breads in various animal shapes.
Her mother, who is from Malabon, also ran a restaurant in Bataan called Traveler’s Kitchenette, where one could say Heny practically got her on-the-job training for her future career. There, Mrs. Banzon served the family specialties such as adobong alimango, embotido, and morcon. The menu was a blend of Capampangan, Bulacan and Malabon favorites. They also used to serve food in the family-owned movie houses in Bataan and Heny would be on hand to do assistant duties. “I would help out sa pagtakal ng suka, sa pag measure ng rice. I was exposed to retail operations at a young age,” Heny shares.
Heny might have grown up an only child but her early years were far from sad and boring. “It was a happy childhood, actually,” notes Heny, adding the advantage of being a solo kid in the household: “I can do both masculine and feminine things. Ang frustration ng dad ko was to have a son. Wala siyang son kaya natuto akong mag-mechanic, mag-drive, mag-motor.” She surprised friends recently when she posted a photo of herself riding a motorcycle in Siargao. That was nothing, she says. Back in Bataan, when she was younger, riding a scooter was an ordinary activity. She would ride it coming from the farm to the family’s gasoline station located beside her mother's restaurant.
“If I was not in the restaurant, I’d be at the gasoline station,” she shares about those days, offering a glimpse of her routine. During school breaks, when she’s not getting a kick out of riding the station’s hydraulic car lift (“Sayang-saya ako no’n,” recalls Heny), she’d be minding the cash register or pumping gas.
Out of the countryside
Heny only left probinsiya life when it was time for her to enter college. Having many relatives in the field of medicine, the Banzons thought their daughter would have a better future if she attended medical school and became a doctor. The daughter obliged and took up BS Biology at the University of the Philippines. However, seeing the future doctors in her family often working late, “aral nang aral,” Heny realized it wasn’t the kind of life she wanted for herself. She wanted to take up Fine Arts—but her parents argued there’s no money in the arts. They suggested she take up something related to business instead, so Heny ended up finishing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Science and Political Science, before taking up her MBA degree at the Asian Institute of Management.
Heny worked first in a bank and then a government agency before eventually pursuing a passion she never thought she actually had—baking. She took up culinary courses under Tess Isaac, Sylvia Reynoso-Gala, and Avelina Carbungco-Florendo.
She opened a small bakeshop in SM Makati but since she and her then-fiancé, Beny Sison, were already planning to get married, the venture was shortlived. While in the US for their honeymoon, however, the aspiring cake designer decided to enroll at the Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionary.
Oh her return to the Philippines, Heny set up the Heny Sison School of Cake Decorating and Baking. She really wanted to put up a culinary school but there were already many cooking schools in Manila. Heny, aside from being a pastry chef, eventually earned the distinction of “Certified Culinarian” from the American Culinary Federation in 2006, and achieved the elite status of “Pro Chef Level 1” from the Culinary Institute of America.
Running the show
Like her entry into the food business, Heny didn’t plan on becoming a restaurateur. She knew fully well the difficulties it would entail to run a restaurant, having watched her mother run theirs in Bataan.
The idea to put up Victorino’s came about after she was asked to author “Naimas! The Food Heritage of Ilocos Sur” in 2015. Working with the local government of Ilocos Sur, doors opened for her. She was given access to the specialties of the region, and she discovered so much about Ilocos cuisine, beyond what's served in restaurants in Manila, and beyond the salty dishes their Ilocano household staff usually cooked at home.
Her newfound knowledge eventually led to an invitation from an old friend to open an Ilocano restaurant which would become Victorino’s. The establishment serves heirloom recipes of her business partner’s family. Taking on this new role didn’t turn out to be a struggle. The knowledge on basic food costing, kitchen flow, and layout were keepsakes from her culinary studies. And since she’s previously served as consultant for other restaurants, she also knows menu design.
Deo Gracias was conceptualized after her husband saw an available space along 11th Jamboree Street, the same street where Victorino’s stands. She’s always loved Spanish food anyway, and always made it a point to eat at the best restaurants when in Spain. “It’s more of destiny,” she says of putting up Deo Gracias. “Kasi hindi ko naman talaga siya hinahanap. Bigla na lang dumating.” Even finding her current chef was quite serendipitous. Chef Alex del Hoyo Gómez, she found out, was the last remaining Spanish chef in the Philippines when they finally decided the business was a go. They now work very well together.
What she gets out of being an educator is more of psychic income, says Heny. It gives her joy to share her experience and to see her students become successful. It affirms that she’s done a good job teaching.
Being a restaurateur, on the other hand, seems to satisfy another side to the woman. She sounds like she’s never one to retreat from a challenge, and her pragmatism is seen in the way she solves problems in the Deo Gracias kitchen, how she deals with staff issues, even how she cut down cost for the resto's interiors—a smart move considering the present business climate—but in a way that doesn’t take away from the customer experience of a homey Spanish restaurant.
With Deo Gracias, Heny discovered newfound excitement. While it’s hard to tell when she talks about her work—the chef always sounds calm, her statements spare and to-the-point— it’s clear being a restaurateur gives her a thrill, if not a sense of purpose. You can tell she likes the nitty-gritty of management. “Parang hindi ako nagwo-work,” she says, “parang naglalaro lang ako. Nag-eenjoy ako.”
Is there something the accomplished chef still dreams of doing? Well, she would like to one day open a restaurant specializing in Bataan cuisine, likely as tribute to her roots, the hometown that nurtured her youth and gave her the necessary tools for her future. But first, there’s the third restaurant she’s opening soon in the Quezon City area, which she shares details about but requests that we keep it among us first. Suffice it to say it’s going to be one more feather in Heny Sison's cap, and one more challenge she won't be backing away from.
Photos courtesy of Chef Heny Sison