James Diño in front of the iconic Eiffel Tower. Photograph by Erica Paredes
Food & Drink Features

Dreaming of Ducasse: One Filipino chef’s unlikely path to Paris

How a culinary arts scholar of humble origins found himself cooking for one of the world’s greatest French chefs
Erica Paredes | Dec 29 2018

They say it takes a village to raise a child and this could not be truer for James Diño, a Filipino chef currently working at Ducasse sur Seine in Paris. This river boat restaurant is the most recent addition to celebrated French chef Alain Ducasse’s slew of restaurants in France and around the world, including three Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in Paris, Le Louis XV in Monaco, and Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester in London.

James Diño’s journey to France is quite a story, and when you think of French kitchens, you wonder how someone so shy and easygoing survives in one of the most stressful work environments I have personally experienced myself. But James is happy and thriving here, and living a life not many people in his position might have ended up in.

Along with his brother, 13-year-old James was taken in by the Tuloy Foundation after the death of his father. Founded in 1993 by Fr. Marciano “Rocky” Evangelista of the Salesians of Don Bosco, Tuloy Foundation is a small village in itself that houses and raises abandoned or abused kids who might otherwise end up in the street. The children are normally 9 to 18 years old and are assessed by social workers, child psychiatrists, and the management of the foundation to see if they are physically and mentally able to be trained to discover and hone skills that will later on allow them to be employable. According to James, “A priest from Tuloy knew my stepsister and before she passed away, she already spoke to them to take us in. And my father was sick too, so when he died, a priest took us there.”

Alain Ducasse with Fr. Rocky Evangelista in Tuloy Foundation in 2016

Cooking came later

Cooking wasn’t even something James took seriously in the beginning. He started cooking as an activity to do with his friends. “When I was a child though,” he reminisces, “my father always asked me to help him in the kitchen. And when he died, a few months passed before I entered the Tuloy Foundation. And in those months, I worked with my cousin in her bakery.”

Even when he was already in the foundation, James still wasn’t sure he wanted to pursue Culinary Arts, and was actually leaning towards following his brother’s footsteps to become a refrigerator and air conditioner technician. “Actually, they were still developing the culinary program when I was thinking about my vocational course, and we were the first batch of students in that program on its first year,” he says.

“And also, we loved eating,” he adds cheekily.

James quickly got into the groove of the kitchen during the program at the Tuloy Foundation, learning from two Filipino instructors who taught him the basics of pastry and bread, and from a French instructor who introduced them to French cuisine. Out of all the culinary students at the foundation, ten were chosen during his time to do further studies at Enderun Colleges, as part of its Youth with a Future scholarship program, which Ducasse Education also supports. At Enderun, James received his Culinary Arts Diploma. “I wasn’t at the top of my class at Tuloy,” says James, “But at Enderun, I was,” he says with a wide smile.

After school, he was recruited by the General Manager of the Four Seasons Resort in Dubai. “He visited Enderun and said he wanted to offer jobs to four students, and if we did well, they would hire more of us.” He was in Dubai for three years when he got a call from someone from Tuloy Foundation asking if he could come back for a vacation to meet Chef Alain Ducasse in Manila back in 2016. During his short break in the Philippines, he was asked by Chef Ducasse to come to Paris to work for him. He got his blessings from his chef at the Four Seasons, and before he knew it he was in the City of Light.

At Tuloy Foundation in 2016, Alain Ducasse (center) met with Youth with a Future scholars and alumni, including James Diño (standing, far right) who he invited to work for him in Paris

Bonjour, Paris

When he arrived in Paris, he knew no one and did not speak a word of the language. “There was no one to pick me up and I got lost looking for the place I was going to stay in,” he remembers. A few challenges he had to overcome were not having friends in a strange new city and coping with the differences in culture between the French and himself. “After some time, everything was ok, but now, I’m really trying to deal with the cold. I’m really not used to it.”

Although language is still an issue, he is taking the government subsidized language classes once a week that is mandatory for everyone hoping for a long-stay visa. “It’s still hard for me, because it’s not something I can just learn tout de suite,” he says, not realizing he inserted some French—which translates to “right now” in English—in that sentence.

When I asked him how his views on food have changed since he moved here and started working in a kitchen of this caliber, without a moment’s hesitation, he says, “Here, everything has to be perfect. Especially in these Michelin-starred restaurants. So everything I do now has to be perfect, and synchronized with the rest of the team. Also, nothing here goes to waste. As in nothing. Even the tiniest bit of sauce or foie gras is used.” And does he like French food? “Yes!” he says, “They use so much butter!”

James aboard Ducasse sur Seine, Alain Ducasse’s river boat-restaurant that cruises along the Seine in Paris

Even if he is slowly getting used to life here, he does miss home. “I’m planning to go on vacation in February once my language classes are done and my visa is fixed. I miss the Philippines! The food, the culture—everything.”

And what’s next for James in the next five years? “Maybe I’ll still be working at one of the Ducasse restaurants, or at least still living in France,” he says. One day, he wants to go back to the Philippines to open his own restaurant or maybe even teach. “I have actually thought of teaching, but then, I think I still have so much more to learn here and experience before I do.” Meanwhile, at only 26 and working in one of the best kitchens in Paris, there is a lot to take in with just the idea of the present.

www.ducasse-paris.com

www.tuloyfoundation.online

www.youthwithafuture.ph

www.enderuncolleges.com

James Diño photographs by Erica Paredes