In a country with 7,100 islands, the idea of a cevicheria being as ubiquitous as Jollibee doesn’t seem far-out at all. However, any Filipino who loves his kinilaw will be hard-pressed to find the dish in a neighboring street or in a restaurant serving only kinilaw — even on the more popular islands in the Philippines. Almost always, kinilaw or ceviche will just be a part of the menu, hardly the specialty.
Siargao-based chef David Del Rosario knows good cevicherias are few and far even on trendy islands like Siargao. So when he finally quit his job as a stock broker and decided to move to the surfing capital, he knew he was going to specialize in ceviches and kinilaw.
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CEV’s up in Siargao
“I decided to [open a cevicheria] in Siargao because of the community, the surf, and the island's immense potential. I fell in love with the island and moved here two years ago, just as tourism was on the cusp of exploding,” Del Rosario tells ANC-X via email.
Named CEV Siargao, his restaurant shares a space with Loose Keys Moto Culture, a music venue, custom-bike rental place, and bar located along busy General Luna Road. Del Rosario rents Loose Keys’ kitchen and restaurant and only serves ceviche and kinilaw to guests. “It made so much sense [to move to Siargao] not only on a lifestyle point of view, but also in terms of business model because the ingredients—especially the fish—rent, and labor is cheaper than in the city,” Del Rosario reflects.
Just a decade before settling on the shores of Siargao, Del Rosario was based in Manila working in finance and dealing with the erratic waves of bullish and bearish markets. He used to sport a neatly-parted do and wore crisp white polos with perfectly knotted ties, a far cry from the now long-haired, shorts-wearing, and tanned man happily showing off the day’s catch on his joint’s Instagram. Meanwhile his personal Instagram profile reads: Currently living my best life.
“I think what really triggered the big leap was the desire to express myself through food. When I was young, cooking shows were my cartoons and I’ve always day-dreamed about opening my own restaurant,” he recalls. “The longer I stayed in a job I wasn’t passionate about, the more intense the desire was to quit and do something that truly resonated with me.”
For the next five years, Del Rosario dabbled in cooking courses until finally in 2017, he quit his job to study at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York and took up culinary arts and restaurant management.
“CEV is actually my thesis and final project for my management course” he says. “Ceviche and Kinilaw are probably two of my favorite dishes of all time. I realized that I could open a restaurant revolving around just these two dishes and do so in Siargao.” He opened CEV October of 2018.
Fish in acid
The guy is aware kinilaw is not the same as ceviche despite the similarities. Del Rosario explains that the former is marinated in lime juice while the latter primarily in coconut vinegar. “Of course, there are hundreds of different versions of these dishes with many different acids, but this is the basic difference,” he explains. For kinilaw, CEV uses a mixture of coconut vinegar (suka) and coconut nectar (tuba) — while for their ceviche, “since there are no limes in Siargao”, they use Calamansi juice. “While we are not authentic in any way, we are happy to just be creative with the dish and draw inspiration from the essence of the dish, which is ‘cooking’ fresh raw fish in an acid,” he adds.
Mahi-mahi, yellow fin tuna, and blue marlin are the main varieties of deep-sea fish in Siargao, says Del Rosario. “One of the biggest challenges is just getting a vast array of produce in the island. Many are very basic but what makes it fun and a welcome challenge is that it pushes us to find a way to make basic ingredients like an onion, sweet potato, or pumpkin for example, stand out.”
The most experimental Del Rosario has introduced is a bowl called Santa Fe where he included popcorn into the mix instead of the usual boiled or roasted corn. “We thought, why not serve corn in the third way it is normally cooked, which is popped? It still would have the corn taste, but just a different texture and ultimately a new flavor--but still familiar.” He then added homemade chili garlic oil, fried bananas, avocado, and crushed tortilla chips — with a tangy tomato puree marrying all the flavors.
Other bowls featured at CEV may include not only the catch of the day but squid and shrimp as well, combined with Filipino staples such as danggit, roasted eggplant, and cornick served with garlic rice. More whimsical creations would use pumpkin puree and coconut milk or a combination of both as base, opening the Filipino taste buds to bolder flavors. For first timers at CEV, Del Rosario recommends Santa Monica, Pacifico, or the General Luna bowls that showcase unique flavor and texture profiles.
In running CEV, Del Rosario’s background in finance has come in handy. “As a stock broker, I studied many companies, and found that generally, the companies that treated their employees well, tend to have stronger longevity and better performance,” he says.
He says he applies the same mindset in CEV and gives his kitchen staff a share in his profits. “It’s something that isn’t done in most if not all kitchens around the world. They work as hard or harder than any of us in CEV and they deserve to be compensated fairly.”
With CEV turning a year old last October 2019, Del Rosario has mulled expanding the brand given that a restaurant exclusively serving ceviches and kinilaw is still a young –if not non-existent—concept in the country. However, he is also quick to resist the idea as it ‘counteracts’ the whole reason why he quit his job in the first place. “I would go back to being a slave to capitalism and lose the simple passion-driven life I first set out to do,” he says.
His plan of doing pop-ups in popular islands like El Nido seems more attuned to his life’s philosophy. In doing so, he hopes to highlight kinilaw the way adobo is recognized in Philippine cuisine — and in the process make foreigners appreciate it the way they do ceviches. “After all, we are a country with 7,100 islands,” Del Rosario says, “and nothing says island more than fresh fish in a kinilaw.”
Photos courtesy of Cev’s