Tucked away in one of Cavite’s oldest towns, somewhere in Barangay Malabag’s inner streets, a fairly new private dining destination has been attracting gourmands and celebrities not only for its promise of good food but its vibrant and inspiring interiors. It’s called Mrs. Saldo’s.
The name easily conjures a lady advanced in age, with greying hair, glasses, and a dainty apron wrapped around her considerable heft—you know, the kind who appears in pancake boxes of old and vintage cookbook covers. But the real person behind the name is actually a slim 30-something chef named Rhea Rizzo, and Mrs. Saldo, it turns out, is just a made up moniker.
“Chefs are usually shy, that’s why we choose to hide in the kitchen,” Rhea says, laughing, explaining the choice to hide behind a name not her own. She was thinking of what to call her restaurant when the bottle of red zinfandel she was enjoying with friends caught her eye—Saldo. “My Argentinian friend said that in Spanish, it means balance and I really liked that,” the apron-clad lady recalls. To soften it, she affixed the “Mrs.”
“She’s like your lola, tita, mom who’s very welcoming. Who loves to host and feed you,” says Rhea about the image she wanted the name Mrs. Saldo to convey. “That’s exactly what I want people to feel once they enter the place—it’s one big warm hug.”
Three times a lady
The Mrs. Saldo menu and space were significantly inspired by three colorful women in Rhea’s life. A mural of a tattooed figure in one of the property’s al fresco spaces is an ode to her maternal grandmother. “She was one of the few tattooed women up north,” says the chef. “She has tattoos from her neck down to her ankles and wrists.” The grandmother, who already passed on, hailed from Santiago, Isabela, and was the daughter of a tribal warrior. Unschooled, she was tapped to till the soil. “She was one of the hardest working people I know,” Rhea shares.
From her paternal grandmother, she got her introduction to the world of real food. Because young Rhea practically grew up on canned goods courtesy of the yaya who raised her—Century Tuna, to be exact—enjoying her lola’s cooking was something she looked forward to whenever she would visit the old woman in Rizal. “She’s a character,” remembers Rhea. “When we would visit her, she’d be drunk. But that lady can cook a mean dinuguan and fried chicken.”
The other lady who played a part in further developing Rhea’s love of food is her American mother-in-law. “She knows that I’m into cooking, so whenever there’s a new restaurant in [her home city of] New Orleans, she would take me there,” the chef says. One of the set menus at Mrs. Saldo’s was actually inspired by these DIL-MIL adventures.
Gaggan in 60 seconds
For the most part, however, Mrs. Saldo’s is basically Rhea herself. The restaurant is her long-awaited second chance to go back to her one great love: cooking.
Rhea took up Hotel and Restaurant Management at De La Salle-College of St. Benilde, eventually pursuing an associate degree in Culinary Arts at Café Ysabel under its owner-chef Gene Gonzalez. But when her son started to exhibit speech delay and her daughter was diagnosed with autism, Rhea had to stop working and focus on taking care of the children.
She was wholly committed to their needs for a full 10 years. Her only way of reconnecting to the kitchen was by taking up cooking lessons whenever her schedule permitted. But when she caught the “Chef’s Table” episode featuring award-winning Indian chef Gaggan Anand on Netflix, something was reawakened in her. “At the end of the episode, I was crying,” Rhea recalls.
Her husband, who sensed her longing to continue her culinary journey, asked if Rhea wanted to go back to kitchen work. “Absolutely,” she replied. So he suggested she write a letter to Chef Gaggan and apply for an internship. “What I didn’t know was that [my husband] was also sending him messages on Instagram,” Rhea says, laughing. A week after, she got the surprise of her life—a call from Gaggan himself informing her she could stage at his eponymous restaurant in Bangkok.
To hear Rhea say it, the internship turned out to be very intense. It entailed not only hard work and adjusting to a different culture, it also meant having to deal with kitchen bullies. “I didn’t mind the bullying nor am I trying to normalize it,” she tells ANCX on our visit. “But frankly, it gave me more fire in my belly to prove to myself that I can do it, so in that sense they helped me. I’m forever grateful to these people.”
After her stint at Gaggan, she decided to study Asian cooking some more, so she went to Ubud in Bali, Indonesia. Learning yoga and meditation sort of balanced—or “softened the edges” of—her learning process in cooking. She considers her experience in Asian kitchens as most challenging and transformative. She remembers her husband Dave once telling her, “If you come back to Manila and you still want to open your own place, [it means] you really want to do it.”
Born in Silang
The Rizzos had initially intended to start Mrs. Saldo’s at a commercial space in Ayala Westgrove Heights in Silang, Cavite. But considering the huge expense, the lack of flexibility to choose her hours, her husband suggested to test it out first in their small farm in Cavite, with a private dining concept.
It took three and a half years for Rhea to develop the property in Barangay Malabag. Working with a set budget, she took on many hats. “I worked with a foreman. So I was the contractor, architect, and designer,” she says, beaming with pride. “Of course, I consulted an architect to make sure it’s structurally sound. But basically, all the things that you see, I sourced them all myself. It was tiring but fun.”
The resulting aesthetic of Mrs. Saldo’s is a melange of cultures. “It’s a little weird on paper because I said I want Moroccan, Californian, Ubud, Bangkok, Japan with torii gates in one place,” she says, enumerating the destinations she and her husband traveled to before the pandemic. Marveling at Rhea’s masterwork in person, however, everything seemed to have blended harmoniously. The restaurant interior is eclectic yet sophisticated; boho chic but bright and happy. Her gorgeous collection of plants all the more brings her dining spaces to life.
Asian and then some
Mrs. Saldo’s currently offers five set menus. The Asian set was inspired by the Rizzos’ travels through Asia and Rhea’s time in Bangkok. It showcases her flair for Vietnamese, Indonesian, Peranakan, Malaysian, and Thai dishes. The South American menu was inspired by their stay in California, where they thoroughly enjoyed the bold, spicy flavors of Mexican cuisine. For families with special diet restrictions or simply want to take a break from meat, Rhea also offers a selection of vegan dishes. The brunch menu consists of a la carte dishes from different parts of the world.
For the mains, she serves us Southern-style fried chicken with foie gras on top, sitting on a bed of creamy polenta and a streak of tarragon oil. This is followed by a comforting and delicious miso soy braised US short ribs infused with chocolates, and served with pickled carrots, radish and green apple. Capping off our lunch is a glass of creamy banana pudding.
We all need a warm hug especially in these dark days. Good to know there’s a place not far from Manila where we can get one.