“It’s my first 10 days on the job,” a lively and spirited Rob Pengson tells us during the preview of his Spanish restaurant Beso Beso’s new menu recently. He’s been on a break for six months recovering from cardiomyopathy. We could sense his excitement as he tells us how he’s been preparing for the official launch of the new menu on June 6.
It was in early 2020 when ANCX last spoke with Pengson, the time when the Covid crisis derailed his big plans for Beso Beso and his culinary school, Aleanza Institute, which he launched in 2019. Back then, the brilliant chef had to pivot and switch to doing food delivery business via Aleanza Kitchen.
It was quite tough during the pandemic, he admits. He had to assume the demanding roles of CEO and lead instructor of his school, as well as restaurant manager for Beso Beso. “Currently, I am transitioning away from [the stressful life] as the economy opens,” he says. He’s now working on building a full team so he can focus on kitchen work—both for the restaurant and the school. “That’s where I belong,” he says.
The veteran chef is clearly in his element in the kitchen, even showing us some of the raw ingredients he’ll be using for our dinner that evening, explaining the delicate cooking preparations, and telling us about the dishes he’s still developing and perfecting.
Beso Beso was leaning towards Filipino food in the beginning. So why focus on Spanish cuisine this time? “A lot of my chef heroes are Spanish,” Pengson tells us, mentioning Michelin-starred chefs like Ferran Adrià, the Roca brothers, and Dabiz Muñoz. He also holds the Spanish restaurants Asador Etxebarri and ABaC in high regard.
Muñoz, he says, is a recent addition to his list, clearly awestruck by how the guy gets creative with his tapas. Inspired by the Spanish chef, Pengson’s core dishes include the asador, paella, and tapas, the last two being the more creative parts of the menu. “We’re trying to be playful,” Pengson offers. To drive home the point, the Paella del Dia served to us had succulent blood sausages and pigeon meat, which was made even more delightful with the added crunch from the cabbage.
Yes, they have the usual Negra and Valenciana, but he and his team are currently developing an okonomiyaki paella and are even adding plant-based versions. “Those into a plant-based diet would feel full but not cheated,” he promises.
We also sampled three flavors of Beso Beso’s Croqueta de Manchego Curado—boquerones, jamon, and honey manchego. He says diners can expect more inventive croqueta variants in the coming days, as they are keen to treat it like sushi which are now being served with all sorts of toppings.
Soup on a scorching day? We suggest you chill with Pengson’s version of the gazpacho. It’s chilled tomato soup with piquillo sorbet, anchovy, migas, and basil. “We put a sorbet inside the pepper so it stays cold,” Pengson offers. My seatmate during the dinner, a lady from the group Fine Dining Club Philippines, ranks it as her “Soup of the Year”—so far, and we may have to agree with her. The chilled soup is tangy, mildly spicy, with a hint of saltiness from the anchovy.
Pengson also has a version of Huevos Rotos, one of Spain’s most popular dishes. Every spoonful of this poached egg-chorizo-black truffles-crouton-Spanish paprika concoction is sublime. We scooped every last drop.
These dishes proved to be perfect preludes to the Articulos de Carne—a sampling of filete de ternera (veal fillet), iberico secreto, and chuleton (ribeye steak)—served with some romaine lettuce drizzled with garlic milk dressing.
A sweet ending to the six-course dinner was the Leche y Mango—milk and vanilla bean with mango and passion fruit.
“This is more like a celebration of new life,” Pengson says about launching a new chapter for Beso Beso. He’d like to keep things very casual, without pretense, but with superb food offerings. “Gusto namin masarap at mabubusog ka. Importante yan,” he says.
The chef describes his current style of cooking as “chill,” “more straightforward,” and “sustainable.” These days, he puts a premium on quality of life. “That requires me to stay away from things I know are not good for me,” he says smiling, adding he’s been 100 percent sober since October. He’s getting back on this career track, yes, but his ultimate goal is to stay healthy for his kids. “Health is wealth,” says the father of two.