As soon as one steps into Chef Victor Magsaysay’s lair in Gabaldon Street, Poblacion, Makati, one is quickly transported to a chic fantasy of a private club from a ‘60s Hollywood movie. A world where velvet surfaces and the sheen of chrome collide with the rough texture of an archaeological find — or the smooth feathers of a stuffed exotic bird. It is both reality and escape. Reality because it exists, in that it’s where Victor, who once ran the respected kitchens of Ito Izakaya and Ito Chan in Paris, cooks and entertains guests who book for private dinners. Escape because it is clearly otherworldly, a created universe that will cease to exist once one steps out of it and into the unwieldy city.
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It didn’t always look like this. It was once the storage room of his cousin Mark Kooijman who Victor describes as “unfashionably, but old-worldy, a hunter”—hence the abundance of preserved animals in the space, the most commanding of which, by sheer size, is the hat-wearing stuffed white bear who goes by the name of Polar Abdul (“He’s Canadian by paper but since he’s Polar Abdul he’s probably Pakistani.”). Mark, the CEO of Philippines Urban Living Solutions, is building a hotel in the neighborhood for which he tapped his cousin as creative director and man in charge of F&B. He was offering Victor a place in Rockwell to live in but the latter declined. “Too intercontinental beige for me,” said the chef who was drawn more to the stuffy and dark Poblacion bodega that contained Mark's collection of art, maps, taxidermy and other personal effects.
The Gabaldon Street building — a late-60s Brutalist design — also worked its charm. “I appreciate the elegance of old structures,” says Victor. “The place is incredible. It breathes.” No small thanks to the firewalls on each side, a small courtyard at the back, and an outdoor kitchen that invite the air in. The light during the day is quite gorgeous, too. Victor saw the space’s potential and was soon transforming it into this stunning jewel box. Or cabinet of curiosities, if you ask Rajo Laurel, a personal friend and repeat guest. “From the minute you walk in you are enveloped in a colonial past where you can imagine a great traveler has brought home a multitude of memories from his distant expeditions,” says the fashion designer.
“I have this bad habit of putting things that don’t belong,” says Victor who points out a particularly beautiful merging of a cake stand and flower pot sitting in a dim corner. That his things and his cousin’s seamlessly blend together made the job of transforming the place easier. They both collected maps, both are drawn to art, both have a taste for the wild and exotic, and both have been everywhere. The Zambales-born Victor has lived in New York, Paris and Bangkok before he moved back to the Philippines. He has had a past life as a tailor and fashion designer — working at one point with John Bartlett and the supremely cool underground New York fashion collective ORFI —before he cut his teeth in the culinary arts.
But back to putting formerly incongruent objects together. There is the ceramic skull that’s been turned into a lamp stand in the bedroom. A tanguile dining table from the ‘40s enlivened by a pair of bronze ram heads — from a limited edition design by French sculptor Leon Francois Chervet — on its foot. Elsewhere in the room, under a stunning mounted photograph of a Shanghai meat vendor standing in a balcony submerged in water, onion bulbs are hoisted on vintage crystal glasses, as if they’re flowers. For someone who claims not to be attached to things, Victor is clearly gifted with spotting an object’s potential. And he is, in a way, the same with food—often seeing new possibilities in the familiar, and making the exotic accessible: as in his goat cheese chicharrones, or his taro and crabmeat roulade; a bayabas-smoked barracuda, or a risotto with carabao’s milk.
Miguel Rosales has had the privilege of dining chez Victor, and the art advisor sent his impressions on both the setting and menu: “Both were lushly layered but not overdone, both rich in flavor and infused with personality. The menu, much like the chef, was a wonderful, refined, unpretentious blending of East and West. The dining details were as delicious as the food prepared that night, down to the Deco cutlery and heirloom china.”
Indeed, in food and in objects, this nest doesn’t run out of delights for the senses: the giant post-Apocalyptic photograph behind his 60s cushion-free papag (just as papags should be); the very Chinois lunchbox that recalls Maggie Cheung’s in Wong Kar Wai‘s In the Mood for Love; the “floral arrangements” by Victor’s friend, the brilliant Jose Duque, which are more a play on leaves than flowers (“They’re not the first thing you see when you enter a place, they’re just very well-appointed”); the kundiman or 40s jazz playing from his MacBook; the candied kamias drink one is served coming in from a hot Saturday afternoon in the district.
“All it needed was a slap of paint and a bit of love,” says Victor, perhaps unconsciously downplaying his sleight of hand. “All spaces are beautiful; it’s what you do with it.”
Every so often, the configuration of the elements in the room changes and, voila, things feel like new again. One wouldn't be wrong to say the place is like the endlessly engaging Renaissance man that put it together. The man who is wont to call a friend "dear," or "darling," or "babycakes." Who talks charmingly like he’s always happily two drinks in, or relishing something in his mouth — a sip of whiskey, a compliment, a memory. He certainly makes for excellent company for the world he's conjured himself, this little pocket of Manila fantasy. You come into Victor Magsaysay's jungle of chic not knowing what languor really means; you leave it knowing you'd like to have some of that again.
Photographs by At Maculangan