MANILA -- Stand-up comedians surely missed performing onstage when the enhanced community quarantine was declared, since all comedy bars ceased operations and were forced to close down. That fact is truly heartbreaking for someone like Petti Smith, a regular performer at Punchline and Laffline.
At this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith had no choice but to leave the limelight and give up performing.
“Isa po ako sa maraming nawalan ng trabaho nung nag start po ang quarantine,” Smith told ABS-CBN News. “Nagwo-work ako sa iba’t ibang comedy bars. ‘Yun ang aking pinagkukunan ng pangtustos sa lahat ng gastusin sa bahay, katulong ang aking kapatid. Pero since panganay ako, mas marami ang obligasyon ko.”
By the third month of the quarantine period with his savings depleting, Smith was forced to think of an income-generating endeavor. “Kailangan ko na mag-isip ng pagkakakitaan or ibang trabaho dahil baka maubusan ako, mahirap na,” he told himself.
With his love for Bicolano dishes since he was a kid and his penchant for cooking that he mastered during the quarantine, it was easy for Smith to start his cloud kitchen, Kusina ni Petra.
“Parang nag-aantay lang ako ng sign or ng may mag-udyok sa akin na humarap sa kalan ulit,” Smith offers. “Then, isang araw, nag-post ako sa Facebook ng luto ni Mama na laing. Ang daming nag-comment and how much daw. One of them was Nay Philip Lazaro, mentor and senior namin sa The Library in Malate.
“Then ‘yung cousin ko si Ate Yvette, manager ko na si Rio Ana and friend ko na si Aya. Nag-message sila sa akin na halos magkakasabay and they all said, ‘Magluto ka na and magbenta online. Simulan mo na.’ Immediately after that, pinag-isipan ko pong mabuti and consulted some of my friends.”
With a little more convincing, the enterprising Smith conceptualized Kusina ni Petra, that officially opened on the third week of June.
“Before I started, sabi ko hindi pwedeng basta lang magbenta,” Smith said. “Dapat may name. ‘Yung catchy. Then, comedian din ako, so hindi pwedeng basta-basta lang. I told my friend, Kenneth, na katulong kong mag-isip, ‘Kailangan mag-isip tayo ng magandang name.’
“First it was Petti’s Kitchen, since it’s my screen name sa stand-up comedy. But then, sabi ko, isip pa ng iba. Then, I realized some of my friends na sobrang kampante sa akin, fondly call me Petra. Then we came up with Kusina ni Petra, mas masa.”
Unleashing the Bicolano in him, Smith credits both his Bicolano parents, Gil and Edna Perete, for passing on to him their cooking skills. He offers dishes in Kusina ni Petra that boast of the famous coconut milk or gata that Bicol is known for. Standout items in his menu include Super Bicol Express, Gatang Pagi, Gatang Talbos ng Kamoteng Kahoy, Gatang Santol, Gatang Kamanse, Gatang Ampalaya and Laing.
There are other specialties like Bopis Bicol, Tinuntungang Papaya at Manok, Humbang Pata, Adobong Tinapa, Crispy Tokwa't Baboy, Binagoongang Baboy and Pinangat.
“Before, si Mama lang ang nagluluto ng lahat ng gulay,” Smith said. “Kapag karne, ako na. Lately, unti-unti ko nang natutunan ‘yung ibang dishes, like ‘yung may santol at papaya, kasi sobrang kailangan. Totoo ‘yun kapag magne-negosyo, dapat alam mo pala talaga lahat ang pasikot-sikot. Soon, ma-masterin ko na rin talaga ‘yung laing, pinangat and ‘yung mga iba pa.”
Opting to sell home-cooked food in his Kusina ni Petra was a no-brainer for Smith. “It’s because I love cooking and I love eating,” he insists. “Gusto ko rin nage-experiment. Before sa work, nagdadala talaga ako ng ulam at masayang-masaya ako kapag kinakain at nauubos ng mga ka-work ko. Minsan, nagte-take home pa sila.”
Smith’s heart swells with pride whenever he hears his fellow performers patronize the food he cooked. They got so used to seeing him bring food to the comedy bar often. On days when he did not carry anything, the stand-up comedians looked for his dishes.
“Si Vanessa Bolton from Punchline, hindi basta-basta kumakain ng bopis… pero ‘nung nagdala ako, kinain niya and paulit ulit siya.” Smith shared. “Sabi niya, ‘Petti ang galing, walang lansa’.”
Kusina ni Petra is located in Bagong Barrio, Caloocan City, where Smith shares a house with his mom Edna and younger sister, Joan and the latter’s three daughters.
The sales of Kusina ni Petra just on its first month of opening have been very encouraging for a first-time businessman like Smith. The orders of his customers come from different parts of Metro Manila, from as far as Las Pinas and Paranaque to Antipolo.
“The first month was overwhelming,” Smith said. “Noong nag-post ako sa Facebook, meron kaagad company na sa akin na bumibili ng food nila for lunch everyday. Kasabay noon, may umo-order din, ‘yung mga kakilala ko. So noong una, para akong nabigla. Kami ng Mama ko.
“Luckily, kahit paano, umiingay ang Kusina ni Petra at madaming nago-order. We have customers from different parts of Metro Manila. Kung kaya nga dalhin ng Cavite, marami din magiging happy doon.”
Although Kusina ni Petra started as a cloud kitchen that is perhaps the “in” thing these days, Smith does not deny the fact that he plans to eventually expand it into an actual restaurant in the coming months, when the pandemic tapers off.
In fact, Smith was recently talking to his dad, who is based in Bicol and is separated with his mom, about his plan to have his own restaurant once he gets the capital and the right budget.
“Sabi ko, ‘Pa, kapag nagkaroon ako ng puhunan, kukuha ako ng pwesto, gawin natin kainan and ikaw ang magha-handle,” Smith shared. “Since sa kanila ko talaga ni Mama natutunan lahat ng luto.”
Initially, Smith was content and happy that he was able to start his cloud kitchen. “Then, naisip ko, sayang din, di ba?,” Smith said. “At saka naniniwala ako na hindi ka talaga magle-level up kapag hindi ka lumabas sa comfort zone mo. Ang gusto ko talaga, kunin ang tatay ko sa Bicol noon pa.
“Gusto ko mag-negosyo na involve siya para naantabayanan ko siya. Siyempre, tumatanda tayong lahat. At matagal na rin kaming nagkahiwa-hiwalay. Sana maging way ito para ma-enjoy namin ang life.”
Smith admits it’s hard to start a new business like Kusina ni Petra, especially in this COVID-19 pandemic. There are certainly challenges along the way, yet he never threw in the towel or gave up.
“Ayokong maapektuhan ang lasa ng pagkain,” Smith insists. “Sometimes, wala kaming choice. Maliit lang ang kitchen namin, so kailangan namin mag-adjust. Kasi aside from Kusina ni Petra, kami ng Mama ko lang ang nagbabantay sa three young kids ng sister ko kasi nasa work siya. So hindi pwedeng natatambakan kami ng gagawin sa kusina.
“Merong mga clients na sobrang taas ng panlasa, meron namang sobrang baba. So minsan, kailangan naming mag-adjust. Eventually, natatandaan naman naming lahat. Meron may allergy sa ganito. Hindi pwedeng maanghang. Hindi pwedeng masyado magata or masyadong mataba na baboy. Pero gusto nila masubukan ang mga luto namin. Sila po ‘yung mga super regular customers namin.”
Going to the market, especially during the lockdown period, proved to be a tough task for Smith and his mom. “Isa pang problema namin ‘yung pag-palengke, kasi isa lang ang pwedeng lumabas because of only one quarantine pass issued to every family,” Smith explained. “Mama ko lang ang meron, so kailangan niya mamalengke ng bongga.”
Kusina ni Petra is Smith’s first business venture, although he also breeds dogs. He operates the cloud kitchen daily and accommodates orders and deliveries.
“Kahit anong araw, basta meron akong stocks, kapag may nag-order, I see to it na ina-accommodate namin,” Smith said. “But I always ask if they can wait or if it’s okay na ganitong oras ang delivery, kasi siyempre, biglaan naman.
“Pero merong days na may specific dishes na talaga kami for the day. At nag-schedule din naman ako ng day-off, lalo na kapag nangangarag kami, especially si Mama. I don’t post everyday lalo sa social media. Lately, naka-schedule lalo na ‘yung mga bihira lang na dishes, dahil bihira lang din sa palengke. Katulad ng pagi, camanse and talbos ng kamote.
“Pero ngayon, we see to it na may stock kami nung mga madalas ma-order lalo na ang Bicol Express. Kasi lately, kahit hindi na ako nagpo-post, may talagang mga nago-order na. Minsan, kahit gabi na, hahabulin ko kasi baka mawalan na ng Grab or Lalamove [for delivery] dahil sa curfew. Pero ang sarap sa pakiramdam, kasi alam mong part na ng menu sa mga bahay nila ang mga dishes ng Kusina ni Petra.”
Fifteen years ago, Smith started hanging out in sing-along bars for the main reason that he also loves to sing. At Libretto along West Avenue in Quezon City, he joined a regular sing-along contest and was fortunate enough to bring home the top cash prize.
The better break came when he became one of the hosts in the sing-along joint. He was subsequently discovered by stand-up comedian Jona, who was one of the regular performers at Libretto.
“On my second night, nakita ako ni Jona na naka-ayos at pinalitan niya ang name ko. Sabi niya, ‘From now on, ikaw na si Petti… Petti Pink.’ That was 15 years ago. Then, after that, kung saan-saan na ako napadpad na mga bar. Masaya, mahirap, pero it was worth it.”
Smith got her foot in at The Library in Malate. “From the beginning, sobrang dream ko na makapasok at makapag-perform sa Library,” Smith disclosed. “Although hindi madali at hindi agad-agad. Alam ni Mamu Andrew de Real ‘yan. Hindi ko siya tinigilan.”
It was not only the door of The Library that opened for Smith. He had more work and more shows. Subsequently, he was also sent to Punchline and Laffline. His work load became better, as well as his earnings.
He also got to meet the late comedian Chokoleit, the one who christened him Petti Smith. “Para daw iba ‘yung dating,” Smith recalled. “Then, pinag-aral ako ni Chokoleit ng mga rock songs. Ayun, nag-stick na ako dun.”
Smith sticks to his American sounding last name, even if his real name is Joey Perete. “In fairness sa name naman, malapit sa real name ko,” he said.
On his previous work as a stand-up comedian, Smith said missed performing onstage and entertaining people. He has accepted the fact that seeing him and his friends make people laugh again onstage will take a longer time.
“Masarap mag-ayos, mag-makeup, magbihis ng bongga,” Smith said. “Pati ‘yung mga taong ka-trabaho mo, mula sa mga entertainers, staff ng bar hanggang sa mga customers, nami-miss ko lahat. Masarap 'pag nakikita mong nage-enjoy ang audience mo.
“Masaya sa work namin kasi kung saan-saan kami nakakarating ng wala kaming binabayaran. Work and vacation in one. Sobrang nakaka-miss and nakakalungkot at the same time.”
Smith does not deny the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their family life. They have adopted cost-cutting measures to cushion the impact and, so far, has learned to live through the new normal.
“Hindi talaga madali,” Smith said. “Mula kuryente hanggang sa kung ano-ano, sobrang nag-adjust talaga kami hanggang ngayon. I know marami pa ring stressful days. Paano na next month? Saan kukuha ng ganito?
“Malaking tulong sa family namin ang Kusina ni Petra. Nasasagot ang ilang bills. Pero hindi pwedeng pa-relax-relax lang. Kasi iba pa rin talaga ‘yung dati. Pero unti-unti, masasanay at makakapag adjust din kami.
“I’m so thankful sa mga kakilala ko lang na umo-order sa akin. Ngayon, marami-rami na rin ‘yung nakita lang sa Facebook, nalaman kay ganyan and ganito. Nakakakaba pero exciting. Ngayon, halos buong araw sa kusina lang ako. ‘Yun na new normal ko.”
Granting that this pandemic is unprecedented, Smith believes there are hard lessons learned during this time. He advises everyone to save money, never be complacent and love your job.
“Tama sila, aasenso ka kapag love mo ang ginagwa mo,” Smith said. “Hindi man ganoon kabilis, pero at least nag-improve. Ako, stand-up comedy or Kusina ni Petra, I love them both. Ako ‘yung stand-up comedian and ako din si Petra.”
“Tiwala lang sa sarili and faith kay God,” Smith added. “Of course, ‘yung love para sa mga taong nasa paligid mo, importante din. ‘Yung dream na kahit hindi bonggang-bongga, pero at least, you can have and enjoy a good life.
“This pandemic is really a challenge. Ang maganda, ang daming taong naglalabas ng ibang talent nila. Ang dami ring natututo ng ibang bagay. Siguro, after nitong COVID na ‘ito, maraming magiging stronger.”
Trust that one of them is Petti Smith. He is undoubtedly ready to face up to life anew, braver and definitely stronger.