40 Days and 40 Nights with Mugaritz’s Former Head Chef Julieta CarusoAugust 17, 2014
I don’t think I fully understand Manila.
In the last few years, the city has managed to transform into a culinary hotbed; there are brunch options that stretch beyond the ladies-who-lunch staples, coffee shops which crop out cups of single origin brews that battle the Frappucino phase, and practically every major road has a place to serve a slice of home (read: “comfort food” diners). Then there are the fads—those that have jumped on the burger bandwagon a little too late, or have cooked up half-assed “gastropubs” masked by beer on the tap. In and around the city’s dining scenes, different mentalities seem to exist as well, with the toss-up between imported produce battling the benefits of local anything. As we search for our culinary identity, the city has somehow managed to pique the curiosity of those outside it.
At an hour past noon, on an immeasurably hot afternoon in the city, it’s a bit too early in the day to be so fiercely intimidated. Seated right beside me, flipping through an old iPhone with a spiderweb crack spun into its glass screen, is Julieta Caruso of one of the world’s top restaurants: Mugaritz. Just two weeks into her Philippine pilgrimage, she sports a blossom of sunburnt skin at the tip of her nose, planted lovingly by the sun over Palawan. Backed by a six year stay in one of the most established kitchens across the globe, you have to wonder what crossed her mind to leave, and travel halfway around the world to our shores.
“Travel has always been important to me. When I took the job at Mugaritz, I told Andoni (Aduriz) that I could be stubborn and just leave anytime, if I felt like it,” and that time just so happened to have arrived when she already sported the Head Chef cap at the restaurant 6 years later. “They all thought I was crazy. Andoni did not want to believe me at first, but when I had trained a team for six months, to take over when I left, it became real for him.” Caruso bought a one-way ticket to Asia, landing first in Singapore, then Vietnam, Japan, and then the Philippines—thoughts of food and its elements never far behind her.
While Japan had her floored with its markets and kitchen discipline, it was the Philippines that had lured her in because of its mystery. “You know, the most complex thing for me is to do very good, simple food,” she admits solemnly, “the Philippines seemed like a good place to discover that.” Together with the Gallery at Vask’s Chef J. Luis Gonzalez, himself a wanderer—and owing to his last few years in the country—Caruso set out for the islands.
The Philippine leg of Caruso’s Asian adventure took her first to Dumaguete, where she foraged the forests of Dauin, followed quickly by exploring La Libertad. In Bacolod, Lusso’s Margarita Fores gave the unabridged guide to the region’s flavors. Palawan won her over with the shipwreck dives in Coron and the cashew nuts in Puerto Princesa. “They are everywhere there, did you know?” she asks me, completely beside herself in excitement, “They are really expensive where I am from. But here! I bought myself a bag of cashews and ate them like. . . well, like peanuts!” After Palawan came Cagayan de Oro, Surigao, Siargao, Iligan, Bukidnon, Bicol, Sorsogon, and Legaspi. In between flights out of town, there were quick trips by land to nearby places like Pampanga, to the villages where the Aytas still cooked in bamboo.
Close to a month after my afternoon encounter with Caruso, I found myself seated at a table with three friends at dinnertime. The evening’s challenge was a 13-course meal, curated over the past month by chefs Luis and Julieta.
Each item on the menu was a salute to a place, a theory, or an ingredient encountered while discovering the country. The starter, for example, was a reference to the afternoon treats of sidewalk shrimp balls and boiled two week-old duck eggs. Aptly named Binondo, skewered shrimp balls were dusted with flecks of alamang, while a sous-vide quail egg floated in balut juice, folded neatly into a wonton.
It’s in the course Lutong Bahay that Caruso’s earlier statement crept up on me; how creating simple food can prove to be the most complex. Finger-length eggplants were put in perspective, highlighted thrice over, through three seemingly elementary methods. The first set was fried, sprinkled with ginger shavings, drizzled in honey, and placed atop a betel leaf. Next were those grilled until the skin ashen, accented by nuggets of kesong puti and shards of rock salt. Last came the pickled pieces, with rings of red onions around them, laid out on palm-sized sesame leaves.
The courses that followed became the jumping point for a guessing game of sorts, with each of us at the table deciphering familiar tastes in each dish. The Binulo, with its kalibangbang leaves and cochinillo was their ode to sinigang, while the Cassava course, with its torched carabao milk crisps hinted at kakanin.
The last dish on the menu was an assembly of petit fours, arranged in each of the small cavities that ran the length of a sungka board. There were balls of pastillas, muscovado-encrusted chocolate nibs, candied pili nuts, tablea truffles rolled in pinipig, and Arabica polvoron to name a few.
The finale to the 13-course extravaganza became the literal food for thought, as the footnote attached to it read, “This story begins with 40 days and 40 nights and it continues with an invitation to play this game. With each and every ingredient that you experience in the pods, we hope that it will inspire you to continue to support local farmers, enjoy native ingredients, and share our new found purpose to explore Philippine flavors.”
Once all the dishes for the evening were dispatched, I approached Julieta at the kitchen with much reverence. “I was looking at something the other day, in the dictionary,” she confesses to me, “I looked up ‘fine dining,’ and it spoke of extravagance. It can mean luxurious, yes, but you can see it another way. For me, it is something uncommon. It is something you cannot find everyday.
Through restaurants here, it seems so uncommon to find Filipino products prepared the same, or at least close to, how it is traditionally done.” And before I can ask anymore, she winks at me and departs with a dare, “you think about it.” It was baffling to comprehend that a person who had all but a few weeks’ stay in the country I grew up in could cough up familiar meals, through atypical means, and have me reevaluate how I viewed the things I had grown so accustomed to.
There is no doubt that there is something cautiously unique in what, and how, local produce is fashioned. Apart from the Gallery at Vask’s long-term Kulinarya movement, which will see them adopting a new degustation with the same vision, there is Sarsa and their play on traditional dishes, and Black Sheep and Purple Yam who are determined to elevate local cuisine to a grander scale. Perhaps this is the Manila to be understood then; the one yet to be widely appreciated, yet the one that dances right at the cusp of its potential.