Van Gogh is Bipolar: Behind the Shifting Menu and How it All StartedSeptember 8, 2019
Most restaurants catch a passerby’s attention with large glass windows and inviting al fresco areas. But Van Gogh is Bipolar, one of the first names in the Maginhawa scene, is located in an apartment complex’s quiet corner. Right next to the more upfront Black Soup is a closed door that leads to Van Gogh is bipolar. First time visitors might wonder if they should knock first or simple enter. But like Alice falling into a rabbit hole, I took my chances and opened that door
Upon stepping in, we were welcomed by a small space filled with all sorts of objects. Straight ahead were several shelves filled with mini tea sets, an assortment of glasses, vials, bottles; it was as if a time machine that had traveled through the centuries was unpacked in that space and the objects were left there. Had it not been for the table for two on my right, another one settled on the far left corner, and a long table occupying the larger side and Jacob the server asking how many should be seated, I would have assumed I accidentally walked into someone’s apartment. But the sounds of the kitchen behind the shelves and the owner, Jetro, who stood up to greet us, confirmed our purpose for being there.
The restaurant’s name not only tells of Van Gogh’s bipolar condition, but also Jetro’s. Based on Jetro’s own personal research, he discovered ingredients that are known for their mood altering properties.
“Van Gogh Is Bipolar is basically my home,” Jetro says as he talks about his restaurant’s history. “My room is over there,” his head motioning to a door at the far end of the restaurant. “I treated this place as my healing sanctuary.” The restaurant’s name not only tells of Van Gogh’s bipolar condition, but also Jetro’s. The food plays a big role in helping him deal with such a condition. “Van Gogh is Bipolar’s cuisine is based on a special diet,” Jetro explains. “Several years ago, I was in search for a natural homeopathic medicine as an alternative for the usual medications that I take for my bipolar condition.” Based on Jetro’s own personal research, he discovered ingredients that are known for their mood altering properties. “Take honey for example,” he says, “which is scientifically proven to relieve you from anxiety even from a single consumption.”
Other ingredients that he uses include the black mountain rice known to make you happy. He also uses particular meats with calming properties: for white meat, turkey is considered the best for such a purpose, while lamb is the choice among the red meats. “I also use a fish’s belly as that has the highest concentration of amino polyunsaturated acids and these are known to make you happy,” he continues.
“It was never designed to be a restaurant and initially I treated it as my home, as my healing sanctuary.”
Although Jetro’s dishes use specific ingredients, Van Gogh is Bipolar did not start out as a restaurant. “Van Gogh is Bipolar is an accidental restaurant,” Jetro clarifies. “It was never designed to be a restaurant and initially I treated it as my home, as my healing sanctuary. It’s also where I can express myself without any censorship. And then I started cooking for my friends.” One friend told another about the food being served and word of mouth transformed Van Gogh is Bipolar into the restaurant it is known as today.
Before visitors sit down to take their meal, they must take their time to prepare themselves some tea. All the herbs used in the food and in the tea are grown in his family’s farm. The tea choices also have specific mood altering purposes: mango tea for a happy chill mood, banana tea for a light chill, Spanish Plum as an extra upper, guyabano for those who need extra calming, and guava tea for anyone after an upper mood. “Nagmamadali ka ba?” Jetro asked me before showing me how to prepare the tea; it was a reminder to slow down, take my time, and enjoy myself as the rest of the night unfolded.
Food, the “medium” where science and art, is where two points in Jetro’s life converges.
The restaurant doesn’t have a set menu. What you have one night may differ from the other, as Jetro likes to customize and diversify what the restaurant has to offer. This aspect of the restaurant reflects Jetro’s experimental spirit. Food, the “medium” where science and art meet, is where two points in Jetro’s life converges. “I’ve loved experimenting since I was a kid,” he recounts. “I grew up in a laboratory as my mom is a medical technologist.” He leaves the table for a while and reaches for a microscope that’s among the objects on the shelf. “I knew how to use this before all the other kids in school. Everyone thought I was going to be a doctor. I tried that, but I found my way to the Fine Arts program in UP Diliman.” As a fine arts student who majored in advertising, he focused on photography (hence the presence of a dark room in the restaurant), experimented with film documentaries, and has started painting. If you visit the restaurant today, there’s one painting of his displayed on the wall.
Like art and science, food is about discovering new things. And this openness to discovery must be carried with you, should you decide to go to Van Gogh is Bipolar.
“I don’t see the difference between creating a dish and taking a photograph or making an artwork,” Jetro says. “The creative process is the same for me.” The experimentation reflects in two items that have remained as menu staples: the Axl Rose Egg Shot and Courtney Love Potion. “That’s a stress buster concoction,” Jetro explains as the egg shot is being served. “Eggs are a stress buster and then you have the homemade chutneys mixed with honey and fruit sauce.
Anything spicy is known to lower the cortisol or stress hormones.” Before we take a shot to release all the stress, Jacob tells us of the restaurant’s tradition: “Whenever we take a shot here, we say ‘Cheers’ in a foreign language. For tonight, I chose Yiddish: Zei Gezunt.” “Zei Gezunt!” We cheer before taking in the raw egg and the chutney’s incredible kick in one gulp. The Courtney Love Potion is a bit of a relief after the egg shot, as the drink refreshes with its fresh fruit pulp, fresh fruit extract, and pure honey. Not that we regret having the Axl Rose Egg Shot—after all, like art and science, food is about tasting and experiencing new discoveries. And this openness to discovery must be carried with you, should you decide to go to Van Gogh is Bipolar. “If you plan to come and dine in Van Gogh, you better be open,” Jetro stresses. “You can’t play it safe when you’re here.”
“You can’t play it safe when you’re here.”
The food may be experimental, but that doesn’t stop customers or even the staff from feeling unwelcome when they enter the restaurant. Jetro also uses the restaurant as his own way of sharing his healing experience with others, namely with his staff, Jacob and Giselle: Jacob has ADHD while Giselle has chronic depression. “I invite them to be themselves, to celebrate who they are, and to share both life’s shits and victories.”
The rest of the night felt nothing like your usual sit down interview. A salad was shared among strangers over friendly conversation and a thick and hearty soup tasted before we set off to let others enjoy what Van Gogh is Bipolar has to offer. Before setting foot into that door, I had no expectations of what the restaurant was about to offer. I left looking forward to the surprises it would hold on my next visit.