The Quiet Ascension of Filipino Chefs
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this could be how Filipino cuisine grows into the next great culinary hit.
Hazel Mae Castor and her loved ones knew life would metamorphose when she recently boarded a jet plane bound for Florida. But the 24-year-old from the Philippines wasn’t clearing out of her native Iloilo City and leaving her family more than 9,400 miles behind to become a housekeeper, laborer or seafarer — some of the common professions for overseas Filipino workers. Rather, the recent culinary school grad left to cut her teeth at Fontainebleau Miami Beach, a high-end resort and spa where she’ll blend, blanch and broil her way toward a professional career in cookery.
The world has long embraced chefs from France and Italy, the U.K. and the U.S., but now it’s Filipino cooks who are quietly pervading the global culinary scene by carving out spaces on ships like Princess Cruises’, major casinos like the Galaxy Macau resort in China and hotels such as the Athens Ledra in Greece and the Lanesborough in London. Consider Cristeta Comerford, the first woman and person of Filipino descent to hold the coveted title of executive chef of the White House kitchen. Overall, the number of Filipino new hires employed abroad as cooks and related workers grew to more than 7,000 in 2013, up more than 60 percent from 2010, according to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.
Le Cordon Bleu has partnered with a local university to offer a “premium education” in restaurant studies — and that’s on top of more than 400 schools with accredited culinary programs across the country.
Labor migration is hardly a new phenomenon in the Philippines. Since the 1970s, manpower has been a chief export of the Southeast Asian archipelago, which is home to more than 98 million people, and more than 10 million Filipinos work abroad today. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, Saudi Arabia crests the list of destinations for Filipinos employed overseas, followed by other Middle Eastern countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, and Asian locales like Singapore and Hong Kong. Given the Philippines’ relatively young population — a third of the country is under 15 — as well as an unemployment level of around 7 percent and more than 26 percent of Filipinos living in poverty, overseas work is often more lucrative than local alternatives.
While many have left home to become nannies or maids, more have been enticed in recent years by rock-star chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White. That image combined with a ballooning culinary-school industry in the Philippines — with strengthening ties to accreditation bodies and partner institutions overseas — has churned out more Filipino cooks. When Kenneth Cacho, director of culinary arts at the International School for Culinary Arts and Hotel Management’s Pampanga campus, began his career in 1991, educational opportunities in this field were about as common as, well, unicorn fondue. “At that time we didn’t have any culinary schools offering courses like this,” he says. There were just a handful of other institutions by 2006, when Gene Cordova, president of the American Hospitality Academy Philippines, opened his school. More recently, Le Cordon Bleu has partnered with a local university to offer a “premium education” in restaurant studies — and that’s on top of more than 400 schools with accredited culinary programs across the country. Cordova says they’ve “mushroomed all over the place.”
At the same time, experts say, the explosion of short-term courses — some as brief as six months — may prove deflating in other ways. Speed relies on shortcuts and diluting skill, and the ever-increasing demand to send chefs abroad may mean an eventual shortage back home. The challenge of widely popularizing Filipino eats also persists. After all, it’s far less known than the cuisines of its Thai or Vietnamese cousins, and Filipino fare is rich with variation. Cordova, for one, has seen dozens of takes on the very famous adobo recipe.
Of course, that stems from the fact that the Philippines comprises more than 7,000 islands, with cultural traces from Spain, Malaysia, China and the U.S., an eclectic mix due, in part, to a long history of colonization by different nations. So it’s perhaps somewhat fitting that more Filipino chefs are now leaving home and introducing their food to folks in other parts of the world, with their own unique spin. Nicole Ponseca, who runs Jeepney and Maharlika, two oft-praised Filipino restaurants in New York, describes her ancestors’ food as the “original fusion cuisine.” And Castor, who has a full plate right now with a yearlong apprenticeship, says she’s excited to eventually get out her own signature dishes one day. “I’m planning to put up my own business after the internship,” she says.