Chef du Partie: The Partie Line

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That the place was still an hour away from opening mattered little to the hostess of Chef du Partie (CDP); when she saw a woman peering through one the restaurant’s windows, she immediately stood from her seat, fished a menu from a nearby shelf and approached her.

It was a leisurely Monday morning by Makati’s standards. The mall had just opened, and the streets flanking it were practically empty save for a few cars. Meanwhile, CDP was still going through the more sodden aspects of its regular prep work; its floors were being mopped, tables were being wiped clean and behind the bar, cloths were swishing amidst the backdrop of running water.

It should be of note, however, that CPD is a restaurant that sources its lobsters fresh at least 8,000 miles away. Its purveyors researched its concept by crossing vast distances. And as for its hostess, Anne Berges, the lithe, wild-maned Restaurant Manager walking toward the woman, she hailed all the way from Bordeaux, France; she came from a family that fine-tuned her palate by raising her with only two beverage options—water or wine. All things considered, the idea of “going the extra mile” is not a foreign concept, at least not to this restaurant and its staff.

“Yes, madame?” I heard Berges say. “Can I help you?”

“Chef du Partie,” the woman said before turning to the hostess, “is this a new French restaurant?” Well, it could’ve been, but no. It ended up going a lot further than that.

CDP was founded by Malou Fores of Mamou and Recovery Food, Katrina Alcantara of Mesclun and Chuck’s Deli, and Kristine Locsin formerly of Lu. It was conceptualized about three years ago after Fores noted that the local dining scene has become more open to Spanish tapas. “I thought that it was a nice concept,” she said, “nice” enough for her to take part in. But as she would treat dishes that inspire her (incorporating their foundations before adding unique touches that make them distinct), she chose to tweak the idea slightly. That’s when French cuisine by way of New York came into play.

“One of the influences of the place is a French restaurant called Buvette,” Fores related. While she was visiting a friend who lived in New York, she asked to be brought to a place nearby that offered something like Spanish tapas “but not Spanish.” So, when she saw Buvette, it “tickled [her] fancy” while providing a blueprint that she and her friends could tinker with. And after three years – or as Alcantara put it, “one year of actually doing something about it and a couple of years of just talking about it,” CDP was born.

During my visit to the restaurant located on the rim of the Power Plant Mall of Rockwell, Makati, it didn’t take long for the French influence to be apparent. Among the first items I found on its menu was Duck Confit (PHP 890). The moment I heard Berges talk, her thick, somewhat nasal accent practically pinpointed the general area of her origin, and to top it all off, the first song I heard playing from the restaurant’s speakers was a low-fi cut of Edith Piaf ’s “La Vie En Rose.” But further explorations of the menu can quickly unveil something else. Just above the Duck Confit’s placing in the menu are the ingredients for Sancocho (PHP 595), a dish from the Dominican Republic. Turn a page or two and you’re bound to find the pricing for Japanese Mackerel (PHP 495). Just above that is the text representing the first dish I got to try in the restaurant: Maine Lobster Vongole (PHP 995).

According to Berges, CDP is a “global table,” a small establishment that takes on the big goal of bringing world flavors to diners of Manila. To give an idea as to how its menu was formed, she related a not-so-unusual experience with Fores, who, through Mamou’s borderless cuisine, has been known for creative restlessness. “She goes somewhere, she eats something, and she returns to say ‘I have an idea.’” Alcantara and Locsin, also known for being consummate travelers, contributed to the restaurant’s culinary identity in the same manner.

But ideas are not the only things Fores, Alcantara and Locsin export and play with. As mentioned earlier, the restaurant often goes the extra mile for its concept, and for dishes like the Maine Lobster Vongole to be served adhering to the standards of CDP’s purveyors, great lengths are regularly endured.

“We really do source our lobsters from Maine,” confirmed CDP’s Chef Enrique Moreno, and apparently, they do this as regularly as possible. “We also don’t like to freeze our seafood. We like getting them fresh.”

The vongole testifies on his behalf. A pasta dish topped with steamed Manila clams and a plump, attention-hogging lobster tail, this is a rich, commanding and slightly buttery variant of an otherwise simple dish.

According to Chef Moreno, this is vongole “luxurized,” and this seems to be a trend in CDP. Thanks to the direction of its founders, the restaurant is a place where seemingly simple things are given an added layer or two for people to experience. Here, things are elevated by details. The place has predominantly gray walls, for instance.

These would’ve been too stark if not for the artworks of Judy Cervantes: a set of illustrations and writings that range from a staircase, a deer’s head, and the words of E.E. Cummings himself: “His lips drink water but his heart drinks wine.” Many items on the menu undergo such elevations. The vongole is one; what Chef Moreno calls the restaurant’s “mac and cheese of sorts” is another.

A maccheroni dish with Parma ham and Grana Padano is the restaurant’s Truffle Maccheroni (PHP 495), an already savory plate made even more flavorful by CDP’s use of white truffle paste. Compared to the vongole, this is a visually simplistic dish; its taste, however, is a different story. The restaurant is good at serving dishes that are hearty (it does its Short Rib Poutine (PHP 990) and French Onion Soup (PHP 275) rather well). But its attempt at generating such an effect seems to operate at a more sophisticated level with this menu item. A hefty bite of it can hurl tastebuds in the midst of a vibrant interaction between the ham and the truffle; they seek to balance each other out, it seems, and such an interface leaves a charming impression upon the palate.

Collaboration—as a place being run essentially by three heads: this is a common element at play in CDP, one seen from its culinary offering to its operation. It is here that gustatory identities essentially divided by geography converged for one menu. It is here that various preferences born of differing experiences came together to produce one product, and it is here that three women— restaurateurs, artists and connoisseurs in their own respective rights—work together.

In front of her two co-founders, Alcantara quipped that their system in running the place has “no order,” but was quick to state that their collaboration is very organic. “We don’t designate strict roles upon each other,” she said. And in hindsight, I could not help but once again think of the restaurant’s Truffle Maccheroni: how it presents itself like a salad of ideas, and how the strong individual textures and tastes that created it all blend well together. The secret to the dish, I presumed, was that it had at least one solid foundation, that all its ingredients were utilized for the unifying purpose of supporting CDP’s goals as a restaurant. The same can be said of the restaurant’s governing trio. They have their own skills and experiences, and naturally they each have their own preferences. But it is the fortune of their business venture that the three are united by at least several aspects.

The first is the confidence that Metro Manila’s diners are now a more traveled lot and that this can benefit their concept quite well. For instance, the restaurant offers an “eat by the bar” setting, thanks to its limited space, and the three are bullish that this adds to the place’s appeal since according to them, many of their targeted customers have been to big cities of prime real estate, places where people are confined to eat in small spaces.

Another unifying trait is their belief that in order for CDP to thrive, improvement (if not consistency) is a must. “At any point,” Locsin said, “one of us would be here. We maintain the quality of the food, we maintain the service. If there are any complaints about the food, we’re always on top of it.”

And finally, there is the fact that beyond business partners, beyond contemporaries, the three women are friends. And because of that, work is more or less a ‘partie.’

“The good thing about us working together is that we’re usually excited to go to work,” said Alcantara. “It’s not boring.”

I got to witness a bit of that after my interview. Just as the restaurant began preparing for its nighttime crowd, Fores, Alcantara, Locsin, Moreno, Berges and the rest of CDP’s staff were just outside, indulging in each other’s company in the midst of wine glasses, cigarettes and inside jokes. Some had their feet up on chairs, while some would laugh so loud that they’d drown whatever song was being played on the nearby speaker. Most, if not all, seemed at home.

True, CDP usually requires its people to go the extra mile to make its concept work. But there are times, moments like these, when being part of it just don’t seem to require much effort at all.

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