How to pay it forward – that’s exactly what the leaders behind Made Nice Supper Club hopes to perfect, by empowering their entire team. In return, it’s the Filipino diner who gets the best rewards, by enjoying heartwarming, delicious food, sampled by writer Jing Jamlang and photographer Tabitha Fernan-Jamlang.
Filipinos are everywhere. Literally. Google it. In the posh streets of New York and London, all the way to the harsh and desolate lands of Antarctica. In all seven continents, in every corner of the world, there’s a Filipino with a warm smile and a story to tell.
More often than not, it involves a selfless tale of perseverance to secure a brighter future. This, for decades, was the stereotypical Filipino dream. Leave the Philippines, work abroad, return (or stay) with riches. And for a large segment of the population, this dream still persists. But that trend is evolving in an interesting way.
Financial prosperity, as it turns out, need not be the ultimate objective of every journey into strange lands. Even more valuable than actual currency is the opportunity to acquire, and later spread, skills and ideas otherwise impossible to obtain in the Philippines.
“This was always the plan,” said Jack Flores, head chef of Made Nice Supper Club. With stints in Paris and New York, working in some of the world’s finest kitchens, under highly acclaimed chefs, this 30-year-old is the oldest of the bunch.
“For us, at least,” he said, pointing to him and his wife. “It was always our goal to come home to the Philippines and put up something.”
“This is actually the reason why we went to the states,” Gabbi Flores explained, Made Nice’s 23-year-old pastry chef, who cut her teeth at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education.
“I knew I wanted to be here,” agreed pasta expert Raul Fores. The 27-year-old spent five years in the United States, studying in Providence, taking internship in Manhattan, before working in San Diego and later, Los Angeles.
Operations and front-of-house duo, Toby Panlilio (fresh from broadening his horizons in Hong Kong) and Wren Go (who interned in Long Island), nodded along.
“For all of us, it was about training — Hong Kong, New York, everywhere else,” Jack pointed out.
The five are an interesting combination, a group that admits their chemistry isn’t one that naturally spills over into other aspects of life. But every Monday to Saturday, they excitedly make their way to Esteban Street in Makati’s Legaspi Village, to not only showcase the knowledge and skills they’d amassed abroad, but also to cultivate a culture they feel has been lacking in the country.
“One thing we should do, if we are going to do this, is build a team to be able to work on their own,” recalled Raul of the group’s agreement while conceptualizing Made Nice. They were determined to showcase their bold culinary creations, while also honing their staff to do the same.
Dreams made real, and delicious
“What’s the point in putting up a restaurant where they can’t function without you? All they’re going to learn is to listen to you. But it’s possible to teach somebody and empower them to be able to make decisions, and come up with dishes on their own, which I think we’ve been trying to do,” Raul continued. “And I think we’ve been doing it pretty damn well for a bunch of 20-year-olds!”
“John was our dishwasher,” he stated as example. “He knows how to make pasta now, and he plates almost all the food that comes out of our kitchen.”
And as if to emphasize the point, our Made Nice meal began with a Big Black Cocktail (BBC) to loosen things up. A combination of grapefruit, ginger, rosemary, squid ink and gin, topped with a bit of salt on the rim of the glass. It’s an intricately refreshing blend that stemmed from an in-house competition amongst the restaurant’s kitchen staff. This was the winner.
“We don’t all agree on a certain hobby or pastime. We’re all very different people. If you had put us all together in one school, I’m not exactly sure we’d be friends,” Jack confessed. “I’m not saying we don’t get along, it’s just that we’re…”
“We could fall on opposite sides of the spectrum,” Raul finished. “But that’s sort of what makes it work. Not a lot gets left out, you know what I mean? Eventually you’re going to get compromises of everything.”
“And I think that’s how you can best describe this process, and the whole experience,” Jack agreed.
“If Jack and I were given the same ingredients, and cooked right next to each other, but couldn’t see what each other was cooking, I bet you it’s going to be different.”
“So different!” Raul affirmed.
“But if we did the dish again, knowing what each other cooked, we’d probably come up with something better. He might have a good note on mine, and I might have something to say about his. A lot of our stuff came up that way. Like the Panzotti you tried, that was just supposed to be cream and mushroom. It was Jack’s idea to add the squash.”
And a great idea it was. Never mind an ice cream for a pick-me-up, this plate of Italian dumplings, filled with spinach and basil, would cure even the most brutal of heartaches and gloomiest of days.
“I’d like our guests to feel like they’ve tried something new, something a little more out there than they normally get in Manila. But at the same time, we’re trying to introduce a new style of dining to the Philippines as well. It all boils down to having that, you could say, semi-fine dining feel,” Jack explained.
When ‘really nice’ means ‘really good’
“We wanted to do food that we go out of our way to make very good, made really nice, but not intimidate people,” Raul expounds.
The prospect of Octopus is usually quite daunting. But the one served before us, placed above a local version of mole sauce and topped with ashitaba, was particularly inviting. Upon digging in, it’s delightfully soft. And although flavorful on its own, with the local chilis, it reaches a refreshing unfamiliarity.
It’s followed by an elegant beef short rib with kimchi rice. It’s simple to the eye, but every bite’s an occasion to savor. There could be no rushing the uncanny tenderness of the meat, and the pleasant introduction of butter and Korean spices that followed. The knowledge that it took hours upon hours to create made more and more sense with every mouthful.
Finally, came the closer – Orange. Ice cream inside a giant activated charcoal macaron, enveloped in zest. A starkly novel conclusion to the wide range of flavors and sensations that graced the table. And as if that was not enough, a chocolate lover’s dream arrived: homemade malt ice cream, chocolate cake, ganache and dulce de leche, topped with powdered milk solids – an off the menu favorite for the more familiar visitor, and the perfect exclamation to a thoroughly delightful meal.
Fresh from celebrating their first anniversary, and given the talent reflected in the dishes that their team creates, Made Nice Supper Club is making a case that there’s an opportunity to empower entire generations to pursue their purpose. And all that while learning and earning, without ever having to leave for strange shores.
“One of my biggest frustrations is seeing someone with a proper college degree working abroad in a job he’s overqualified for. It’s wasted potential. That’s really why we’re doing this here with a lot of passion. We need to find those people who are driven and passionate, but who maybe didn’t get the same opportunities we got,” Jack stated of his journey abroad and back. “For me, at least, it’s time to make people want to stay home.”