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Sentro: Finding her Sentro

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Ever see how a master’s mind works? It’s quite fascinating watching the thought processes involved – how she takes in all the variables, how she sees a myriad of possibilities, and combines elements with off-the-wall ideas to come up with something new and wondrous.

Take Vicky Rose Pacheco, executive chef of the 1771 Group of Restaurants, as she muses about the components for a new menu item. She waves her hands around unconsciously, almost like a conductor with an orchestra as she describes the elements involved.

“I have this dish, Vegetarian Red Rice,” she starts. “It’s influenced by Thai cuisine – I use caramel syrup that I make from palm sugar and patis (fish sauce). You boil that down together to make the syrup. It becomes really thick and it’s salty and sweet. I used this syrup for the fried red rice. Thing is, palm sugar is usually out of stock with my supplier because they have to import it from Thailand so I was thinking, ‘Hmmm, I think I should experiment with panotsa (molasses cake from unrefined sugar cane).’ One of my chefs said, ‘Ma’am, we tried it. It’s bitter.’ So I tell him, ‘Let’s fix the proportions of panotsa, brown sugar and patis, the sweetness and saltiness combination.’ The thing is, panotsa adds smokiness to it all. It’s dark.”

Chef Vicky cups one hand on her cheek while the other traces ingredients in the air, as she sees them in her mind’s eye, how each flavor counterbalances the other.

I suggested coconut sugar as a possible substitute to panotsa. She told me earlier that she uses the stuff in her other dishes.

Her eyes widen like saucers and her face breaks out in a gleeful grin. “Coco sugar might work. Palm and coconuts do come from the same family. It might work…”

Menu-ette

The delicate equilibrium she seeks out doesn’t merely extend to her dishes – she strives to work out the same level of harmony in her menu. “It’s tricky to incorporate just any dish into a menu,” she muses. “I have to make sure that a dish doesn’t get lost in the rest of the menu proper. I also learned that in making a menu, there’s such a thing as it having a sense of architecture. You have to compose it in such a way that everything works well together.”

There is this insatiable inquisitiveness in her eyes as she flips the variables around in her head like griddlecakes.

“It’s a given all the dishes taste good – they wouldn’t even be considered for the menu to begin with – but what categories are you going to put? What dishes will compete with each other? Or what will blend with each other in terms of flavor? And if I’m a customer, how will I read the menu – particularly if I’m a first timer? I don’t need to worry about a regular for that, but I’m always thinking about first timers. You want to give them a good first impression.”

Putting together all the requisite ingredients to make a successful menu work eventually translates to making a successful restaurant chain work, and in that, Pacheco shines sublimely. The 1771 Group has been her domain for more than a decade, with each new branch as an opportunity to bring in something never before seen by the dining public.

The latest Sentro 1771 calls Uptown Mall in Bonifacio Global City its home. Having opened mid-May this year, this new branch is Chef Vicky’s latest laboratory where she has been keeping the mainstays consistent and refining rough edges here and there.

But when it comes to concocting new delectables, Chef Vicky draws on her own experiences as well as feedback from her people. “I interview my chefs to find out their specialties. I ask them what’s the food in your province? How do you do it? Is this it? Okay, let’s do something with it.”

Livin’ la vida locavore

Sentro is all about local food. “Filipino food is always a learning experience for me because there are so many variants to every single dish,” she elaborates. “The main trend in Sentro is Tagalog food, Bulacan, Pampanga types. But we don’t do Spanish-influenced dishes like paella and pochero (stew with meat, tomatoes and plantain bananas) anymore.”

In that sense, staying true to the original concept of the dish is paramount. “Sometimes, I play around with the presentation, or the finishing touches, but I stay true to the flavor of the dish. So even if it looks different, you’ll get what it’s supposed to be. If you ordered humba (stewed pork with soy sauce, black beans and banana), you’ll definitely get humba. I won’t put wine in it – that won’t be humba anymore. That’s why Filipino food is more difficult to do. Especially here, since everyone has a point of reference, whether it’s their mother’s or their grandmother’s cooking. It’s hard to please everyone.”

And yet I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t like Chef Vicky’s cooking. We started off with toothsome Fresh Smoked Fish Spring Rolls stuffed with tinapang bangus (smoked milkfish), salted eggs, mustasa (mustard greens), onions and tomato. Each healthy, guiltless bite made me crave more. More veggie goodness came in the form of Camote Cups – hollowed out sweet potato filled with stir-fried cabbage, Baguio beans and carrots with a lettuce garnish. It’s normally rare to describe a vegetarian dish as burly, but each Camote Cup was practically a small meal in itself and I had to take it slow lest I lose room for what was to follow.

Pescetarians rejoice, for Rated GG is a timeless treasure available in any Sentro branch, including the one in Uptown. Crisp-on-the-outside-chewy-on-the-inside galunggong (scad fish) fillets fried in olive oil and topped with crunchy brown garlic are guaranteed to make anyone a fan.

Of course, the average Filipino diet has a healthy dose of pork and beef and these came served together as a one-two punch: Sugar-Free Humba, or pork belly stewed in soy sauce, Ilocano-style, with rum, vinegar, tausi (fermented black beans) and coco sap sweetener; and Sinigang na Corned Beef – a Sentro specialty, this variant on a traditional home-cooked staple is corned beef and boneless beef shanks in tamarind broth with native vegetables. Both viands came paired with steaming hot mounds of freshly cooked brown and red rice. The red rice worked well with the humba, allowing the coco sap and soy sauce marinade to blend well with a hint of star anise. The white rice took most of the edge off of the sinigang, easily one of the tartest sinigang bowls in the city. My tongue tingled as if electrified, as the sour sop hit the sweet spot while the scrumptious corned beef tore easily with spoon and fork.

Sweet potato is a personal favorite of Chef Vicky, and her Banana and Camote Un-Cue – caramelized saba (plantain) banana and the aforementioned root crop are a rarefied version of a humble snack sold on street corners all over the city. She uses a yummy caramel sauce that almost tastes like yam candy to coat the burnished fruit and vegetables.

What capped off the meal was Keso Flan, a baked but light no-crust cheesecake served with queso de bola (overripe Edam cheese) and salted red duck egg. Chef Vicky bids us to follow her instructions – we slice a sliver of queso de bola and a morsel of the red egg and eat it together with a forkful of the flan. The resulting flavorful explosion in my mouth was a delightful surprise.

Whoever said Filipino food was boring has never set foot in Sentro 1771.

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