Tito Chef: The chefs in the cupboard under the stairs

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Amadeo “Menoy” Gimenez, the gregarious owner, manager and top chef of Tito Chef bids me welcome to his Restaurant, with a capital R. Between the pine wreaths, gold plates, and glitzy artwork (including a marble torso sculpted by late two-time Oscar winner Anthony Quinn), I had the impression that there was a wedding coming up as the place was as glammed up as a Lady Gaga party dress. “We look like this every day,” he responds with a big smile. “We’re just a little house that got newly renovated. And we don’t look like this just because there’s a shoot and we’re being featured by you.”

As if to shake off the anticipatory celebratory atmosphere, Gimenez takes me down a short, white stone stair with a transparent plastic curtain barring the way. Beyond was his not-so-secret lair, a sleek, sizeable, spanking-eat-off-the-floor clean kitchen/classroom where he and his skilled squad of fellow chefs train eager young (and not so young but just as eager) minds in the art of culinary magic. “I love the idea of combining elements – we call ourselves a teaching restaurant. I know it sounds a little bit blasé but we cook and we teach how to cook. We just have to make sure that our teaching methods and the food that comes out of the kitchen are all interfaced. We’re proud of our foundation techniques – when we grill, we really know how to grill. When we sauté, we really know how to sauté. You can’t have a restaurant that has good food with a cooking school that teaches badly, and vice-versa. Both have to interface.”

I see sandwiches, sausages and pies plated in one corner, next to massively intimidating oven hoods and ranges that looked ready to roll out and transform into Optimus Chef. “We do our own bread,” he asserts. “We make our own sausages. Everyone now is outsourcing. But with us, it’s all from scratch – not for the sake of making it from scratch and making life difficult, but because there is more ownership. The food is really yours – it’s from you. You have to act global. You really have to give people value for the money they pay.”

After more than thirty years, Gimenez still can’t get enough of teaching. “I opened CCA in 1996, my first job when I came back to the Philippines.” Nor can he get enough of running a restaurant. “Tito Chef is an offshoot of a midlife crisis,” he admits with nonplussed honesty. “I was forty-two and I was working for other people for the past twenty years doing many different things. As you get a little bit older, your non-negotiables become a little bit less. I realized that the most productive years are almost over, so might as well take advantage of it. In 2012, we bowed out (I took my people with me) from several establishments that we were doing food and beverage provider and consultancy work for. That’s when we put this up.”

The actual name Tito Chef was the last thing Gimenez thought of. “Now, I have a nephew who when he was a kid, couldn’t pronounce my name. So my sister-in-law said to him, ‘Why don’t you just call him Tito Chef?’ And it stuck. Then a month before we opened, we had to come up with a name that wasn’t funky because this is a different crowd – you’d be surprised because the people here are very discerning. We wanted a name that would compel people to come, something that had substance and no flash – the flash would come later – and when we called ourselves Tito Chef, people liked it.”

Food is a very personal thing for Gimenez, an important aspect of what Tito Chef is all about. “Whatever dishes I made that we’re known for in other places, I now serve here,” he reveals. “My menu is very experiential – it comes from me. It’s not an original menu as a number of dishes are my take on other existing recipes, but I’m not going to experiment on you. I’m giving you tested dishes that I’ve been doing for a while, some since 1996. I don’t care if my dishes aren’t trendy anymore – as long as people continue to like these dishes, then that’s fine. They stand the test of time.”

“Our food carries with it a global perspective, but with French culinary technique,” he says, summing it all up. “We offer cuisine that’s familiar to people, but there is an element of discovery to it – that’s the drama we present.”

Drama is exactly what I got, and not of the negative kind that has you ready to skewer your waiter in frustration with the nearest fork. I’m not too crazy about French food – I find the portions too pretentious and petite, as I have the appetite of a starved hobbit. Gimenez’s minions got the pretty part of French cuisine right, but with robust portions that would sate Smaug himself.

I started with the Cedar Grilled Salmon Filet served with caviar mashed potato, basil essence and petit green salad. The salmon’s caramelized glaze was so subtle I could barely taste the sweetness, but the gamey taste I come to associate with this fatty fish was hidden with a true magician’s flourish. More bounty from the depth came in the guise of the Seafood Etouffee, a stew of prawn, mussels, calamari, and salmon fillet in a seafood sauce served with rice pilaf and trenchers of garlic-parsley bread. The hat trick was completed with Smoked Sea Scallops served with squid ink risotto made with Japanese rice, crisp grean beans, alfalfa sprouts and seafood bisque sauce. The delicate scallops melted like butter on my tongue while the bisque made the already scrumptious rice simply heavenly.

And with the Aussie Lamb Paella, we hit the main event. With Spanish chorizo, asparagus spears, alfalfa sprouts, quail egg and paella garnishes in a crunchy rice roll, the lamb paella nonetheless seemed dinky. Only until after having eaten two-thirds of the dish that I realized that appearances could be deceiving and was reminiscent of the delicate gnocchi and risotto dishes in Italy that happily go down like rocks in your gut.

But there’s always room for dessert: the trio of fluffy chocolate soufflé, velvety crème brûlée, and a thick and heavy bar of green tea chocolate that rivals the vaunted Japanese Nestlé Green Tea Kitkat – all up for grabs and enchanting. And after spending nearly two hours in traffic getting to Sucat from Quezon City, all I could think of was this Tito Chef made it all worth it.

School of Culinary Wizardry

“At this stage in my life, I’m more concerned about my legacy,” explains Gimenez about his school. “So when I teach, I want my students to know how to cook without machines, without being dependent on computers. Just like in any discipline, it’s all foundation. People are more excited by the flash but I’m anchored on foundations.”

“My philosophy has always been that I don’t want to be a diploma mill. I want to give quality education – we only have ten students per batch so the method of instruction is very clear. We really do one-on-one. When a student does a dish, she really works on her own. She’s not working on it with a group so she puts together everything from scratch with her bare hands. There are some group activities as well. It’s a well-structured school. The curriculum is nine months – six months of kitchen work and nine months of on-the-job training.”

The on-the-job leads to exciting opportunities for his students. “We’re linked with Jean Georges Restaurant in New York City so they can actually work there for continued exposure if they want to,” he offers.

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