COVER STORY

Bruce Ricketts, cooking master boy

Bruce Ricketts — the man behind Sensei Sushi, Ooma, Mecha Uma, and La Chinesca — is uncomfortable when you call him “chef.” He’d rather you call him a cook, or more specifically, an aspiring shokunin — a person whose existence is wholly defined by preparing meals.

 

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I never wanted to meet Bruce Ricketts — unquestioned phenom of the Philippine culinary scene, and the mastermind behind Sensei Sushi, Ooma, Mecha Uma, and, most recently, La Chinesca. I never wanted to see his face, and I never wanted to shake his hand, and it’s because of a childhood fear of mine that Bruce Ricketts would beat the shit out of me. 

Not a lot of people know this, but Bruce Ricketts was raised in what was essentially a martial arts dojo. Fact: He wasn’t named after Springsteen or Willis; he was named after Bruce Lee, while his brother was named after Brandon Lee. His father, the late Christopher Ricketts, was the founder of Bakbakan International, and remains one of the most revered masters in Philippine martial arts. When I was younger, my father often asked me to go to their gym to spar with Bruce, who’s around my age. And my eight-year-old brain knew it was an awful, awful idea.

I knew they trained every day because my father wouldn’t let me forget. I knew Bruce Ricketts was one of the toughest seven-year-olds around, and — excuse my gangster speak — I didn’t want none of him. Of course, as a functioning adult, I have no qualms sitting across Bruce now and telling him about his former notoriety. He looks at me, seemingly intrigued that the guy who was supposed to ask him about tacos is instead asking about his martial arts past.

 

“You know, as a teenager, I was already teaching [martial arts] to a lot of older people. I was 16, and I was really exposed to a mature way of thinking. I didn’t have time to hang out with people my age,” says Bruce. “I didn’t really have a chance to go to the mall as much. I was just die-hard wake-up-and-aspire-to-be-a-martial-artist. I’d play video games sometimes, but my dad [would allow me to play] only if I did well in martial arts. It was that kind of upbringing, which I was a sucker for. I just loved that. I just loved it so much.”

A lot of people wonder about the secret. They taste the intricate taco makis at Ooma; they try the exquisite tasting menus at Mecha Uma; they drop by Bruce’s newest joint, La Chinesca, and discover the off-menu guacamole, and they wonder about the secret. What is the secret to cooking this way? What magic ingredient could unlock such flavors? But for Bruce, those questions do not linger, because the man is pretty open about his secret: martial arts.

“I still train. And to be honest, the way I see this industry is exactly how I see martial arts. Cooking, in general, is a very honest thing. You can suck today, but as long as you physically do it yourself, it’s impossible to not progress. Just like martial arts,” Bruce says. “That’s really one of the reasons why I was so fascinated with it. Regardless of what cuisine I would choose to do, as long as I’m passionate and obsessed about the technical aspect and the creative aspect, it was easy for me to fool myself into thinking: ‘there’ll be a better day tomorrow.’”

D1.jpg The restaurant La Chinesca is the namesake of an actual Mexican neighborhood, home to thousands of people of Chinese origin. Photos by JL JAVIER

Of course, it isn’t the secret we all wanted to hear. And the connection to martial arts isn’t as direct as, say, in “Karate Kid,” where waxing a car literally teaches you to parry punches to the face. Couldn’t it be some unexplainable talent — an uncanny palate? A God-given set of taste buds? Something that points the camera away from ourselves, and convinces us that some people are simply more talented than others? Because, aren’t we all afraid that we’ve all just failed to work as hard as others — that we’ve wasted our own talent by not applying ourselves?

But, well, no. This is what the late David Foster Wallace refers to as the “capital t” Truth: Bruce Ricketts developed his skill with the clichéd but important qualities of hard work and perseverance. Bruce wasn’t some child prodigy. And a young Bruce wouldn’t have appeared in some ‘90s version of “Masterchef Kids.” In fact, his long-term girlfriend and fiancé Jae laughingly says that, during one of their early Japanese restaurant dates, she literally slapped his hand out of shock when Bruce dipped uni in soy sauce. Early on in his life, the idea of cooking wasn’t even on the map; it wasn’t plotted out; it hadn’t even been “discovered” by the Magellans of his soul.

“The real profession [for me] was following my dad’s footsteps. I was the guy that idolized my dad so much that I just wanted to please him, you know? When we moved to the States [when I was 15], it was still martial arts-related. My dad was contracted by the United States government to teach Filipino martial arts,” says Bruce. “I had sidelines. I even auditioned in L.A., carrying my resumé with my headshot at the back and all. And cooking was [another] sideline, not as a chef, but as someone just helping out in the kitchen.”

 

I have no CCTV footage of Bruce Ricketts’ life, but I imagine it so vividly because of the Bruce Lee movies I’ve seen. It’s almost like an unaired b-roll in Bruce Lee’s filmography: an Asian guy moves to the States, teaches martial arts, and tries to look for jobs in show business while helping out in the kitchen. In my head I was already asking Bruce Ricketts if he beat up an arrogant foreman along the way, or if he threw down against a guy with super sharp claws in a hall of mirrors. But I kept my mouth shut, because I am conscious that reality isn’t that theatrical, and — more importantly — because when Bruce talks about food, he gets this glint in his eyes, and his body begins to unconsciously mime fascination! Bruce speaks of old weaknesses with the confidence of a man who’s confronted those weaknesses head on.

“[I remember] when a chef [in the States] had me do an amuse-bouche. I had no idea what to make, and he said: You have all these things in your resumé, but you can’t even make a carrot taste good,” he says. “I was like 17 or 18, and I was like: ‘Oh my God,’ here I am trying to collect recipes from all the molecular gastronomy chefs and I can’t even make a carrot taste good. It was those things that woke me up and said: I love plating, but in the end, does it really taste good?”

To some extremely high-functioning people, there’s nothing like a newly exposed weakness to get you off your butt. Naturally, as Bruce has been wont to do, he worked even harder. He put his head down; he made the carrots taste good; and, by God, he enjoyed the whole damn process.

“The reason I liked [cooking] was the rush and the energy. Every day, I cook, I cook, I cook, I slice, I slice, I slice, and then during service, you get slammed. It’s like punching, working out, jogging, and making sure everything’s conditioned. You sharpen your tools: your punches, your slips, your dodges. Flip that around in cooking, when you get slammed, it’s the same thing,” says Bruce.

And isn’t that the thing about battle? They are won and lost before the first swing of the axe. When the melee starts, all that’s left to do is fight.

la chinesca.jpg "La Chinesca is like home," says Bruce Ricketts. "If I feel lost, creatively speaking, having a restaurant like this kind of puts things into perspective again.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Bruce and I talk in La Chinesca as he sweeps the floor. In between words, he arranges the tables and opens doors for kitchen staff carrying supplies into the store. Whenever he attends to something, I get another chance to enjoy the walls, which are plastered with expertly Photoshopped pop-culture-slash-Mexican-culture posters. There’s one of Tupac Shakur with a tattoo that says “TACO LIFE” where “THUG LIFE” is supposed to be. There’s a Wong Kar-wai poster that goes: “in the mood for lucha.” There are a bunch of Bruce Lees, of course, and there are panels from the classic culinary manga “Cooking Master Boy.”

I googled La Chinesca the day before the interview. The actual place, not the restaurant. The story is far more complex and interesting than this, but it’s a neighborhood in Mexico that — at one point — had a population of 700 Mexicans and 10,000 Chinese people. Some of the Chinese were brought there as laborers, and they just never left after finishing an irrigation project; some of them came in by boat and just decided to plant roots on Mexican soil.

This is where I began thinking: What does the restaurant’s name say about the food — or more specifically — the philosophy behind the food? And to piggyback on this question: What do the posters on the wall mean? What does the hodge podge of Mexicanized pop culture references evoke? Is it a stern and quiet statement about how we misunderstand “authenticity” in cuisine? Is it just good design? I ask only questions, because — at least in La Chinesca — we taste the answers with our tongues, and they are all unique and different answers. Nevertheless, it is quite a feat to charge traditionally laid-back cuisine with such important questions. Either that or my time with Bruce has infected me with the urge to overthink food.

 

When I point out the walls, Bruce says that it’s thanks to his fiancé Jae, who “makes sure that things are done better.”

“It’s surrounded by things we’re into,” he says. “You know ‘Cooking Master Boy’? I’ve seen that like 30 times. I watch it when I’m lost; I watch it when I’m sad; it just makes me very happy. Sometimes I fancy myself as Liu Mao Tsing (the main character).”

Here’s a snap judgment. If we’re going only by interiors, among all of Bruce’s restaurants, La Chinesca is the most accurate reflection of Bruce’s soul. He probably doesn’t notice this, but his tone changes when he speaks about La Chinesca — it’s softer, more relaxed, and filled with warmth.

“[In the beginning,] La Chinesca was the back-up plan. If Sensei didn’t work [out], I’d default to cooking the flavor profiles of Baja, California,” says Bruce. “[It’s] Mexican, but more like bright California — citrusy. These were the things I really found delicious. How I cook in Mecha Uma is something that developed through time. La Chinesca is like home. If I feel lost, creatively speaking, having a restaurant like this kind of puts things into perspective again.”

“It’s like, if you see yourself as a craftsman, [it makes you realize,] at the end of the day, it’s food. It’s just meant to make people happy,” he continues. “It can be raised to a very, very high level, which is what I try to achieve when I’m in Mecha Uma, but at the end of the day, we’re feeding people. We’re not doctors saving lives. At the end of the day, what’s important is feeding people, and when I’m here, I feel like I get to give people big, tight hugs.”

bruce ricketts.jpg “The reason I liked [cooking] was the rush and the energy. Every day, I cook, I cook, I cook, I slice, I slice, I slice, and then during service, you get slammed. It’s like punching, working out, jogging, and making sure everything’s conditioned.” Photo by JL JAVIER  

Big, tight hugs. I know. This image may imply that La Chinesca’s kitchen has thrown away rigor, and has adopted a new persona as a middle-aged mother stuffing sizable portions of pork into a tortilla. But that isn’t the case. Bruce says big, tight hugs because the discipline and obsessiveness of both Japanese cuisine and martial arts have become second nature to him. They’ve become his default setting.

“[With] tortillas in general, you can learn to do it with a recipe, but there’s a certain feel to it — understanding the heat, the way it talks to you,” he says. “Look, people steal ideas. There’s no such thing as copyrighting dishes, so it’s normal to have things taken away from you — things that you worked hard for. But [sometimes] you have this little smile, because you know you’ve done it one million times more than they have.”

“At the end of the day, it’s still like martial arts. If you [take someone] who spars thousands of rounds, and put him against someone who’s been sparring twenty rounds, the talent doesn’t matter. The veteran will still have an edge.”

Eventually, my tacos arrive. They are balanced and tasty and prepared with care. The guisada de res taught me how bitterness can enhance all other tastes; the carnitas revealed the hidden and previously undiscovered elegance of chicharon, and the carne asada is so fresh it transports your soul to an imagined and nameless place in the past. Perhaps La Chinesca itself. I think to myself: It’s been a while since I’ve felt such warmth in a restaurant. This isn’t a restaurant. It’s a diner. I am neither alone nor working. I am somewhere else, in the middle of a big, tight hug.

***

Bruce Ricketts might be a chef and a martial artist, but he is also a geek. In fact, I would hazard to say that the main reason Bruce Ricketts is any good as a chef and a martial artist is because he’s a geek. This is another secret of his — his geekiness. I am reminded of a Japanese word: kodawari — which translates to “obsession,” but is used for when products are prepared with heightened focus on every minute detail. And the Japanese also have a word for what Bruce wants to become: shokunin — which translates loosely to “craftsman,” but whose definition translates a little more closely to: “someone whose existence is wholly defined by preparing meals.”

Bruce Ricketts is singularly focused on getting better at cooking. He goes on YouTube to watch people slicing fish, and asks himself how many fish these artisans must have cut up over 30 years — and how long it will take him to match their skill level. When he gets the chance to visit the elite restaurants of Japan, he hangs around to “make kulit” the chefs about why dishes are prepared a certain way. He tells a story about his last trip to Japan, when his fiancé surprised him for his 27th birthday with a reservation at Kyoaji — the best-rated restaurant in Japan, whose chef famously refused a three-Michelin-star distinction because he didn’t want to alienate his regulars.

“When I talk to [chefs], I feel like we’ve known each other for a long time, even if there’s a language barrier,” says Bruce. “You sit down with a cook who’s been shaped and squeezed and hammered and battered by the daily hours of work. You feel that there’s a deep connection, because you guys went through the same battles.”

D2.jpg La Chinesca's tacos are balanced and tasty and prepared with care. In photo: (left) guisada de res, (right, clockwise from top) carnitas, guisada de res, and carne asado. Photos by JL JAVIER

“People say: ‘the Japanese are so secretive.’ But I believe if you ask the right questions, they don’t mind sharing. When we were at Kyoaji, there was this sea bream sashimi — or tai [in Japanese] — which they always have in kaiseki restaurants. The first thing I ask [the chef] is: ‘Was the fish aged, or cured in seaweed?’ He says: ‘No. The fish was brought from Kyoto.’”

“Then I started asking him: is this the white fish that becomes more muscular because it fights its way through the naruto whirlpools? And he says: ‘Yes — you’re a chef aren’t you?’ Then that’s when I’d ask little details. ‘Does it make sense to age the fish one or two days for this particular application?’ And they really share.”

“At one point, I became obsessed with aging [fish]. I had to learn it, because I don’t get fish every day. The texture of the fish was very particular — it had a slimy mouth feel, but not in a bad way. So I asked things like: ‘Is this something you purposely did? Or is it something that just happened?’”

It needs to be mentioned that this entire exchange occurred because Bruce has been practicing how to determine the age of the fish — and how long it’s been in the freezer — just by looking at it. I mean, how do you even practice that? And how can you even tell that you’re doing it right? And if you’re an old, established chef, how can you refuse to teach someone who’s so eager? This eagerness is on full display, because Bruce, without prompting, has transitioned from geeking out about aging fish to geeking out about tacos and sushi.

 

“It’s like a taco, you know? People think a taco is just a taco. You heat the tortilla, put the filling, put the sauces and the salsa, and you’re done. But it doesn’t work that way,” says Bruce. For the sake of my journalistic integrity, I need to tell you that this is the point where he begins speaking with a more distinct oratory tone — like Martin Luther King Jr. giving his famous speech. Like what he was about to say was the most important thing in the world.

“I respect chefs. [But] I find that in the Philippines, the term chef is used loosely, you know? Which I find sad. In martial arts too, everybody’s a master [these days],” says Bruce. “For me, ‘chef’ is a title that’s given to you. It’s not something you give yourself.

“I believe that some tacos are better when you just toast one side. You put the filling on one side so the tortilla doesn’t get soggy, but at the same time, when the person touches it, the tortilla is soft. The process on the inside can also prevent moisture from getting in and disrupting the tortilla,” he says. “The same with sushi. When you make sushi, some chefs indent the inside so that it’s hollow — so when you bite it, the taste spreads. There is also my belief that your hand has to be cold when you touch super hot rice, because the cold texture will solidify the starch of the rice, so that you can hold it and circle it faster while keeping the inside completely hot.”

Talking to Bruce Ricketts is almost like talking to the main character of a cooking animé. He speaks about — and is fascinated and animated by — the details that normal people hardly consider; he measures his training by counting the number of slices he makes, and the number of dishes he imagines each day; and just like every young protagonist in Japanese manga, he has a simple dream that can be achieved through hard work.

 

“I see this whole cooking thing more from the perspective of the day-to-day hardworking chefs known especially in Japanese cuisine: those guys with small shops — the shokunin. I always tell myself: we must look at things from the way of a shokunin. That’s what it should be. Cook or die. That’s the word: cook. Not chef, but cook,” he says.

“You can slice twenty times a day, but if you slice 2,000 times during service, there’s a big difference. I just want to make sure I’m the guy who’s a thousand rounds ahead. And the only way to do it is: if you read one book this month, next month you must read ten books. If you fantasize about five dishes this month, pressure yourself to fantasize about 20 dishes next month. If you make tacos by hand, find a way to make it harder. Getting better is about this physical action.”

And this is why I’ve avoided using the word chef as a descriptor for Bruce. He doesn’t like it. And while he’s obviously diplomatic about it, it’s safe to assume that he’s mourning how words have become cheapened in this era where we use the word “alternative” a little too liberally, and where “chefs” and “photographers” and “martial arts masters” have become all too common. For Bruce, it sounds like a practice of humility — a way to have goals, even when he’s arguably at the pinnacle of local cuisine — something to which he can aspire.

 

“I’m more a cook than a chef. I respect chefs. [But] I find that in the Philippines, the term chef is used loosely, you know? Which I find sad. In martial arts too, everybody’s a master [these days],” says Bruce. “For me, ‘chef’ is a title that’s given to you. It’s not something you give yourself. This is what I believe. I’m probably wrong to other people, but for me: you’re a man behind a counter, you make food, you get ingredients, you give it to the customer, that’s your job.”

D3.jpg The walls of La Chinesca are plastered with expertly Photoshopped pop-culture-slash-Mexican-culture posters. There’s one of Tupac Shakur with a tattoo that says “TACO LIFE” where “THUG LIFE” is supposed to be. There are a bunch of Bruce Lees, of course, and there are panels from the classic culinary manga “Cooking Master Boy.” Photo by JL JAVIER

“There is a creative process and all, but at the end of the day, that’s your job. I feel cooks are harder to create. Chefs are easy to find, create, mold, and groom. But a cook, who can do this day in and day out — whose life shuts down when they’re [in the kitchen]? To find people like that nowadays is very difficult,” he continues. “That’s what I look for in people. That quality of desperation. No matter how shitty life is outside, this is their escape. Cooking is the only form of therapy they have to breathe. If people have to go outside after work to smoke a cigarette, it should be the other way around here. This should be their yosi break. This should be the day off.”

Bruce is technically talking about other people, but one gets the sense that he’s talking about himself. This matters to him. And it’s difficult not to trust a cook who has clearly thought about his dishes — and his own craft — more than anyone else has, while maintaining a healthy modesty that allows him to continue creating and evolving.

 

“I can’t claim to have a great restaurant. That’s for people to decide. As a cook, though, I can claim that I put in everything every single time,” Bruce says. “That’s how it was when my dad and I would teach our [martial arts] students. My dad was known to teach students to a point where it wasn’t about business anymore. If he enjoys teaching you, he’ll teach you for six hours. He was never known to be the type of guy who could run the martial arts program as a school. For him it was: I teach you everything I know, and I hope you come back.”

“There’s this sense of emotional attachment. When we give something to someone, we give everything. It’s not about if they like it or not. It’s more of: I hope you feel that I gave you everything,” he continues. “But then when they come back, it has to be better. For me, it’s the same thing. I connect with that idea. So maybe it’s a reflection of how I’ve lived my life with my dad. And [now] I’m tying it to the obsession of being a shokunin one day before I die.”

One day before I die. I’ve always been personally interested in the phrase “he’s made it.” Because the question that immediately follows is, “he’s made it where?” Sitting in front of Bruce Ricketts, and listening to him talk about food, one can really tell: This guy doesn’t think he’s made it. He’s got dishes to cook. He’s got places to go. And one gets the feeling that he will always be in the process of “getting there” — towards finally being called a shokunin — someone who gave an entire life to preparing food. And we — those he has charmed with his talent and enthusiasm and, most importantly, hard work — have the good fortune of watching.