How a ‘millennial’ restaurant comes of age

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The Girl and the Bull’s new menu takes its structure from Korean cuisine’s banchan, which is small dishes served along with the mains. Their take on banchan offers everything from the traditional red and white kimchi to the more unexpected ube chips with fish sauce and caramel. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Change, they say, is constant, and all the more in the local food scene.

Every week brings the opening of a new restaurant promising either reimagined fare or a return to the traditions of a cuisine. Some make it past a few months and eventually build a following of their own. Others languish in irrelevance — or worse, mediocrity.

When you do make it past a few years, revamps are the next thing to contend with. Whether to update an old favorite for a new generation or a complete overhaul of a restaurant past its prime, restaurants are getting retooled, repackaged, and rebranded all the time — an inevitable reality in most restaurants’ life cycle and nothing to raise an eyebrow at.

Still, when a newly relaunched restaurant relaunches for a second time in less than nine months, inquiring minds are likely to suspect major problems. The vultures begin to circle.

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The Girl and the Bull was a sleeper hit when it quietly opened in the largely residential B.F. Homes, Parañaque in 2013. Right smack dab in the middle of nowhere, run by two fresh graduates with no previous restaurant experience under their belt, diners were surprised and impressed by the polish and quality of the dining experience.

The Girl and the Bull Perhaps a reference to the original Girl & the Bull’s buttermilk fried chicken, the Japanese-Korean menu features a fried chicken with ginger, honey, and burnt onion. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

Championing reimagined comfort food, The Girl and the Bull could get gimmicky but almost always hit its mark, garnering acclaim from the local press, with Gab Bustos and Thea De Rivera — the photogenic, social media-savvy couple (he has tattoos, she had green hair) behind the restaurant — becoming popular personalities among fashion magazines and youth publications. When they opened the Makati izakaya 12/10 two years later — another hit — it seemed like the wunderkinds of the local food scene were going from strength to strength.

In the years since, as 12/10 hit its stride and showcased the couple’s growth and increasingly sophisticated touch, they decided to close The Girl and The Bull in B.F. and relocate it to Makati, Manila’s business district. The restaurant’s Makati relaunch incubated for nine months, becoming a special daytime popup in 12/10 for a time, but largely kept under wraps.

When The Girl and The Bull reopened in Makati’s Legaspi Village in October 2016, the restaurant just wasn’t the same. Perhaps feeling the pressure of being in the competitive business district, The Girl and the Bull had suddenly aged. While the food was still generally good, the restaurant — with its pink walls, high ceilings, cleaner aesthetic — felt like someone else.

“It took us nine months and when we reopened, there was a lot of pressure to maintain The Girl and The Bull as it was,” De Rivera says. “But given the nine months, na-outgrow na namin siya … The first six months [of the relaunch] was really hard for us because ang dami nang questions na hindi namin masagot — because what are we even doing? Okay, it’s the Girl and the Bull but we felt like it wasn’t us anymore. We had to tell ourselves, you know, maybe it’s not working out. It’s time to rethink what we’re doing.”

In the time since they closed, Bustos fell deeper in love with Japanese cuisine through 12/10. By the time he went back to Girl, he wasn’t as enthusiastic for comfort food.

“We were just completing the whole experience — the wine list, the beverage list, the whole menu,” De Rivera says. “We wanted [the menu] to follow a progression but it didn’t make sense because we had a lot of bread. We made breads in-house and it also didn’t make sense for us business-wise, because we had three bakers, a 24-hour operation just for the bread — we didn’t even sell the bread! It was really killing us.”

Six months in, they slowly realized things weren’t working out. “At that point also, we were already thinking about, you know, maybe, it’s time to end The Girl and The Bull,” De Rivera says. “We were thinking of just letting it go, to sell the space already.”

The Girl and the Bull Matcha faux twix, a staple of their restaurants, makes an appearance on the new The Girl and the Bull menu. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

They named The Girl and The Bull after themselves and 12/10, after their anniversary (December 10). It’s hard not to take your business personally when you’re an entrepreneur but all the more when your business is so much a part of who you are.

“I was telling Gab,” says De Rivera, “The Girl and The Bull is essentially, about you and me. And as cheesy as it may sound, it’s where we started. And if we evolve, I think it’s only right that the menu should evolve, for the dining experience to evolve … I said, you know what, let’s just keep the name. Panindigan natin.”

 

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Bustos and De Rivera only had two weeks to turn The Girl and The Bull around. “Hindi mo lang alam ano ‘yung pinagdaanan namin,” De Rivera says, laughing. Still, youthful gumption prevailed. “We were thinking, if we were able to do it before, if we could turn things around then, let’s just do it again now. We changed everything in two weeks.”

The third version of the restaurant reflects the girl and the bull at this point in their lives. Instead of fighting the urge to pursue his focus on Japanese cooking, Bustos changed tact and applied the techniques on the new menu, with a Korean twist.

“My best friend is Korean,” he says. “He passed away in 2014, he was just 21 or 22. I grew up with their food, ‘yung cooking ng mom niya. Everyday I was at their place. Talagang sanay ako sa Korean food. I knew, ever since we entered the food industry, okay, someday it would be fun to play with something Korean … When we experienced what happened with Girl and the Bull, we thought, why not? This has always been here. Why not do it now?”

They adapted Korean cuisine’s banchan — small dishes served along with the mains — as the structure of the new menu. “Slowly, we’ll break away from Korean,” Bustos says. “Now, it’s still very Korean because we need to introduce that hey, this is the structure we’re doing. But once we break away from Korean, it will be fun, the idea of all these small things getting paired with the mains.”

When you’re a restaurant that takes its aesthetics about as seriously as you do your service, you’re bound to garner your fair share of criticism. “Is the food good or is her hair just really green?”

Korean and Japanese are two cuisines with very specific techniques and traditions. Bustos’ take on it is not too self-conscious about rules or structure. It’s traditions as reblogged on Tumblr, that hotbed of millennial inspiration — taking what he likes about different cuisines (Korean, Japanese, but also Filipino and maybe even American), deconstructing them until they become something new.

To that effect, their banchan has the traditional red and white kimchi coexisting with the more unexpected ube chips with fish sauce and caramel. Paired with mains like angus hanging tender steak with garlic and chili (₱690) and fried chicken with ginger, honey, and burnt onion (₱360), the full experience costs ₱2,800 for two people.

“When we reopened the Girl and the Bull, medyo naging ambitious kami,” De Rivera says. “Nag-carry kami ng maybe 60 bottles — and that’s so bad. Natutulog lang ‘yung investment mo diyan. Dun ko na-realize that it doesn’t have to be like that. You can do it your own way … Now, I just really choose what interests me.”

When you’re a restaurant that takes its aesthetics about as seriously as you do your service, you’re bound to garner your fair share of criticism. “Is the food good or is her hair just really green?” a fellow writer once joked, scrolling through The Girl and The Bull’s Instagram feed and noting that, with its broad “comfort food” genre, it seemed like the kind of restaurant that was more Instagram-able than good.

But “Instagram-able,” after all, is also how the restaurant’s following grew through word of mouth. In 2013, Manila’s social media-savvy millennials championed The Girl and The Bull, engaging with the restaurant’s feed-friendly aesthetics and helping turn the restaurant into a word-of-feed success. It’s a double-edged sword.

The Girl and the Bull Angus hanging tender with garlic and chili is one of the main dishes on the menu. “Slowly, we’ll break away from Korean,” Bustos says. “It will be fun, the idea of all these small things getting paired with the mains.” Photo by GABBY CANTERO

“That’s fair,” Bustos says about the criticism. “And the only thing you can do about it is to work harder and make sure the food’s good, the service is good.” The pair “curate” — a favorite millennial word — everything in their restaurants, from the playlist to the candles (“they’re actually customized because we wanted it a certain shape,” De Rivera says) to the layout of the menu.

“This is a part of us,” Bustos says. He took a Fine Arts course in the University of the Philippines Diliman while De Rivera’s Interdisciplinary Studies focus in Ateneo de Manila University was Communication Arts and also Information Design. “It’s not because we want to be ‘branded’ or anything. ‘Yun lang rin yung maganda for us. Ayoko ng pangit eh,” he says, laughing.

It’s easy to discount the pair. They put up The Girl and The Bull in 2013 straight out of college, with Bustos’ family’s money for funding. Yet far from appearing like underdogs, they arrived with considerable fanfare, championed by Manila’s youth publications and a favorite of local celebrities.

Still, the road to get there was hardly smooth. Bustos is a college dropout who never had formal training outside of a mysterious Japanese mentor who showed up at his mother’s restaurant one day, and taught him everything he knows. “He got into some legal trouble right after,” he admits, and the mentor disappeared suddenly.

His first foray into food was a small ice cream business, X Marks the Spot, that he used to fund his dates with De Rivera. His mom was supportive but said, “If you’re going to drop out, suportahan mo sarili mo.” He initially took over the space in B.F. because his mother’s restaurant was struggling. De Rivera, at first, was just helping out while on the job hunt.

The Girl and the Bull Mackerel with combo buttermilk and herbs. “This whole thing is about going back to who we are,” De Rivera says. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

Later, when they realized someone else had to be on top of everything else, they formally started working together. Today, she handles H.R. and marketing (“everything with people,” Bustos says) while he handles “all the systems.” Theirs is a solid dynamic — he’s the creative spark behind their restaurant concepts but she’s the sharp, savvy backbone who keeps it up and running.

 

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The Girl and The Bull has always been an avatar of sorts for De Rivera and Bustos, says Deane Miguel-Cruz, co-founder of Serious Studio, the graphic design firm De Rivera and Bustos worked with for both 12/10 and the Girl’s second relaunch.

“[It’s] a representation of where Gab and Thea are in their lives. As they grew together, their vision for the restaurant has changed as well. Their travels, meeting new people, their constant hunger and thirst for knowledge, so to speak, have shaped this shift of their restaurant. The new look shows how they have evolved … We saw firsthand how they became more confident as they mastered their strengths.”

As you’d expect from 20-somethings who instantly took on the weight of responsibility most of their peers won’t grow into for a few years, Bustos and De Rivera are confident but realistic, preternaturally mature but still also finding themselves. They perhaps missed out on a carefree early 20s, a period when a lot of their peers were probably hopping from entry-level job to entry-level job, nursing hangovers while finding out what they want and who they are.

But true to form, the pair are self-starters and even self-discovery is something they’ve D.I.Y.-ed.

“We realized recently na INFJ si Gab na Taurus,” De Rivera says, suddenly talking in Myers-Briggs Personality Types and astrology. “Ako ENFJ na Libra.”

“It’s pretty accurate,” Bustos says. “We had to study those things to understand ourselves better … Between me and Thea, we have to deal with a lot. How do we work together and live together? We really had to understand each other better, and also our staff.”

And for sanity? Indoor cycling has become a shared hobby. “Health is a big part [of our lives] now,” Bustos says, “just making sure we get to workout and [take care of ourselves].”

The Girl and the Bull “[It’s] a representation of where Gab and Thea are in their lives,” Deane Miguel-Cruz of Serious Studio says about the new Girl & the Bull menu. “We saw firsthand how they became more confident as they mastered their strengths.” Photo by GABBY CANTERO

Of course, the stress can sometimes follow them, even during a workout. De Rivera recounts a particularly stressful week where, at the end of a cycling class in Electric Studio, listening to the instructor spout platitudes of encouragement (“leave your problems on the floor,” “you can handle anything out there”), she started tearing up. “I ran into Rajo [Laurel] outside and he was like, ‘What happened? Are you okay?’ I just said, ‘I had a really good workout,’” she says, laughing.

When Gab Bustos and Thea De Rivera surfaced in 2013 as wunderkinds on the restaurant scene, a slew of “promising up-and-coming talent” features followed. This then is what comes after promise: a coming-of-age.

If the version of The Girl and the Bull that opened and became a cult hit in B.F. Parañaque in 2013 was the pair in the infancy of their powers, The Girl and The Bull that reopened this go-round in Makati is puberty. At moments authoritatively confident, at others still grappling with the changes that come with truly committing to a direction, this is the pair as college juniors — there’s enough growth and experience to know what they want to do, but there’s still a bit of time before that reaches its full potential.

“I’m not the type who’s scared to drop things or let something go,” Bustos says. When they ran into trouble just months after The Girl and the Bull’s Makati relaunch, he was ready to move on.

“That was my mindset when we reached that point,” he admits, “I just said, okay let’s do something else. I had to toughen up because we can’t just let this go.”

De Rivera agrees. “We owe it all to The Girl and The Bull,” she says. “This whole thing is about going back to who we are.”

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The Girl and the Bull is located at G/F The Grand Midori Bolanos Street, Legaspi Village, Makati. For more details contact 63 926 038 0965 or visit their website.