Chef Gene Gonzalez: We have to know how Filipino food evolved

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Before Cafe Ysabel closes shop and moves to a new home, it has a history lesson to give — through tickling the taste buds. In photo: pinaputok na manok sa kawayan and bringhe. Photos by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — An iconic house on 455 P. Guevarra is uprooting. Its lease is up, and the lot will be paved to make way for a new mall.

The old Ugarte house, standing since 1912, has been an antique shop, kindergarten, and backdrop for a film starring Vilma Santos and Nora Aunor. But perhaps the most famous of its incarnations has been Café Ysabel — a destination for fine diners and cafe goers, for families and lovers, for regulars and one-time visitors who never forgot what it was like.

As a young establishment, the café spent its first six years on Wilson Street. After its first transfer and over the course of 30 years, chef and restaurant owner Gene Gonzalez built the house as we know it today. He took motifs from his family residence in Pampanga and collected the items that would come to be associated with the café: a piano at the entrance, a 200-kilogram mirror, the same lamps that lit the rooms of revolutionaries in the Spanish period, and murals of angels and goddesses.

Cafe Ysabel (Left) Tinapa serves as a side dish to the binalot. (Right) In preparing an oil can chicken, or 'Lutong Huk,' a whole chicken with herbs and spices is placed in a tin can full of oil, and stuck vertically up a fireplace. Photos by JL JAVIER

There is a certain sentiment that comes with the move. The balcony and rooms of Cafe Ysabel have been witness to countless proposals, birthdays, reunions, and business deals — they even have a "billion peso table" where several very-important-projects were sealed.

But for all its contemporary and colonial history — the house stood through World War II and, by extension, the American and Japanese occupations — the café is also true to a history that dates older than that, and which is even affected by such forces: cuisine. This is because Chef Gonzalez captures history, and turns it into taste.

“We also believe it is important to share the origin of a recipe as the value of food history and old cooking techniques are slowly vanishing due to technology and modernization,” says Llena Tan-Arcenas, a culinary services manager at San Miguel Pure Foods Culinary Center.

Chef Gene Gonzalez.jpg “A top notch chef would know the provenance of his cuisine. He must know historical fact. He must know where his cooking comes from,” says Chef Gene Gonzalez. Photo by JL JAVIER

The center organized Pagliyab — which means to burn with a bright flame — a cooking demonstration at Café Ysabel that aimed to spotlight cooking techniques of the past. It also the café's last big bang before bowing out of the house on P. Guevarra.

The demo opened with the preparation of oil can chicken, wherein a whole chicken with herbs and spices was placed in a tin can full of oil, and stuck vertically up a fireplace. In lieu of hay, wood shavings scattered around the can served as the fire-feeder. Once lit, the flame danced and roared around the can, the protected chicken roasting inside of it.

Also known as Lutong Huk, this method is attributed by Gonzalez to Hukbalahap rebels fighting against Japanese occupation. Having taken to the mountains, they had little to prepare their food with. The finished chicken was dark on the outside, but unburnt and juicy on the inside, cooked on all sides. There was a wildness to its look and taste which would be difficult to accomplish with the tamer fires of a stove or oven.

Cafe Ysabel (Left) Adobo del diablo — served dry with sauce on the side — was also cooked in a traditional Filipino wok, carajay. (Right) In preparing binalot, banana leaves are heated and rubbed down with salt before they are made a wrapper for the meal. Photos by JL JAVIER

Equally wild and savory was the pinaputok na manok sa kawayan, where chicken marinated overnight with lemongrass, tamarind leaves and other ingredients is cooked inside a hollow bamboo stem.

Adobo del diablo — served dry with sauce on the side — was also cooked in a traditional Filipino wok, carajay. Bringhe, a risotto-like rice dish which mixed chicken and pork adobo, chorizo, and raisins is also covered and simmered on a banana leaf on a wok. The rice is cooked in gata and draws from Indian, Malay, and Chinese influences.

Cafe Ysabel also returns to Gonzalez's roots with dishes from Pampanga. And while it features foreign staples — pasta, pizza, risotto — the success of these plates banks on a starting point: its sureness of its history. The café may be moving, displaced too by the call of modernization, but its spirit — through its food — will stay firmly in local gustatory memory.

Cafe Ysabel.jpg Rice is wrapped in banana leaf cones (left), while manok sa burnay — chicken cooked inside a clay pot — is cut (right). Photos by JL JAVIER

It is not novelty that keeps customers returning time and again to Café Ysabel, but the assurance of knowing where their food is from. Gonzalez exhibits this awareness, which is embodied in his food; customers are so assured of the menu, which has hardly even changed in the decades it has been in operation. All these staples, Gonzalez adds, will still be there when the restaurant reopens — otherwise the customers will look for it.

“A top notch chef would know the provenance of his cuisine. He must know historical fact. He must know where his cooking comes from,” says Gonzalez. “We have to know how [Filipino food] evolved, what it could be now and what are its potentials in the future, for the younger chefs. You only get this through historical experience, and it has to be documented.”

The restaurant's new, still undisclosed location is only a few minutes away from the original site, and the restaurant will be carved out of another old house, built in 1919. Parts of Café Ysabel will be taken down and restored at the new site, which is expected to open by the end of the year.

Cafe Ysabel The old Ugarte house, standing since 1912, has been an antique shop, kindergarten, and backdrop for a film starring Vilma Santos and Nora Aunor. Photos by JL JAVIER

The appreciation of food history and its articulation in cuisine — that this history takes on a taste — enables Gonzalez to uproot the house that has become synonymous with Café Ysabel, and build it again in a different time and in a different place. It is this knowledge of where food has been that allows him to determine where he and his café are going.

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Café Ysabel will be open until July 31. Call (632) 726-9326 or (632) 725-5089 for reservations.