FOOD

This Filipino pâtissier turns local flavors into bonbons

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Mango, halo-halo, buko pie, and leche flan are some of the select Filipino bonbon flavors by Kevin Ong Patissier. Photo courtesy of KEVIN ONG PATISSIER

A bonbon is a shiny and gleaming thin-shelled chocolate filled with a creamy ganache center that lives up to three weeks. A repetition of the French word bon meaning ‘good,’ bonbons, when eaten, are tiny chocolate explosions of different textures and flavors that unfold in your mouth. Part of its appeal is also the unexpectedness. The more you chew into the glossy coated chocolate pod, the more one flavor turns into another. Bonbons take up to three days to make following a labor-intensive process, with each hand-shelled chocolate painted by hand.

For Chef Kevin Ong, creating bonbons was what he learned to love doing, at the end of a series of bad decisions. “When I was in my 20s, I made bad decision after bad decision and I ended up in jail for around eight months,” he shared. “By the time I got out, I was already 30 years old with no money and the only opportunity that came up was to become a concessionaire near a BPO.” And even without any previous experience in running a business, Ong saw it as the best option to make ends meet.

Chef Kevin Ong of Kevin Ong Patissier.

“Being in the food business is hard,” he said. “I wasn’t making money for the first three years so I started to question where I was and what I was doing.” When he decided to pack up his business, another opportunity to help his friend run a catering business followed. “For the longest time, I didn’t cook at all and I was serving buko pandan and coffee jelly at corporate and private events for another six to seven years,” Ong shared.

His decision to enroll in a pastry school happened at a friend’s wedding. He thought he could top the quality of the desserts that were served so the following week, Ong enrolled in the Academy of Pastry and Culinary Arts in Makati, an international school headquartered in Malaysia and grounded on French pastries. He described his experience as a novice as nothing short of challenging. “I had to make a few thousand macarons before I finally got it right,” he said.

Returning to his catering business as a pastry chef kept his days busy baking mostly cakes and small desserts, again for corporate and private events. But when Ong went on his honeymoon in Europe and tasted a wide array of exquisite chocolates, he felt there was more potential in the colorful confection he had come to know as bonbon.

While the idea of bonbons comes from the French, the pastry chef — after putting up his namesake patisserie brand in 2018 — decided to turn it into something that could fit the palette of Filipinos. “At the time, the Philippine market had a small appreciation of chocolate,” said Ong. Thinking of the popularity of bean-to-bar chocolates, he wanted to introduce a format that wasn’t available in the market. “When Filipinos think of chocolate, they only think of sweet flavor profiles but I thought, how can I offer something that would get them to enjoy chocolate in a different way and different flavor profiles,” he said.

“The Pinoy flavors all started with the 2019 SEA Games,” said Ong. Then a rookie pastry chef, he received a call from one of his friends who wanted to know if it was possible for him to come up with an exclusive all-Filipino flavored chocolate box for international delegates and ambassadors of the SEA Games. “I took the time to study and kept thinking, what flavors represented our country best?,” he said.

The exclusive 2019 SEA Games Kevin Ong Patissiere Bonbon Box. Photo courtesy of KEVIN ONG PATISSIER

“I thought of what we’re famous for so I came up with the flavors: Mango, buko pie with coconut and crust filling, leche flan with caramel and custard ganache, gin pomelo, Matutum coffee using beans from Mt. Matutum, pili gianduja, halo-halo, and Calamandan, which is short for calamansi dalandan,” said Ong. He identified halo-halo as his proudest creation as it took him the longest to perfect, with the challenge of fitting all four layers of banana, purple, yam, milk, and pili crunch into a small bonbon. “It was the opportunity to make my country proud — local chocolates using local flavors,” he said.

Since then, Kevin has been experimenting with other flavors like yuzu, almond Pop Rocks, strawberry ivoire, Thai milk tea, pecan mallows, Earl Grey, hazelnut, orange cointreau, cherry black sesame, and pistachio.

“Different flavor profiles enhance the chocolate — from fruity notes to sour notes, and I eventually learned how to pair them,” said Ong. His personal favorite flavor is Olivia’s Milk Cookies, named after his daughter, which is spiked with milk and cookie ganache. “My daughter loves the macadamia cookie from Starbucks so I wanted to create a flavor that was similar and that she would like,” he said.

Before the pandemic, the bulk of his operations remained focused on cakes for special events and corporate clients. But with the majority of events indefinitely postponed, he shifted to a direct-to-consumer business model on social media that paved the way for his bonbons — in their colorful, striking and picturesque form boxed in 16s — to be the center of attention. In a week, orders for his bonbons range from 30 to 90 boxes.

With new clients spanning from luxury accessories to local distilleries, Kevin continues to find ways to promote Filipino bonbons. “Mont Blanc approached me early this year to make galaxy-inspired chocolates for their latest watch launch at the time,” he shared. While using the same available flavors, Ong redesigned the shells of the bonbon to better fit the galactic theme. Another brand who enlisted his pastry prowess was Archipelago Gin, with gin-infused bonbons as the finished product.

The galaxy-inspired chocolates for Mont Blanc's watch launch. Photo courtesy of KEVIN ONG PATISSIER

In the future, Kevin wants to set up his own shop at the airport so travelers and tourists can bring Filipino chocolates wherever they’re traveling to. Short-tem, he’s setting up a new home for his cakes, pastries, and bonbons with his very own cafe in Batangas at Mt. Makiling Recreation Center, which is expected to be open by September. While navigating lockdowns first seemed impossible for a pastry chef who depended on face-to-face events to make a living, it eventually revealed new ways to continue running his business.

“We survived the pandemic because of bonbons,” he said.

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Kevin Ong Patissier is on Instagram.