Mr. Snoeck gave me a permission to feature his entry “ Rural Life: A First Glimpse”. Among his photos, this one is something that holds a very poignant message to me. Before the age of laptops and condo living, yours truly has lived that very same life. Thank you Mr. Snoeck, sir. Maraming salamat po.
Growing up in the Philippines- depends on the family you had – is a colorful tapestry akin to an Isabel Allende novel. My family tree shows a lineage of farmers, artists, craftsmen, military people, academicians, and, there's only one cook there- a distant grandfather, who, when I was eleven, I started following around. My father, a Melquiades with large doses of artistic geniality for some biblical reasons settled to become a carpenter. The wood cuts from his work shops, the smell of shaved wood, are now distant reminiscence every time I shave dark chocolates or make sasagakis.
I grew up in a small compound with a lot of people- mostly grandparents who decided to live with my mother. Los abuelos y abuelas. Aside from them, also living with us were many house helps- those young people whom my parents were sending to school in exchange for working in the house or in my father's shop.
Although we were scrubbed clean, it seemed that my grandparents wanted us to live their lifestyle during the tiempo Japon- if only to teach us the many hidden blessings of human survival in adversity. I saw them and yayas (nannies)- chop wood for fuel; and us young children were tasked to gather food from vines crawling on the roof; and when typhoons ravaged our province, we made use of the fruits from fallen trees. We went to the swamp to gather water spinach. In the backyard, we were taught to raise chickens, and I think we raised too many that sometimes neighbors were just taking chance to steal one or two from us. That was when I learned to dress live chicken, a big advantage on my part when I observe how culinary schools limit such experience to students.
As the norm in the province, fisher folks peddled their wares by walking from one town to another. Sometimes fish were all wiggly in the net; way too fresh and alive. Indeed, fresh fish from the sea has a somewhat sweet after taste, you could imagine it breathing. Now it makes me realize why Filipinos are very down to the basic of cooking: in one way or another, we prefer our fish to be as close to its original form; a little salt, a little fire- and solved. That simple.
Because of that grandfather who taught me to cook, I made my first crème caramel at eleven, only later as a teenager, got laughed at for making pearl shakes, kebabs and bruschetta (since it was very rural, the only orientation of young people to food are the usual fares,i.e. Barbecue is the same ol' pork; sandwich is same ol' chicken sandwich). If you're an aspiring cook, you'd risk a few dosage of embarrassment by being explorative of what you see in cook books. People are skeptical of the new, the strange, and the foreign.
Quite unthinkable to imagine sometimes, culinary arts is one of the most expensive elitist disciplines in the modern education, and truly it takes some luck- coupled with a fierce imagination and daydreaming- to rise from the fish- grilling, swamp- wading, environment to the highly demanding kitchens. But if we are to look at it closely, everything from the smallest moments to the grandest victories, everything works to our favor.
Growing up in a third world country amidst all these media exposures from the first worlds presents a lot of longings for people my age to 'get there'. To get where? Sometimes it pays that you don't watch too much TV and absorb too many information about recession; that you are a little blind and a little deaf – the voice inside your head speaks louder when other's opinions don't bother you. Your imagination runs wilder- overcoming limits and borders; there's just so much freedom. You get everything you want- even more than you want. Life is easy. There is no place for envy. The path to happiness isn't all that hard nor moments of bliss that limited. Good is rewarded, bad is punished to teach a lesson or two. Unfortunately some young people of our times may be a little too ashamed to reveal what their past was (true to me when I was a little younger) but as Steve Jobs had put it, “Don't waste your time living someone else's life.”
There's also so much that the little details of our lives could teach us about food and cooking, and specially about human satisfaction. Sometimes in the middle of a heated meeting, my chefs would whine about how competitors had more than we, i.e., better benefits, equipment, etc., but while all of that are opinions I respect- and had to act on -, having had a rural childhood taught me a lot about satisfaction of the here and now. Keep your eyes off your neighbor's pan and focus on your own- you'll make better sauce.
When you become better the following day than you were yesterday, poverty and wanting for more dissolves like sugar in hot water- until you could no longer see it. From the rural past, you embark on new journeys. You change. You take risks. These musings are necessary, I tell my men, for most of all, being a chef is not just all about cooking. It is also about leadership: being the first- that if we want our customers become satisfied with what we create, we must first become satisfied- and make the most- of what we have.
My grandparents taught me well.
Circa 2009: That big house over there fronting my mother's lawn is a residence of US retirees – before the rice field became a subdivision, that used to be my grandfather's corn farm; and that lawn used to be all swampy with lots of water cabbage and escargots. I took this photo from the veranda of our attic's library – where world encyclopedias of childhood are still housed to this day.