Fine Food High. Dining Up in Baguio’s Manor

Baguio City

Baguio City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like a phoenix, the former American rest and recreation facility of Camp John Hay in the chilly hilltop city of Baguio in northern Luzon has risen out of the ashes of a devastating earthquake in 1990 and the withdrawal of the United States Air Force in 1991. It has now metamorphosed into a top destination for vacationers with its 5001 yard par 69 golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, picnic grounds, eco-trails, and other leisure and tourist facilities. But the brightest jewel in the Camp’s cap is undoubtedly the Manor. The four-storey structure, designed to stand in harmony amidst its setting of towering pine trees and views of the majestic Cordillera mountain range, offers five-star service and world-class amenities. Its rich interiors of warm wood evoke the feel of Baguio at its most welcoming best. Above everything, what the Manor offers that really gets people to brave a trek up the zigzags road to get to Camp John Hay are the gastronomic delights at its premier dining outlet Le Chef. The “baby” of talented and charismatic superchef Billy King, Le Chef at the Manor has arisen as a de rigeur gourmand’s destination. The force and flair behind Manila fine dining institution Le Souffle, Chef Billy started cooking as a young boy in Ireland and proceeded to hone his craft in various top-drawer kitchens around the world. He then came to the Philippine where his heart found its home. “I think I’m more Pinoy than most Pinoys,” Billy reflects. “It’s fantastic being in the Philippines. This country has been so good to me. It has given me everything I have. And that’s happiness.” He unabashedly gushes about the friendships and opportunities he has found here and to his fellow expats he counsels: “Get to know as many Pinoys as possible. They’re fun. They love to party, sing and dance. And most importantly they love to eat. “

Chef Billy relates how his friends, Manor bigwigs Tito Avenceña and Heiner Muelbecker, approached him to take over as their head food and beverage man. He loved the idea, since it gave him the opportunity to get away from the exhausting hustle and bustle and intense competition in Manila.

The way Chef Billy operates is he relies on several key people who he trusts. He prefers to hire people who need a break, either jobless or novices. He runs his kitchen like a school. There is always 20 percent more staff than necessary, all undergoing constant training. To keep things fresh and innovative, Chef Billy believes in always mixing things up, never sticking to a regular dish or menu, or any fixed specialties. And despite his deep foundation in classical French cooking and huge respect for his profession, Mr. King still displays quite the rebellious streak. “I can’t follow rules. I break every rule in the book,” he admits.

But there’s one thing that Chef Billy never screws around with, and that’s the importance of good food. “Food is what I love. You can call it an obsession in a way,” he states passionately. “I hate to see food wasted and people that don’t care about food. When I get a complaint it breaks my heart and stays with me for days. It really hurts. I can only apologize and hope I’m given a second chance. But most have given me a second chance.”

With the orgasmically delicious dishes Mr. King seems to consistently dream up with ease, one can’t help but keep coming back to his cooking, not just twice, but multiple times. Who can resist the chance to check out his latest yummy concoction? “We’re always upgrading and changing, adapting our menu according to the seasons,” he explains. Being in Baguio allows him to be even more adventurous and ambitious. “There’s plenty of everything in the market. We create specialties from what we have here. I challenge my staff to do something different, come up with ideas and put something together. It’s good for them and for me. I can’t stand doing the same thing everyday.”

English: The replica of the Statue of Liberty ...

English: The replica of the Statue of Liberty in Camp John Hay in Baguio (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chef Billy and Manor General Manager Heiner Muelbecker’s next venture is the soon-to-open Manor Suites, a lavishly appointed structure rising beside the current Manor. Like a boy with a new toy, Billy enthusiastically talks about their plans for their re-imagining of the legendary 19th Tee diner which all aficionados of the old pre-quake Baguio remember with fondness and profoundly miss with an intense nostalgia. The Manor team has been hard at work on a 19th Tee for the new breed of Baguio-lovers. The kitchen is being built and menu being developed according to Chef Billy’s exacting and inventive specifications. “The menu will be very versatile,” he reveals. “I’m a great believer that not only adults, but also children should be given the option to eat healthy food. I’ve been working on a way to do affordable, healthy, quality fast food for a long time.” He does reassure us though that innovations aside, the diner will still feature the good old original American-era favorites nostalgia-hounds are sure to crave, like hamburgers, chilli dogs, and ice cream. And soda fountain buffs are sure to appreciate one detail where the new Tee will definitely improve on the old, Chef Billy reveals that they’ll be churning up their very own homemade ice cream. Cool Baguio weather and homemade ice cream, what more of an excuse does one need to move up to the Manor?

-text by Jude Defensor. first published in What’s On & Expat Newspaper, 2007

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All The Women, Independent

Mmes. Lulli Salcedo and Tina Cifra throw their hands up at us

For women’s month we sought to celebrate the diversity and independence of womanhood by featuring two strong and self-reliant single women, of differing ages and backgrounds, and the homes that they have made their own.

Ms. Luli Salcedo, an established veteran in the crazy and cutthroat advertising industry, is an exceptional example of a mature lady in her prime, looking forward to her golden years with grace. Her fresh and airy condominium in Mandaluyong is a serene spot smack in the middle of the gridlocked metropolis. “I’m a city girl but for my home I chose a country style.” From the bathroom to the kitchen, flowers and fruits fill each corner and adorn each wall. No area is bereft of charming little reminders of the pastoral life, even the eaves above the windows serve as display ledges for rows of porcelain collectibles. “I thought that since I only have a little space, I need to fill the gaps.” The rustic theme was a conscious effort on Luli’s part, “I think it makes up for the province I never had,” she explains.

Luli considers herself to be a creature of comfort, and her home had to satisfy her high standards of cosiness. “My home is my refuge from the office and the world. The moment I enter my place, I like to switch off all the tensions and stresses from work, the traffic, and people.”

It took a mix of the old and new, foreign and Filipino, to create Luli’s comfy country haven. “A lot of the things are from our old house. I have a blue pitcher that my grandfather bought in France. It should be over 80 years old.” Like her grandfather before her, Luli is also an avid traveller and collector. She has glassware from Spain and Italy, a pair of wooden clogs from Holland, and sculpture and candleholders from Bali. However, her larger living pieces are all locally made. “My furniture is from Pampanga and Baguio. The cabinet, an American hutch is from Greenhills. The coffee table is from Rustans.” An eclectic collection of candles and table lamps impart a warm and peaceful glow to the rooms and sunlight softly streams through curtains colourfully patterned with spring flowers. “The curtains are by Hanae Mori, a Japanese designer. They were a gift from my aunt.”

Improving her home is one extravagance on which she doesn’t scrimp on. She doesn’t mind spending money on features that she considers to be important, like fixing the floor, adding cabinets, and putting in the shower enclosure. She next plans to get the ceiling done, and to put in ceramic tiles and Spanish lamps.

“Fixing things the way I want to,” is what Luli rates as the best thing about having her own place. “I enjoy living alone,” she admits. The solitary life allows her to indulge her inner snob. “If you don’t feel like talking or eating, you’re not hurting anybody’s feelings. You don’t need to make pakisama.” The trade-off is that her inner handywoman also sees a lot of employment. “I have to do everything. I have to make sure the house is clean. If it’s dirty, you have nobody to blame but yourself. If anything goes wrong I have to take care of it or wait for the maintenance.”

Luli found the feat of getting her own place to be very liberating, but adds that one should pick a home for the right reasons. “I think women should always trust their intuition. I did, the first time I set my eyes on this place, I fell in love with it. It’s not like a typical condominium since it has gardens and walkways.” Her rules for house-hunting can be pretty much applied to everyday living as well. “You should be true to yourself. You have to be real. Know what you want. Don’t make choices based on what other people say is prestigious or impressive,” she cautions.

Living alone has fortified her spirit. “You get to know yourself better, your limits, your strengths, and your weaknesses. I used to be easily scared of ghosts and other things. But you have to realize that it’s all in the mind. You don’t really have a choice. You have to tell yourself that there’s nothing to be scared about. At first I couldn’t sleep for a month because I’d hear something in the middle of the night and wake up.” The experience made her realize something about herself. “I’m strong pala. I can choose not to be afraid of anything.”

Luli knows a thing or two about how to make the most out of life as a successful single woman. “If you’re single, you have to be your own best friend. In your journey you will stumble and fall a few times. If you don’t know yourself and if you don’t trust yourself, you might not be able to get up. If you like yourself and you’re happy with yourself, it’s a lot of fun to be single and successful. But if you’re the type who always needs to have somebody with you, somebody to tell you that you’re this or that, then it’s going to be difficult.”

Speaking with the wisdom that can only be gained through experience and a life well-lived, she offers a few words that most single women out there might find worth listening to. “You need to love yourself. The reason why I enjoy single life is because I have a big loving family. I have very few friends but they’re friends that I’ve kept for decades. These are the people I can talk to or run to. These are the people who are always there for me. That’s what’s important.”

Dra. Tina Cifra is a young pediatrician making her mark at the vast and venerable Philippine General Hospital. A far cry from the stereotypical medical hermit, she manages to find humour in even the most dire and morbid situations that frequently occur in her demanding profession. Tina is one doctor who you can easily take the hospital out of. Once you do manage to take her out of the hospital, that is. “My apartment is such a safe, snug haven from the madness of the hospital where you’re being jostled about everyday by patients and their mothers, and by consultants and their fellows. When I get home it’s such a relief,” she exclaims.

The contents of her quirky condo unit in Ermita stand testament to her extracurricular persona as a voracious reader, obsessive learner, movie and music lover. Tina’s shelves and storage space are crammed full of novels, textbooks, magazines, videos and CDs, ample evidence of a colourful life outside the medical realm. Amidst the crush and clutter, Tina feels right at home. “I like my place because it’s so cosy, and everything is within reach. It’s near work and near a mall, which is great.” So far, Tina’s been having a blast exploiting the benefits of unsupervised living. “Being on my own is exhilarating. After Catholic’s girl’s school, what do you think? Nobody’s looking over your shoulder. I can come and go as I please, watch TV till the wee hours, nobody’s going to scream at me and bang on my door at 3 am. I can make as much noise as I want. I can make telebabad all day, which is a pet peeve, since I was deprived of that in high school.”

Her place has played host to a ton of merry memories. “I’ve had the most fun here doing school projects, having sleep-overs and running around with friends.” And even if she enjoys the company, Tina has never seriously considered getting a roommate to help split costs and chores. “I’m too selfish to share my space,” she admits. “But independence has its downside. Nobody’s there to help wash the dishes. I have to do my own grocery shopping. When you get home there’s no food ready. And it’s really a drag taking out the trash, especially when it’s full of take-out boxes.”

Tina tries to fix up her home to reflect her tastes and personality, although given her limited time and finances, it still has lots of catching up to do. “When I first moved in, it was like a little girl’s room, with posters of movie stars on the wall, some of which are still there. But it evolved over time,” she explains. “I don’t usually go for pink. I think it’s more of a reflection of me when I was 18. It could be sleeker.”

As a young professional just starting out, Tina really couldn’t afford to splurge on interior design. Most of her furnishings were bought at a furniture fair in Megamall. And yet, she has striven to add personal touches to her space, using it as an outlet for her creative sensibilities. “We were at this restaurant and there was this artist showing his collages. I thought, look at that, that’s just glue and magazines and paper, I can do better. And I think I did,” she asserts. However, her hopes for more home improvement opportunities remain strong. “A year ago, there was a big renovation. It was an interior decorating spree for a while. It was also when I made the curtains and the collages. It’s never happened again since then,” she says with some frustration. “I just play it by ear. I’m planning a big renovation soon. I want to repaint the walls and change the floors”

Tina has a few choice nuggets of advice for young people starting out on their own. “First, get a job. Always lock your goodie drawer. And never live by yourself if your parents aren’t willing to foot the utility bill!” she advises half-jokingly. Thankfully, Tina manages to revert back to her usual profundity for the closer. “It’s all about independence. Break away, be a rebel. Don’t always try to be part of a whole. You’re complete in yourself.”

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

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