I am the co-managing director of Auro Chocolate, a company I started with my best friend Kelly Go in 2015. We’re a Filipino bean-to-bar company that produces fine cacao and chocolate from beans we source directly from farmers in Davao, in the Philippine south. When Kelly and I met as students in Chicago, where I moved from the Philippines when I was 18, we were already avowed food people.
One day, we found a chocolate bar made of cacao beans from Davao, and we became interested in how it was made. We realized that the Philippines has had cacao for more than 300 years, since the time of the galleon trade. The use of cacao goes back to the Aztecs; it’s pretty awesome that our own tradition of chocolate-making came from ancient history.
Before starting Auro, I studied robotics and technical art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, followed by a career in advertising. In 2010, I moved to Germany to study chocolate-making. It was a huge learning process; we had to figure out how to go about it in a way that did justice to the Philippines, and that would ultimately produce good chocolate, elevate the standards of farmers and motivate the next generation to continue. We also share our knowledge on financial literacy and organic farming by working with 2,000 families who own around 3,000ha of plantations.
Since its launch in 2017, Auro has garnered 19 international awards – the brand recently won the first gold for the Philippines in the Academy of Chocolate Awards in London.
When I was living in Chicago, I always knew I would come back to the Philippines. A lot of kids who leave find what they want outside the country. But every time I saw something, I would think: “We can do this back home.” And as much as I loved living abroad, it is the Philippines that is home. So why not do something that not only uplifts the community, but helps in terms of efficiency and solutions too?
A lot of this motivation had to do with family. I trace my roots to Bacolor, Pampanga, and there you can still see the roof of our old ancestral home, which was buried in lahar after the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption.
My maternal grandparents – the Mendozas – organized medical missions in the province when I was growing up, and we helped out. And, well, Pampanga is the Philippines’ food capital. I didn’t realize there were certain dishes I loved that people didn’t know about, like the preserved pindang – that’s tapang kalabaw (fried cured carabao meat), crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside. We even eat crickets; we call them camaru. They’re so full of flavor, you get over the fact that you’re eating an insect! For dessert, there are so many ways to prepare hot chocolate in the Philippines – the Kapampangan way is to add peanuts.
This is a 24/7 job, so sometimes I work through weekends. Travel takes up most of my schedule; I think I even went around the world twice in three weeks last year! That said, I just came back from backpacking in Mexico. Ultimately, travel is about re-centering and re-evaluating. People often do things so fast, we don’t realize that in order to be more effective, we need to slow down. That’s something I’ve been processing: It’s time that is the true luxury.
I leave Manila bright and early for Pampanga province – where Clark International Airport is located – and as soon as I get there, I stop at the San Fernando institution of Everybody’s Café, because I can’t get pindang anywhere else. I crave it so much. I also love chicharon bulaklak (fried pig innards). The chocolate here is pretty good, and there are these delicious cashew tarts that are chewy and nutty. Breakfast is like a religion here! MacArthur Highway, Bgy Del Pilar, San Fernando, Pampanga
One of the things I have been doing a lot is learning how to cook a dish or two wherever I visit. When in Pampanga, though, I have to be taught by Atching (Aunt) Lillian Borromeo. The esteemed food historian researches heritage recipes and teaches Kapampangan cooking to people in her home. You can also dine buffet-style, by reservation, at her Kusinang Matua (Old Kitchen). I bring friends to try making the traditional San Nicolas cookies, using antique wooden molds. 93 Jose Abad Santos Ave, Mexico, Pampanga; +63 915 773 0788
It’s a good time to drop by the Bacolor Church – officially named San Guillermo Parish Church. It’s a very beautiful old church that has been built and rebuilt since the 16th century and is still used as a place of worship. From the outside, the building looks squat, because it was half-buried after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. Inside, though, it’s clear from the rich Baroque architecture that it was a towering structure before the damage. Bacolor, Pampanga; +63 45 436 1161
Pampanga is a food destination and here it is about non-stop eating. Although I’m usually a seafood-and-vegetables person, that goes out the window when I’m back here. I head to Mila’s Tokwa’t Baboy, where some recommend the sisig, but it’s more famous for its tokwa’t baboy (fried pork and bean curd cubes marinated in vinegar and spices). San Andres St, Bgy Santo Domingo, Angeles City, Pampanga; +63 45 888 6727
This province is also a place for crafts and furniture; I made myself a table once when I was in school, and I have so much respect for artisans who produce these objects. I’m on the lookout for new items with character, so I head to Prizmic & Brill’s by-appointment showroom, where furniture designed in the Georgian-Victorian tradition is displayed. The pieces are made of hardwood, hand-forged brass and leather – I love designs that combine different mediums and textures. The clincher? They are surprisingly portable and even have specialized luggage. For more variety, I make sure to check out the DECO Central showroom of the Philippine Exporters Foundation, Inc. R3., that brings products of different companies under one roof. Bgy del Rosario, San Fernando, Pampanga (by appointment only)