I was born in Manila, where my mom is originally from, but I owe my love of food to my dad, who grew up in Bicol province. As a child I would watch him cook every day and wonder why he was so particular about his methods when there were easier ways available. For instance, he would use a pot made of clay instead of metal, and woodfire instead of a gas stove. He also made coconut milk from scratch whenever he cooked a curry dish. These impressions have guided me to this day. If I want to excel as a chef, I need to pay attention to detail rather than look for the easiest route.
In 1999, I originally wanted to enroll in a hotel management course, but my older brother convinced me to go to culinary school instead. There, I joined a cooking competition in an open category – this meant that students could compete against professional cooks – and won a silver medal for two dishes I made from roasted chicken. I realized then that I had the talent – and that being a chef was what I wanted to do.
My early years as a chef in the Philippines were exciting but challenging. I was working in a fine-dining restaurant but wasn’t earning much. I could have given up, but since I didn’t have to spend on rent as I was still living with my parents, I soldiered on.
I moved to Western Australia in 2007 after a former colleague told me about a job vacancy at the Mercure Hotel Continental in Broome, a beach resort town in the Kimberley region. I was hired for the role of executive chef at the hotel’s popular Conti Bar & Bistro.
In Broome, I would join other chefs when they went fishing on weekends, even though I tend to get seasick. I saw different kinds of fish, such as barramundi, tripletail, mangrove jack and dhufish. This was how I learned about Australian produce; I would write everything down and also gather tips from the local chefs.
I’ve been based in Perth since 2011, but it was only last year that I joined the Quay Perth hotel as executive chef. It’s a luxury property in Elizabeth Quay, itself a fairly new mixed-use development project in Perth’s CBD.
Our main restaurant is HQ Bar + Kitchen, and the base cuisine is Cantonese, so I asked the owners – who are Cantonese – why they chose me to head the kitchen.
They said they were looking for someone with knowledge of non-Chinese cuisines who could think bigger, experiment and re-interpret traditional Cantonese dishes. Given carte blanche, I took the liberty of also infusing some dishes with Filipino flavors. I’ve introduced crispy chicken skin served with onion- and garlic-infused vinegar, sticky rice pudding that’s similar to biko, crispy whiting served with lato-like seaweed salad, and king prawns lightly coated with butter that’s infused with bagoong alamang (salty shrimp paste). As a Filipino, I am very proud to hold this important position.
Perth is a wonderful city to raise a family. The streets are tidy and the air is clean, people are friendly and there’s hardly any traffic. It’s surrounded by nature and I can get to a beach from the city in less than half an hour. It’s multicultural with a huge population of immigrants, so even as my family and I assimilate, we’re also inspired to appreciate and remember our Filipino roots.
A chef’s work is never done. I’m in the city to see that everyone in my team at HQ Bar + Kitchen has everything that they need. The restaurant has such amazing views over Elizabeth Quay and the Swan River that I end up grabbing a cappuccino, made from beans from Margaret River Roasting Company, and nurse it on the balcony. Quay Perth Hotel, 18 The Esplanade
I drop into Community, our casual eatery at Quay Perth hotel, to have breakfast with my wife, Sandy, and daughter, Sapphire. We order our go-to dish, The Birds Nest, made with Bircher muesli, fruits, seeds, yoghurt and agave syrup. I love the vibe here. We called it Community as hotels are a lot more outward-looking these days. In Asia, dining at a hotel isn’t anything strange. But here in Perth it’s a new experience. Now, new hotel restaurants are becoming the places to eat at, such as HQ Bar + Kitchen, Santini (at the QT) and Garum (at The Westin). Quay Perth Hotel, 18 The Esplanade