French chefs can be obsessive with restaurant ratings. In fact, separate suicide incidents by two French chefs were reported to be connected to their restaurants’ Michelin stars.
In cuisine-frenzied Paris, Gault et Millau is a prestigious award for chefs as Michelin stars are for restaurants. Each year, Gault Millau honors the most talented chefs in different regions of France – a recognition that can catapult even a young kitchen professional to gastronomic stardom.
In 2015, the winner of the Trophée Espoir of Ile de France by Gault & Millau didn’t go to a French chef. It went to Filipino chef, Aaron Isip, who was then the chef de cuisine of Dix-Huit Restaurant. Luckily, this extraordinary honor given to a Filipino chef didn’t incite any riot or horrific event among French chefs.
It started with a phone call from Gault & Millau one evening in May or early June last year. Aaron thought they were phoning to book a table and discuss the menu. When he found out the true purpose of the call, it took some time for the news to sink in.
A week later, the details of the accolade were emailed to Aaron. Alongside his name were other big shot French chef awardees, such as Pascal Barbot of 3- Michelin-star restaurant L’Astrance. He couldn’t believe it!
“The Trophée Espoir is given to the chef who gives a new hope to French cuisine in their respective region. I am truly honored to be awarded this trophy and represent Paris, no less,” says Aaron.
Who is Aaron and what did he go through to earn this sought-after award in the cut-throat gastronomic scene of Paris? What Filipino dishes has Aaron presented in Paris? Take a read at the Q & A below.
MFB: Please tell us more about your Filipino heritage. What brought you to Paris?
AI: My mother, who passed away in 1990, was from Iloilo. My father was born and raised in Manila like myself, although his family is originally of Kapampangan origin.
I left Manila for Paris in the end of 2004 to pursue culinary studies at Le Cordon Bleu Paris.
MFB: How did you get started in food?
AI: I always liked food and cooking since high school but never really thought of pursuing a career in the restaurant or hospitality industry. I studied Marketing Management at De La Salle University and did an internship in events after my graduation. I realized then that it wasn’t for me. I really wanted to become a chef one day.
My first job in Paris was a 6-month internship at then 2-Michelin star restaurant Apicius in the 8th arrondissement of Paris.
MFB: How did you land chef de cuisine of Dix-Huit? What was it like to work there?
AI: I was approached by the owner who wanted to open it with me. It was very hard due to the small team I had and the big number of clients we served. Nonetheless, it was a great learning experience and it was an opportunity for me to put my style of food out there in the very competitive restaurant industry of Paris.
Dix-huit Restaurant (Photo credit: lemanger.fr)
MFB: What are the greatest challenges you faced as a chef in Paris? What do you consider as your greatest achievements?
AI: The hardest years for me were the formative years when I was still at the bottom of the culinary ladder as a commis de cuisine. Some of my direct bosses were younger than me, and as a foreigner, I had to prove my worth doubly to them to earn their respect.
Being a chef de cuisine in Paris alone is probably the best achievement I could get. I never imagined being a head of a kitchen team of French cooks in Paris.
MFB: Please tell us about your involvement with Paris for the Philippines. Does PFTP organize Filipino food events?
Paris for the Philippines came about during the Yolanda Typhoon disaster. Some Filipina friends of mine were very enthusiastic and eager to help our fellow Filipinos who were victims of this tragedy. I then connected them to my dear Tita (Aunt) who had philanthropic inclinations – Victoria Aquino-Benoit. After a few meetings, we all formed the group and did two successful food events to raise money. We donated the proceeds via our partner, Gawad Kalinga. We helped Gawad Kalinga build several houses for some of the victims.
MFB: About how many Filipinos live in Paris? Are there or had there been any establishment showcasing Filipino food?
I don’t know the exact number of Filipinos in Paris but it surely isn’t as big as other European cities like Milan or Barcelona. I have done several events in partnership with the Philippine government and their French counterparts, such as the cocktail food event/Philippine reception of Festival de Cinema of 2008 when the featured country was the Philippines. I also did a food demonstration for Exposition Philippines – An Archipelago of Exchange at the Quai Branly Museum last 2013, where I featured my style of French cooking with Filipino flavors. It was a project of the Philippine Department of Agriculture in cooperation with the Philippine Embassy in Paris and the Quai Branly Museum.
Unfortunately, Paris does not have a Filipino restaurant anymore. Hopefully one will open soon again.
MFB: What do you think are the reasons for the absence or lack of Filipino food establishments in Paris?
AI: Several reasons actually. One is the lack of market for the food, and the lack of marketing for Filipino cuisine. Another is presentation. It needs a little boost of modernity and proper execution so that it can compete with its other Asian counterparts but it should also not be categorized the as the other Asian cuisines as it is very unique – the only real Asian-Latin cuisine.
MFB: What are the chances of Filipino cuisine hitting the mainstream in Paris?
AI: Pretty good actually. It will take some time but the French will love it for sure.
MFB: Have you ever showcased a Filipino-food-inspired dish in one of your restaurants?
AI : Yes, several actually. The best example would probably be my version of Lechon (roast suckling pig). I served it whole for a private function, slow roasted and served it with steamed buns, home made atchara and a peanut sauce. Let’s just say the only thing left afterwards was the head of the pig.
AI: My version of Kinilaw was also a big hit. I made different versions of it but never removed it from my menu.
Kinilaw of wild French seabass Smoked eel tinapa with Sparta oranges
Aaron’s Crema de Kalamansi/ meringue italienne
MFB: What are your plans?
AI: I’m planning a project back in the Philippines and cannot divulge any information yet but once I get the ball rolling, I will surely give you an update.
MFB: What advice can you give to aspiring Filipino chefs in Paris?
AI: Travel as much as you can when you have the opportunity. The inspiration you will get will be endless. Be it in the Philippines, or wherever else in the world depending on the style of your cooking. Never lose your passion for food and cooking. Always remember that at the end of the day, cooking is about sharing our passion to other people.
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by Jacqueline Lauri of My Food Beginnings – a Filipino food anthology project
Bringing people together through food and stories.