In May, we published an article headlined MasterChef Opens a Door to Philippine Cuisine in Auckland, which gained overwhelming readership and comments, especially from followers in New Zealand. Among those who commented was Jonan Castillon.
Jonan wrote, “Indeed, Leo (Fernandez)has become an inspiration of many Filipinos, especially those who are in the cooking industry. Somehow, his featuring Filipino food into the NZ limelight through MasterChef has added encouragement to my wife’s pursuing her opening a Filipino cafe in Timaru, months after Leo’s stint in the show. Congratulations on your next venture, Leo. Thank you MFB for this very informative and inspiring article.”
I was chuffed to bits (I’m sure Leo Fernandez was too). A door didn’t open only in Auckland, it also spurred an opening in a small port district, more than a thousand kilometers south from the capital city. And this was how the Q & A below began.
Jonan’s wife is Jewel Castillon. She is the woman behind Food Haven, the first Filipino Café in Timaru, a city with a Filipino population of no more than a few hundreds. Her inspiring story is well worth a read.
MFB: Please tell us about your Filipino heritage.
JC: I am from Iloilo, Philippines. I grew up in Ajuy, Iloilo, a town 87 km from Iloilo City. I finished my Bachelor’s degree in Commerce from Central Philippine University then later my Master of Arts in Psychology from the University of San Agustin in Iloilo City.
My husband Jonan, daughter Jadyn and I came to New Zealand primarily for a change of lifestyle and better opportunities, especially for our daughter.
We wanted a slower pace of life, a place to live where there is balance between work and family. New Zealand is that place for us. The country is beautiful and relatively safer to live.
MFB: Please tell us about the Filipino population and community in Timaru?
We first settled in Auckland in 2011 for almost a year, then moved down to Timaru because of work opportunities for myself and later on, ministry work for my husband, who is a pastor. We got our residence visa in Timaru and stayed here since then.
The whole district of Timaru has a population of less than 50,000 people while Timaru city has a population of around 37,000. Filipinos are a minority here, roughly at one percent.
Timaru (Photo credit: Alamy.com)
During our first few months in Timaru, we noticed that most Filipinos we met were married to Kiwis. Then we encountered Filipino families working in dairy farms.
Lately, we have seen the arrival of Filipino professionals moving down here in the south – working as nurses, IT’s and engineers. We have also met several Filipinos who are in the hospitality industry working as chefs in cafés and restaurants in tourist areas like Tekapo and Queenstown.
MFB: Foodwise, what was it like for you to live in New Zealand?
The South Island has a strong English culture. Probably because the first settlers are from England and Scotland and this culture is reflected in their food.
Kiwis in general enjoy a variety of tastes and cuisines. There a number of Indian, Thai, and Chinese restaurants and takeaways here. There are also fast food chains like KFC, McDonald’s or ‘mackers’ as they call it and others more.
What’s obviously missing is street food. The fresh, vibrant kind of outdoor and kiosk-type food stalls.
MFB: How did you get started in food? What prompted you to set-up Food Haven?
Cooking and baking has always been my passion. I have always wanted to enroll in a culinary school. Even while having a full time work back in the Philippines I used to make and sell pies and cheesecakes as a part time business. I remember I would get lots of apple pie orders in the month of December and I really enjoyed it.
Moving to Timaru from Auckland, I learned about the two-year Diploma in Cookery with Strands in Pattiserie course at former Aoraki Polytechnic now Ara Institute. I thought this could be the chance I’d been waiting for. I enrolled in February 2014.
The school has a very sturdy cookery program. I learned a lot from this course and honed my cooking skills. It was a fruitful and creative two years for me, being able to combine the western way of cooking with our Asian palate and cookery methods.
The fact that there was no Filipino cafe or restaurant in Timaru City was a sign that Filipino food was unknown in the mainstream. We took this as an opportunity to set up a Filipino food business.
Initially we planned to do food business from home, but strict NZ food regulations made us look for a commercial space to make compliance simpler. Fortunately, we found an empty cafe in the heart of Timaru City.
With lots of optimism and hard-work, we set sail on this exciting and challenging food business journey. Along the way, we met friendly and supportive people in the Timaru District Council who helped us in the process.
My husband and I named our café, Food Haven- a place where we offer Filipino food and Filipino hospitality to both kababayans (fellow Filipinos) and local residents.
Having my own cafe, I am able to design my own dishes. Most are classic Filipino dishes and some are a fusion of western and Asian ingredients. It’s lots of fun for me to have a venue to express my love for cooking.
It’s not easy to start a business, I have to confess. A good dose of education, positive attitude, hard work, patience, and perseverance are a must. My previous work and life experiences helped me as well.
Our Christian faith is our rock and foundation that encourages us in all circumstances. So far things are going well and the future looks bright.
MFB: How did MasterChef NZ finalist Leo Fernandez encourage you to go for it?
JC: I watched Leo Fernandez on the TV show Master Chef NZ. I was happy and inspired to see him seize the great opportunity to introduce and showcase our cuisine on national TV.
Through MasterChef, Leo showed that Filipino food can be a mainstream cuisine and at par with other popular cuisine like Korean, Indian, Mexican, Japanese, etc. That encouraged me to start my Filipino food business.
MFB: Please define your concept, target market and goals for Food Haven. Are there any other Filipino food establishments in the area?
JC: Our concept is to offer tasty Filipino food at a reasonable price. Our target market is both Filipinos and Kiwis. It is also our mission to introduce Filipino food to the locals. We wanted Food Haven to gradually grow as a Filipino food hub, catering to Filipinos and Kiwis in Timaru, Canterbury and Otago districts.
The closest Filipino restaurant is in a town next to Timaru which is about an hour drive.
MFB: Which Filipino-inspired dishes are the favorites? What were the comments about these dishes?
Our customers like Batchoy, Adobo, Lechon Kawali, & Pork BBQ. They also love our Sans Rival and Ube cake. It is always very rewarding for me when our customers express their appreciation of our food by either giving a commendation or eating all the food on their plate.
At first, Kiwis who didn’t know our cuisine thought Filipino food is very spicy, like Indian food. We explain that it’s not. After they’ve tried it, they would have an ‘aha’ moment and actually like it.
MFB: How far is Filipino food from crossing over in NZ? What else can be done to give it a boost?
JC: I believe it would take at least a couple of years more before Filipino food hits mainstream in Timaru or in New Zealand, in general.
Some customers expressed not being adventurous in food but we gladly introduce them to something that’s closer to their palate, like the fusion dishes we serve.
I feel that in order for Filipino food to have more appeal to the international community, it should be modernized a little bit. Although the ingredients should remain the same, the presentation should be tweaked a little. I am sure young Filipino chefs who have the knack for modernist plating will have no trouble doing this.
MFB: What is the general perception on Philippine cuisine in Timaru?
JC: Filipino food is at its infancy stage. Some locals don’t have a clue what our cuisine is.
Though, those who have tried it had positive things to say about our food. We met a few Kiwis who told us how they’ve tried making adobo but never seem to get it right.
There were several occasions when people stopped by the café to ask about the yummy smell pervading the arcade alley when we were cooking adobo. I take this as an indication that our common and homely food is to be proud of.
MFB: What do you consider as your greatest challenges and accomplishments as the owner of a newly-opened Filipino cafe?
JC: The greatest challenge is to introduce Filipino food to the local community. We consider it an accomplishment that we are able to do this and win regular non-Filipino customers.
I find great joy and accomplishment in being self-employed because I have the freedom to do what I’m passionate about. Of course, the challenge is how to make the business successful.
It’s very rewarding to hear from kababayans how thankful they are to have eaten the food they’ve missed since coming to New Zealand. For example, a Filipino customer said the last time he had Batchoy was 5 years ago back home. Also, another Filipino shared how happy he was for eating Halo-Halo after 8 years. I’m happy knowing that Food Haven has brought them closer to home.
Food Haven’s Batchoy
Having a food business in the centre of Timaru provides a great opportunity for me and my husband to meet people from all walks of life and be part of a friendly business community at the Royal Arcade in Timaru.
Connect with Food Haven:
by Jacqueline Lauri of My Food Beginnings – a Filipino food anthology project
Bringing people together through food and stories.