The X Factor of Filipino Cuisine in Britain (An Interview with London’s Le Happy Chef)

ChefRex
Photography by Christopher Lambert
Young enough to be my son, but determined enough to be the father of contemporary Filipino cuisine in Britain is 23-year-old Rex de Guzman a.k.a. Le Happy Chef. When it comes to the subject of a new Filipino food wave in Britain, his name is impossible to miss.

The Southeast Asia Diaspora in the UK shows Filipinos as the biggest population. Ironically, the UK food scene paints a different picture. To say that Filipino food is one of the least visible in the country, wouldn’t be an exaggeration.

Lifting Filipino cuisine out of obscurity, Rex rebrands Filipino food in the UK market. He showcased the X factor of the cuisine in various projects, such as a series of sold-out pop-up restaurants, a fine dining fund-raising event for “Bantay Bata 163”, catering for the World Travel Market 2015 in London and, the founding and launching of Luzon, a contemporary Filipino restaurant.

luzon

Presently on a culinary research expedition in the Philippines, My Food Beginnings catches Chef Rex for an interview, while he was in Manila. He was kind enough to Skype with us even though it was after midnight in Manila and had to catch the 5am bus to Cagayan.

Please tell me more about your Filipino heritage. What brought your parents to the UK?

Mum is Ilocano, originally from Cagayan Valley. Dad is Tagalog, originally from San Miguel, Bulacan. They moved to the UK for work before I was born. At first, my dad didn’t intend to stay too long in the UK. But when they had my sister and me, things have changed.

Where did your passion in food originate from? What triggered your decision to take up Catering?

I always had a great passion for food, which originates from my love of eating. Watching Gordon Ramsay on the telly as a kid encouraged it even more.

As a career choice, actually, I had to decide between music and food. I chose food because I thought it would be easier to build a career in food than in music.

How did your brand “Le Happy Chef” come about?

LeHappyChef stems from my personality. I’m a happy and positive person by nature. I like the idea of tying my personality with my profession as a chef. LeHappyChef breaks away from the stereotype of a chef. The job we do as chefs and the pressure we have to take on have earned chefs a reputation for being grumpy and angry. I want to change that.

LeHappyChef-work
Le Happy Chef

 

Do you ever lose your cool in the kitchen?

I think it is natural for us chefs to feel very emotional and attached to the food we create and expect others to care for it as much as we do. I must admit I lose it sometimes during service. I voice out my frustrations to keep my staff focused and make them feel the heat that we’re in. I don’t turn into a plate smasher, like Gordon Ramsey, though there were times when I felt like doing that. When I reach that point, I step back and take a minute out to try to get control of myself before the situation takes control over me.

What is the current position of Filipino cuisine in London or the UK compared to other Southeast Asian cuisine. Why do you think it is so? What do you think took Filipino cuisine so long to get going?

I think that Filipino Cuisine is slowly beginning to emerge in the UK scene. In comparison to the other Southeast Asian cuisines that are available, it still has a fair way to. There simply have not been enough Filipinos trying to set up their own businesses and push Filipino Cuisine out there. There are a few Filipino restaurants in London and they have been around for quite awhile for the past 20 years or so. They have done their part in showing off Filipino cuisine and still do today. However, to be honest, I think that some of them are somewhat dated. They need some refurbishing or rebranding and need to market more towards the British. Filipino’s are very, very, very hard workers but I feel that not enough of us aspire to be more entrepreneurial. Now in 2016, there are a few other pioneers like myself who are doing a great job in creating supper clubs or pop-ups to showcase their interpretation of Filipino cuisine, such as Pepe’s Kitchen, Adobros, and Maynila, to name a few.

Describe what is contemporary Filipino cuisine? Based on the restaurants, pop-ups, events, etc. you launched and ran, how would you say it is perceived in the UK market?

Contemporary Filipino Cuisine is an interpretation of authentic, traditional Filipino flavours served in a modern way. It does its best to capture real Filipino taste but also offers more interesting textures and presentation that is suited for higher end restaurants. I started this concept 2 years ago, testing very simple dishes such as Adobo, Sisig and Tocino but tweaking the presentation or adding a few ideas of my own. One, for example, would be my take on Sisig which is cooked and set in a terrine mould so it holds its shape when being crisp fried. It’s then served with pickled ginger, sriracha mayonnaise and a boiled quail egg.

Traditional Filipino food is ultimately, family food. I’m simply elevating it to fit the restaurant scene here in London. From my experience so far, I think it’s really going down well with the UK market. They love new experiences and one of the main things I noticed is that they simply do not know what to expect when they order Filipino dishes. This is a good thing because it allows us to create our own identity of how we see Filipino Cuisine and make our own impression. I am happy to tell you that my guests have thoroughly enjoyed my cooking.

What are the greatest challenges you face as a pioneer/leader in contemporary Filipino cuisine abroad? What do you consider as your greatest achievements?

One of the biggest challenges is trying to utilize the ingredients that are available only in the UK. There are some amazing native ingredients in the Philippines that you simply cannot get in the UK and if you can, they usually have to come tinned or frozen which usually reduces the quality of the product. There’s also the simple fact that some of these Filipino ingredients are just not in demand enough for supply to be exported. For me as a chef, it means I must be creative in recreating some Filipino dishes by substituting certain ingredients.

One of my greatest achievements to date was when I was requested by the Department of Tourism to create a canapé menu to serve at the World Travel Market in November 2015 in London Excel for up to 500 guests over 3 days. This was truly an achievement as I actually felt that my interpretation of Filipino cuisine was finally being recognised not just by the UK market but by the Filipinos themselves. I also had the honour of meeting Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr., who thoroughly enjoyed my canapés and invited me personally to Madrid Fusion Manila which is set for April 2016.

Canapes

You are presently in the middle of a two- and-a-half-month food tour of the Philippines, how is it going so far?

At the moment, I’m having an amazing time. It’s an experience I will never forget and I’ve only been here for 2 weeks now. I’m currently touring Ilocos and some of the Cordilleras region. Every province I’ve been to presented a different experience and a great highlight. I’m learning every day. The reason for this food tour is for me to learn more about Filipino cuisine, culture and history. It’s personal to me because it is my way of reconnecting with my roots and my heritage. It’s also important because I want to be able to promote, not just Filipino cuisine but identify the regional dishes in the Philippines, so that others will see how much the Philippines has to offer. The bigger picture is also to explore ways to promote tourism in the Philippines with a focal point on the food. Ultimately it’s for me to become the chef that I need to be in order to be a better ambassador for Filipino cuisine in the UK.

You tweeted and posted about your cooking experience with the Ifugao tribe. Tell us more about it?

Rex-lugaw

Having seconds of Chef Rex’s Arroz Caldo at Banaue Rice Terraces

I had been dreaming about such a moment since I began planning for this research expedition. They are very friendly, very quiet and very old, but they were welcoming, as are all Filipinos. Being in Banaue, seeing the rice terraces and seeing how rice is milled gave me a deeper respect for the Filipino staple. The Ifugaos respect food for what it is – life giving. They waste nothing.

The Arroz Caldo I cooked for them used their native chicken and native rice harvested from the famous rice terraces. My version of Arroz Caldo is different. It is not soupy like the traditional Arroz Caldo, but more like a risotto – creamier and richer.

What memories does Arroz Caldo stir up in you?

Heart warming food is what Arroz Caldo is. It was often cooked for me by my mother when I was ill with a cold, during winters in the UK. She’d serve it off for dinner for the family. It was something we shared as a meal.

Mum made sure the ginger that flavoured the Arroz Caldo was in larger match stick pieces so that I could pick it out and not bite on it unpleasantly. Mum’s Arroz Caldo is soupy, peppery with a generous dose of garlic and ginger. Often, she used chicken thighs and legs and cooked them in the rice until tender enough for the meat to fall off the bone. We ate it with fish sauce as sawsawan and definitely, lemon.

My mum is the happiest person I could ever be. She is the one who knows how to keep the spirits high in the family. She is very positive, bright and bubbly. Even when there are occasional arguments in the family, she is the one who knows how to diffuse it, to keep things on the bright side. I definitely inherited that from her: keeping positive and keeping happy.

I’m not just saying these because she’s my mom, but she really is an incredible woman: sweet, with a pure heart and very hardworking. At the moment, she’s still working two jobs. She’s doing part-time cleaning jobs and she’s been doing that for a long time. She’s got that typical Filipino hard working ethic.

Rex-Mum

Rex and his mum (Source; PH Culinary Diamond)

What are your goals in the next few years?

I want to set up a Filipino Food stall, I want to start research into import and export of Filipino food & beverage and start bridging the gap to create a demand for Filipino products. I hope to work towards setting up an establishment for Luzon Filipino Restaurant which is in the works.

What advice can you give aspiring Filipinos chefs, wanting to introduce or popularize Filipino cuisine abroad?

I would say, be creative, be ambitious and believe in your own ability, but find a balance between what is truly Filipino in flavour, what your market wants and how you want to present it. Filipino cuisine is about to storm the world. but personally, I think it needs to be done step by step. It does not need to be over complicated just yet, but it does need to be elevated so that it can be recognised and appreciated by others for what it truly is. When the world starts to learn about the flavours of Filipino food, then a new generation of chefs may step in and take it to where no man / woman has ever taken it before.

My Food Beginnings, a Filipino food anthology is collecting personal stories and re-invented recipes inspired by a Filipino dish. Can I count you in to submit? Submission guidelines can be found on our website. 

I’d be happy to contribute!

Fantastic! I’m looking forward to reading your story and trying out your recipe.

 Enjoy the rest of your Philippine tour and we, at My Food Beginnings, wish you all the best. 

xxx

by Jacqueline Lauri of My Food Beginnings, a Filipino food anthology project

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LeHappyChef in social media:

Instagram: @lehappychef

Twitter: @lehappychef

Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/lehappychef

Youtube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/lehappychef

Philippines Research Expedition: http://www.phculinarydiamond.wordpress.com

Personal Website: http://www.lehappychef.co.uk

LUZON Filipino Restaurant Website: http://www.luzon.co.uk

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The X Factor of Filipino Cuisine in Britain (An Interview with London’s Le Happy Chef)