A phantom French chef lives in Sagada
Have you heard about the French chef who biked to Sagada from France and never left?
Philippe Heyer, an unmistakably French bloke—tall, thin, big nose, curly dark blonde hair, expressive eyes—grew up in a farm in picturesque Grenoble in southeastern France. It was a beautiful farm and they had their own livestock and vegetables, eliminating the need to travel to the city to buy ingredients or other food.
But it wasn’t as idyllic as one would imagine it to be despite the breathtaking scenery that comes with being at the foot of the French alps. There was hard work to be done at the farm and his parents would make him and his siblings work. In the winter, he hated it. It was so cold he would plead with his parents to work in the kitchen, because that’s where it was warm.
So at a very young age, he learned to cook. And inevitably, he became a chef.
He studied in Guebwiller, one of the top seven culinary schools in France.
He recalls their final exam. They were tasked to learn 240 recipes. On the day of the exam, they would draw two recipes from a bowl and would have to cook those two recipes on the spot, all from memory. He drew a fish dish and leche flan.
No sweat, he easily passed the exam and became the youngest graduate at only 15 years old. It was an exceptional achievement since, back then, only those 16 years old and above were allowed to graduate.
After working in a few restaurants in his mid-20s, Philippe made like Forrest Gump but on a bike and went to where his bike took him—quite literally.
He reached the Middle East, then biked to Indonesia and eventually found his way to the Philippines. He stayed in Palawan for a while, but preferring mountains over the seas, biked north to Sagada.
It was in Sagada that Philippe parked his wheels. He has lived there ever since. It has been over 20 years.
The residents of Sagada came to accept Philippe as their own and gave him the name “Aklay”. It means tall, white man with curly hair. (Apparently there was another “Aklay” who left Sagada before Philippe arrived—also a tall, white man with curly hair.)
Word soon got around that he was a chef.
“When people meet you, they ask for your name and what you do,” Aklay said when I asked how people found out he was a chef. He has been helping various inns and restaurants in Sagada, developing recipes ever since. His croissants are word-of-mouth legendary.
Last weekend, Mitos Yñiguez, the chef-owner of Hill Station and the relatively recent Cafe Adriana, invited Aklay to become a guest chef at Hill Station. The restaurant was crowded with guests, eager to sample the classic French dishes of this elusive chef.
Elusive, because Aklay hates the spotlight. Relaxing at our table after dinner with a bottle of beer, he insisted that just like an artist is about his art and not about himself, a chef/cook is about the food he creates, not about his celebrity.
“It’s about the food,” he argued as we requested for a photo with him. “It’s not about the chef. You think Paul Bocuse wants his photograph taken? What matters is the food.”
Thankfully, his cooking creations can speak for themselves.
In spite of having been away from France for over 20 years, the taste of Lyon is still very much in his dishes. Nose-to-tail cooking, including the use of innards, the brain, the heart of an animal is nothing new to the cooks of Lyon, and this was evident in the cooking of Aklay.
His salad, for instance, while giving the greens and blueberries of Sagada the spotlight, had as an accent a gizzard confit. Gizzard! His version of pancit, using sotanghon, was full of heart, Mitos had to rename it “Heart of Hearts Sotanghon”—it had chicken heart, pork heart, and for balance, Mitos insisted that they add banana hearts.
And the blood sausage served as an appetizer was so unapologetic with its treatment, it felt like we were eating in Bouchon Le Jura in Lyon.
The piece de resistance of Aklay, though, was something he taught students at a cooking class in Cafe Adriana the day before: duck galantine. This is similar to chicken gallantina, which we would be more familiar with, except that it had the deep savoriness of duck. It also had added character with the stuffing, which had blueberries.
What is most impressive about Aklay is how he is able to just use whatever is in sight and create something chef-worthy with it.
He made cheese out of grocery store ingredients, nothing fancy. But it tasted better than what was offered in some cafes in Manila. He also made an amazing baklava using lumpia wrappers. It was a little loose but the flavors were so compact and cohesive, it became a beautiful dessert.
It was such a memorable dinner that the challenge now is how to find Aklay and taste his cooking again. He holes up in Sagada and rarely comes down, not even to Baguio. (Mitos has extra persuasive powers!)
He has made Sagada his own self-sustaining haven. He also personally makes his own kitchen tools, I can imagine it’s like how they did it in the farm in Grenoble. He showed us his knife collection which he made himself, which made me suddenly imagine him on his bike, shouting “Hasa! Hasa!” to the townsfolk of Baguio. He also makes his own aprons using scrap cloths from sacks!
If you make the trip to Sagada, ask any local and they can point you to him. Otherwise, we will just have to catch Aklay at Hill Station at this once-a-year event hosted by Mitos Yñiguez in Baguio. Maybe we can pray that she does this more often.
HILL STATION. Casa Vallejo, Upper Session Road, Baguio. Open daily from 7:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Reservations recommended, call +63 74 424 2734 or +63 915 829 2166.
CAFE ADRIANA. Outlook Ridge Residences, V. De Los Reyes St., Outlook Drive, Baguio City. Visit Facebook @CafeAdrianaByHillStation. Reservations recommended, call +63 74 661 3591.
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