Resto newbies learn from master Cooke
A team of aspiring chefs and budding restaurateurs had a brief but very educational and satisfying “on-the-job training” (OJT) that they hope will help level up their fledgling restaurant.
The young entrepreneurs, who have not even earned yet their official toques, could not have found a better mentor in cooking and running a restaurant than Australia-based chef Donovan Cooke.
Cooke has lived up to his family name. Renowned and respected for his culinary talent and skills, he was named “Chef of the Year” for two consecutive years—2003 and 2004—by Melbourne’s The Age Good Food Guide. His restaurant, Ondine in Melbourne, Australia, has been described as “legendary” and was awarded Best New Restaurant in 2002.
So, for several days in April, the 10 senior students at the culinary arts school Enderun Colleges in Taguig City shadowed, watched and learned as much as they could from Cooke, both as a chef and successful restaurant proprietor.
Cooke prepared a special mostly seafood 14-course dinner for two evenings at the young entrepreneurs’ full-service Heirloom Amah restaurant, an expansion of the delivery food service the student chefs had launched during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Amah draws from and updates heirloom recipes of the Chinese grandmother (amah is Chinese for grandmother) of Jose Villareal, main man of the food business project and whose home in Taguig became a refuge for classmates sheltering from COVID-19 while staying close to their school.
With the food delivery service evolving into a restaurant, Villareal, who considers it a great honor to work with, for and alongside Cooke, says they tried to learn as much as they could from the rare opportunity.
For the specially curated dinner, the veteran chef drew up the menu and guided and supervised his young wards in transforming his creations into mouth-watering dishes that looked as good as they tasted.
Villareal says having Cooke in their kitchen was definitely a “milestone for all of us at Amah.”
“We learned a lot of techniques, ways of using ingredients and equipment we have never heard of before. However, our biggest takeaway is just the general structure, attitude, and mindset he instilled in us during the event. He taught us how to distill the passion we had into something more organized. Working with him helped us become more driven than ever into improving and honing our craft,” Villareal says.
Amah Restaurant opened in 2021. Its delicious and unique homestyle Filipino-Chinese dishes are becoming popular among foodies and food vloggers. The young chefs use local ingredients and put their own unique twists to heirloom recipes.
Located at 27 F. Segundo St., AFPOVAI Phase 4, Taguig City, Amah offers a magnificent view of Makati City and Bonifacio Global City. The upper roof deck has become a favorite spot for watching the sunsets that Manila is famed for. It is becoming a popular venue for important events and special occasions.
The experience with Cooke, Villareal says, has given them new ideas on how to grow their business in the crowded and very competitive food industry. “We definitely want to refine our menu … Every day is a learning experience, [particularly] the event with Chef Donovan.”
But Villareal says they would not be transforming Amah into the fine dining establishment that their mentor is known for. Their goal, he explains, is to make Amah more inclusive and affordable.
They will, however, employ the techniques learned from Cooke and brainstorm on more concepts they could implement. They plan to do some overhauling of their menu.
“Each of us has a lot of ideas all the time, from our [different] backgrounds, new things we learn everyday, and just from being people who like eating … I hope most of these ideas can translate into something we can serve as well. This is what I think separates us from other restaurants; our ideas aren’t specifically better but these dishes come straight from our hearts,” the young entrepreneur says.
The overwhelming response of clients to Cooke’s 14-course dinner is a challenge to reach and maintain the standard set by the renowned chef.
Cooke also has nice things to say about his “trainees.”
“These young chefs are very dedicated and passionate about their craft. They could have taken it easy during the pandemic, found an excuse to just lay around and rest like many of us did during the lockdowns. But they forged ahead because they’re all determined to continue learning and honing their talents. It’s my privilege to be one of their mentors, to encourage them as they make their marks in the business,” Cooke says.
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