While our forefathers who fought hard and sacrificed their lives for country rightfully deserve to be remembered today, The Sunday Times Magazine has chosen, however, to spotlight a new generation hero this year who likewise worthy of recognition as one of many patriotic Filipinos who champion national pride through their respective fields. He is Chef Michael Giovan ‘Myke’ Sarthou who promotes his brand of Filipino independence in the arena of global cuisine.
The accidental chef
Chef Tatung, as Sarthou is fondly called, is one of the most familiar faces in the food industry what with his numerous projects on television, print and social media. He will be remembered in “Kwentong Kawali ni Chef Tatung” on ABS-CBN’s morning show “Umagang Kay Ganda;” in a four-part documentary special on Lifestyle TV called “The Food That We Are;” and in his self-produced documentary on Philippine salt entitled “Seasons of Salt,” among others. He also hosts a regular web-based cooking series, “Simple,” on his Facebook page Lutong tatung.
More notably, the chef made the country proud when he became one of the only two Manila-based chefs invited to speak at Madrid Fusión Manila 2016, the first and only Asian edition of the most important gastronomy congress in the world, held annually in Spain.
Most recently, he was tasked to be the harbinger of Philippine cuisine when he single-handedly headed the country’s presentation at the original Madrid Fusion in Spain in January. He successfully lectured delegates from around the globe with a talk entitled, “What was lost is found: re-discovering Pre-Hispanic Filipino Cuisine.”
His passion for salt and the Mindanao cuisine stood out more than ever.
While a celebrity in his own right, the well-loved chef is not one to hog the limelight. In fact, it seems he is not even aware of his fame among his peers and growing number of Filipino foodies.
“I don’t read a lot of media written about me. For me what really matters is that I’m happy with what I’m doing,” Sarthou told The Sunday Times Magazine during an interview at Diamond Hotel Manila where he is currently the featured chef for the property’s “Philippine Archipelago” food festival.
True enough, for this tête-à-tête, Sarthou sat down straight from kitchen duty unmindful of the day’s food stains on his double-breasted chef’s jacket. He could have taken the time to change to another crisp and immaculate white uniform but image is not what is important to the man.
Perhaps this unaffected attitude stems from the fact that Sarthou, as big as he is in the industry today, has only been visible in the culinary world for less than a decade.
“To be honest, I call myself an accidental chef. I’ve been in the cooking industry for around 10 years but I’ve been serious in doing it only seven years ago,” he admitted.
The chef recalled that it was not in his plans to go full time in the culinary scene despite his early awakening with delectable flavors.
“I really started young in the kitchen. As far as I could remember, while my cousins and siblings are watching TV, I was in the kitchen, getting involved in the food preparation. I’d prepare the midnight snacks for them,” Sarthou intimated.
From simple meriendas to grand feasts for every occasion, the young Tatung became a staple in the family kitchen. He learned to bake pastries and pizza—which he said was a skill he had to acquire since fast food was not as accessible as it is today—and later on in grade school had been taught how to slaughter goats and pigs for bigger feasts at home.
But while seeing a young child excel in the kitchen is a source of pride for most parents nowadays, Sarthou said his interest bothered some of his conservative elders who felt food preparation should be left to household helpers.
“I was often scolded because… you know how it was in the old houses, the help eat different food. Eh ako, not only do I eat their food, I also ask how they cook it,” Sarthou recalled.
Nevertheless, Sarthou spent endless hours in the kitchen, remembering he was only seven years old when he started tinkering with recipes. Asked what his first dish was, he laughed and confessed it was a “one-egg cake,” which he learned to improve by adding one ingredient after another.
And so, while Sarthou did not really pursue a culinary course in college, the passion for cooking never left him.
Many friends and relatives also started turning to him when they needed someone to whip up a feast for them.
“I always fell into a situation where people were always asking me to cook for them for different occasion,” he
What did he pursue outside culinary arts? Interestingly, he went into journalism and management.
“I didn’t want to pursue food as a career, kasi parang [because it was a]hobby mo siya [for me]. I felt that if people hire you to do things, they would tell you what to do. Parang ayaw ko ng ganun; gusto ko lang gawin ang gusto ko [I didn’t like that; I just wanted to do what I wanted to do].”
He continued, “I was always writing since I was young and so my first job was in public relations. Then when I was 19 years old, I was writing the speeches of a mayor. Later on, I worked in Sun Star Cebu where I started as editorial assistant and turned into a copy editor for news,” he related.
After his stint in publishing, Sarthou went on to work in the entertainment industry, specifically with music companies Star Record, Sony BMG and Warner Philippines. He even dabbled in directing music videos.
But through all his different endeavors, he kept his love for food alive with a canteen business. He was, however, a manager rather than the one behind the stove as expected.
Asked why he ran his canteen that way, his reply was the word “independence.”
“Like I said, I felt that if I went into food as a career, the people who hired me would tell you what to do. I wanted the freedom to do things my way,” he reiterated.
A crossroads in his life, however, led him to finally pursue his passion for cooking.
“Everyone goes through a crisis in life. Mine was when I started asking myself what was the meaning of what I was doing at that point in time. I ended up soul searching, and I asked myself who am I? Nag-converge lang siya and I realized na in spite of being good at a lot of things, I am best at cooking [It all fell into place when I realized that despite everything I’ve been doing, I am best at cooking].”
He elaborated, “I could do anything because I could simply learn how to do them, but it took effort. To be able to be at par with the best, you have to pay our dues. But when it came to cooking, I could do it even with my eyes closed.”
Soon, Sarthou found himself not only thriving in the heat of the kitchen but wanting to champion Filipino cuisine.
Of roots and origins
A seventh-generation French migrant in the country, Sarthou grew up in a melting pot of cultures. His father came from a French-Spanish lineage while his mother is Visayan-Chinese. Sarthou was born and raised in Cebu before he moved to Manila.
Given these, it goes without saying that he also grew up in a multi-cultural kitchen where food of varying origins were bubbling in pots.
“Also, my grandfather worked in the shipping industry so we had gifts like imported cheeses, pâté… so I was really exposed to all sorts of cuisine from the start—Western, not only Filipino,” Sarthou revealed.
Eventually, when he decided to go full time in cooking, Sarthou said he had had his fair share of trying far away flavors.
“In this industry, you also have to know Western cuisine. You need to learn the basics and classics like the mother sauces and such. I did my share of doing that but just to say na marunong na talaga ako [I know how to do them] but at the end of the day, parang hinahanap mo pa rin yung [you’ll still look for] Filipino food,” he admitted.
Nevertheless, he still had doubts whether he should pursue Filipino cuisine when the most noted chefs take pains to go abroad to study Western cooking.
“At a certain point, honestly, nahihiya pa ako mag-focus sa [I was kind of embarrassed to focus on] Filipino food. Parang hindi ka-level sa mga bonggang cuisine [It didn’t seem to be of the same level as sophisticated cuisines]. But I realized at a certain point that there’s really nothing wrong with our cuisine. When I began traveling, I learned na yung pagkain na Filipino na kinakain namin, masarap naman eh [that the food we Filipinos eat is delicious]. Mas masarap pa nga siya sa mga [It’s even more delicious than the food of the] Western,” Sarthou said.
He also realized that he can never be better at a particular cuisine compared with a chef who comes for its country of origin.
“Think about this, magaling ka mag-risotto, magaling ako mag-risotto, pero Italian ka, ano laban ko na Pilipino?
We both can afford truffles, but you are French who grew up with truffles in your surroundings, ano laban ko sa iyo? [Think about this, you and I may be good at risotto but you’re Italian. How can I compete with you? We can both afford truffles but you’re French and grew up surrounded with truffles. How can I compete with you?]
“At a certain point, people will compare your skills,” Sarthou pointed out.
“You take pride in what you have and in what you are doing because the only way to have integrity is to be really connected to your roots,” the chef further noted.
Sarthou finally focused his passion on Philippine cuisine freely, which after all, he had already done as a child in the family kitchen. This, however, was only his first step in his career-change because he later developed a deeper passion for indigenous cooking methods, thereby acquiring in-depth knowledge of Philippine gastronomy.
From the Visayan cuisine he grew up with, Sarthou immersed himself into the different cultures of this island country, learning that Filipino flavors cannot be categorized as a single cuisine.
“The important thing when you do Filipino cuisine is learning to tell a story because it so diverse and complex.
Hindi mo pwedeng sabihin na ito lang siya. Wag tayong mag ilusyon na [you cannot say this is what Filipino cuisine is; we cannot have the illusion that]here is a national cuisine because each region eats the way they eat,” the chef firmly stated.
As an example, Sarthou said what may be acceptable in the Visayas as the right sinigang taste would not be acceptable for the Tagalogs of Luzon who are not used to very sour soups.
The difference in preference, the chef said, also has to do with what ingredients are available in a particular region of the country. There are certain ingredients in provinces that do not exist in other parts of the country.
“That’s why ang atake namin, we don’t say this is Philippine cuisine, this is an archipelago kasi iba-iba tayo [because we all have differences]and we have to respect that because what is sustainable in your region may not be to others.”
Simplicity and sustainability
But no matter the differences in preparation and choice of ingredients, Sarthou believes that Philippine cuisine is a gem for its simplicity.
“What makes Filipino cuisine unique is the simplicity especially of indigenous cooking. It’s really interesting because you have this one method but you have different ingredients that can alter taste. Magpapaksiw ka, iba ibang klase ng isda, iba iba ang lasa. Magpaksiw ka ng galunggong, lapu, maya—iba iba ang lasa niya. Mag-adobo ka ng pusit, manok, kangkong, it’s the same thing but it gives different flavors and it makes Filipino food interesting without having to go out of the box too much. [The taste of paksiw becomes different when different fish is used, as with the adobo if squid, chicken or kangkong is used],” Sarthou detailed.
Despite his diverse menus, his interest in cooking Filipino food using indigenous styles has earned Sarthou the label of a traditionalist.
“I don’t mind if they think of me that way. My only goal is that we should never stop pushing our cuisine forward but we always have to be conscious about the following: does it benefit the people; does it provide an opportunity for the rest of the Filipinos to access these ingredients? Yes I am a traditionalist but I am more for sustainability.
“We are getting so much attention globally [for our food]but at the end of the day, does it really help our economy? So that’s the perspective that I want to bring out into the open. It’s really about sustainability.”
As such, Sarthou considers chefs like himself not just as culinary artists but messengers to propagate Filipino dishes and educate people about the rich Philippine culinary culture beyond their food staples.
“For chefs who are representing the Philippines in the culinary world, they should really choose a subject matter in Filipino cuisine or a piece of the pie to be able to make people understand Filipino cuisine in context,” he emphasized.
For the Visayan chef, his piece of the pie is not the cuisine he grew up with surprisingly but the rich and exotic flavors of Mindanao.
“Mindanao creates challenge for a chef because it’s very complex with the range of ingredients available there, their of techniques, and how their food really connects to our Southeast Asian neighbors.”
He revealed he veered away from his Visayan roots because of the mindset he developed as a journalist.
“In journalism, you don’t write what people have already said, you always try to find your own voice—you look for an angle. That’s how I am in cooking because there are already so many chefs doing Visayan cooking.”
He also said that Mindanao and its cuisine deserve more attention.
“I’ve been to a lot of food festivals and Mindanao has been the least represented. When it they project Mindanao, it is based on impositions by migrants on the island but it’s not really what is endemic there or culturally accurate. Mindanaons are culturally misrepresented.”
It is for this reason that Sarthou travelled back and forth to the region for a good six years to come up with the World Gourmand Award-winning book Philippine Cookery: From Heart to Platter.
Despite his many accolades in the international arena bearing the Filipino flag on his chef’s collar, Chef Tatung Sarthou’s immediate goal is not to make the Philippines’ diverse flavors palatable to the rest of the world. Instead, he would rather—and is working on—Filipinos themselves to have a deeper appreciation of their own cuisine.
“We should never stop innovation but if we only do things just to become the talk of the town, that’s not my style. I research all these things to be able to propagate modern Filipino cuisine and make the locals more conscious about sustainability.
He detailed, “It’s really about creating greater knowledge on food sources, and on unknown cooking technologies and recipes. Giving these, we can encourage more people to follow this path to sustainability so that the utilization of food sources in the Philippines becomes more efficient.”
His best example of this concept is the buod of the Ilokanos. Buod is what the locals call the trunk of the banana tree. In other parts of the country, the trunk is thrown out but for Ilokanos it is a food staple.
“Maybe if other Filipinos know that buod can be eaten, there will be less hungry people in the country,” Sarthou rightly stated.
With this very specific endeavor, he hopes he will eventually be considered as a “synthesizer” of Filipino cuisine rather than a documentarist as he is often described today.
“Eventually I want it to be known kung paano ko na [how I was able to]synthesize all these information, all these regional traditions, into something that creates a more sustainable, a more nutritious repertoire of Filipino food that can be achieved by everyday people.
“Ultimately, nababago natin yung pagluluto ng mga tao sa bahay dahil nabibigyan mo sila [we will be able to change the way people cook in their homes because we will be able to give them]ng ideas, new recipes and approaches to ingredients,” he finally noted.