The expression “you eat with your eyes” has long served as a reminder for professional chefs to prepare visually appetizing food to instantly whet a diner’s appetite. But with the advent of social media, even budding restaurateurs take the extra effort to produce dishes worthy the “foodporn” hashtag for posting.
Now, while most chefs or cooks in these two scenarios ensure beautiful plating after the actual cooking, one internationally recognized Filipino kitchen whiz does the opposite. He is Chef Ramon Antonio who sketches his delicious dishes before cooking and serving them.
Long culinary journey
Growing up in a culinary family whose business involved catering the banquets of the iconic Sampaguita Pictures and LVN Productions during their heyday, it is no surprise that Antonio eventually decided to pursue a career in food.
The word “eventually” is key in his story because he initially joined a musical band that impressively toured Asia to perform, and then tapped his love for drawing and painting to become a graphic designer in several publications before finally finding himself in a kitchen.
“Talking to them, I learned the [restaurant’s] president was a chef, the general manager was a chef, the head of operations was chef, and so I asked, ‘What is a chef?’ This was back in 1988 when chefs in the Philippines were considered blue-collared workers. So they showed me [culinary]books and I was in awe to learn that there’s a world like this out there,” Antonio recalled to The Sunday Times Magazine in an interview.
Falling in love with edible beauty, the artistically inclined Antonio decided to be a chef then and there. Long story short, his talent for the kitchen took him across continents and afforded him firsthand training on a world-class level.
A sought-after chef by the time he returned to the Philippines, he was invited to the famed El Nido Resorts to work as executive chef from 2004 to 2008. There, he developed his signature contemporary take on Filipino cuisine, using sustainable local produce.
Eager to present his brand of Filipino dishes to the world, he has joined food festivals in China; bested 16 chefs from different countries with his “Bicol Express Crab with Pineapple Bagoong Rice” in a culinary competition in Sri Lanka; and represented the Philippines in this year’s Madrid Fusion Manila under the theme almusal or breakfast.
Through his many years in the culinary scene, Antonio never forgot his passion for the visual arts. Melding this with his love for food, he made it a habit to sketch the dishes he developed, thus inspiring the unique festival “From Palette to Palate with Chef Ramon Antonio” at Marco Polo Ortigas Manila.
Impressed by the chef-cum-artist’s reputation, the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Awardee invited him to exhibit his dishes and artworks at the hotel’s all-day restaurant Cucina. From August 22 to 31, he proudly and successfully presented his gastronomic dishes like Kalderetang Karnero, Sugpo sa Aligue, Filipino-favorite Cochinillo, and Napoleones sa Pandan, with his sketches of the very menu displayed around the establishment.
Surprisingly, Antonio revealed to The Sunday Times Magazine he did not mean for his sketch-to-plate technique to become his trademark.
Asked what prompted him to do so, the humble chef openly remarked, “It all started with the arrival of my daughter who has special needs. I learned how very visual they are so sketching what she would be having for her meals was a great help to her and became a normal scenario at home.”
At some point, Antonio decided to share the food sketches he made for his now 19-year-old daughter on social media and naturally, people—including the ever-imaginative marketing team at Marco Polo Manila—took notice.
Happy over his “accidental exhibit,” Antonio related that his work as of late has been focused on a mission to propagate the sustainability of Filipino ingredients and promote this rich cuisine around the world. To do so, he shared that he has taken on an advocacy for chefs to be “ingredient-driven” in developing their dishes.
“I am ingredient-driven. I am happy I started that way in my career and I think everybody should be ingredient-driven in cooking their food, and never concept-driven,” Antonio explained to The Sunday Times Magazine.
He furthered, “Because if you go by way of the latter, you won’t respect nature in effect; you would do everything to follow your concept.”
Addressing a puzzled expression, Antonio went on, “For example, you would probably use canned blueberries to make blueberry cheesecake, which I believe is terrible because we have here in our county beautiful bignay [a local currant], sampinit [local wild berries]and all these other beautiful local berries. Why use canned fruits when we have better fruits than our Western counterparts?”
Crystal clear in his explanation, the laudable culinary master expressed hope that the whirl of Filipino food festivals in August—mounted in commemoration of Buwan ng Wika—reminded diners anew of the uniqueness, beauty and delectability of flavors from across the islands.
For from experience, Antonio related, “It’s not hard to promote Filipino food if you are outside the Philippines; the sad thing there is that it’s harder to promote it to our own countrymen.
“Whenever a Filipino on the Internet asks, ‘When will Filipino food reach the same level as Japanese, Thai or Korean cuisines?’ I’d always reply, ‘Don’t ask the world; ask yourselves because you are the ones holding it back,” he ended.