My husband, a professional chef of 13 years, recently posted on Facebook, that for breakfast one day, he was actually able to make a spinach frittata (the cousin of an omelet) on his own. An unusual status update you might say, from someone so skilled–unless of course that someone recently suffered from a debilitating stroke, at age 39. Currently, he is recuperating, but started to go back to work during weekends.
Pol Poblador was an accidental chef. Getting expelled from the electronics and communications engineering program he chose as a college course gave him a chance to rethink his future. He proceeded to take a break from university to care for his elderly mother. When he discovered he could actually cook after preparing countless meals for her, he then set his sights on pursuing this new-found passion, by getting the training he needed to become a decent cook.
He trained under Markus Gfeller and Humphrey Navarro in Manila, and then went on to learn from George Lucas’ personal chef David Wells in San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy. After graduating at the top of his class, he came home to open Salud! Bistro in 2002, which was set in a shabby-chic 1960s bungalow situated outside of the central business district of Baguio City. The hard-to-find dining destination became an instant hit with gourmands and the Manila elite. He called it “New Baguio French Cuisine,” the premise of which was the use of locally-sourced ingredients prepared with classic culinary techniques. A favorite of Salud! Regulars was the Chicken Teriyaki Caesar Salad–a grilled boneless chicken thigh paired with a Caesar salad on the side.
Chef Pobs, as he is fondly called, believes in taking risks. He is blessed with the talent of making unusual pairings of flavors that adhere to both Western and Asian palettes. This knack for producing unique dishes, coupled with a strong foundation in professional cookery techniques, made for a memorable experience of comfort food, perfect for the Baguio climate.
Unfortunately, after only a couple of years of restaurant operations, the meningogoccemia crisis hit the summer capital in 2004. We were forced to pack up and leave the mountains to move to the resort capital of the Philippines: Laguna. Pol was now faced with a bigger challenge: To build a heritage restaurant in the middle of nowhere, featuring the only cuisine he was not proficient in preparing: Filipino food. How was he supposed to get diners to travel all that way just to eat fare they could very well prepare on their own?
Once again, Pol’s creative prowess kicked in. He rallied his team of Filipino chefs to teach him how to cook traditional recipes. Soon after, he started crafting distinctive dishes for the Filipino Family Restaurant: KusinaSalud, in San Pablo, Laguna. A sought-after appetizer was the Pako Salad, which included the fiddlehead fern endemic to the area, red onions and tomatoes, tossed in a creamy d ressing and topped with grated cheddar cheese and red egg.
After conducting intensive market research, we were finally able to state the quality definition of KusinaSalud’s Modern Filipino Cuisine, which was “the preparation of locally sourced fresh ingredients through French and Filipino cookery techniques to create complementary combinations of tastes that aims to provide a uniquely adventurous, unforgettable and fulfilling culinary experience.”
Little did we know that Pol’s quality definition of modern Filipino cuisine would spread like wildfire in the restaurant industry. In his 2001 book, Unleashing the Idea Virus, author Seth Godin explains, ”An idea that just sits there is worthless. But an idea that moves and grows and infects everyone it touches…that’s an idea virus” (p. 19).
KusinaSalud served Filipino food in a Filipino home. But Pol’s food wasn’t typical home-cooked meals. Apart from the original gastronomic combinations, he also presented local food in a new light. Family-style dishes were plated properly so as to enhance the KusinaSalud dining experience, which made the trip worthwhile for groups of foodies.
In order for us to attract a steady stream of guests, we had to consistently e-mail blast our menus to our network. This made it easy for copycats to knock off Pol’s dishes. When we saw his fried tilapia with laing sauce dish featured by a major heritage brand on a highway billboard, we knew that that was the beginning of the end. Suddenly, contemporary Filipino food was being served everywhere in Manila, which made it more accessible to our clientele.
Chef Pol Poblador is a survivor. He did not dwell on the dissolution of his brand of modern Filipino cuisine as he is content with knowing that he made a major contribution to our nation’s culinary heritage. Currently, he is the executive chef of a business-class hotel in Batangas He is happy enough to continue working in the industry that he loves, and just like the challenges he faced in the past, he will prevail over his debilitation. Who knows what he will concoct next? All I know for sure is that it will be relevant and definitely worth the trip.
Paz Esperanza Tesoro-Poblador is the Vice Chair of the Marketing Management Department of De La Salle University’s Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business. She is currently taking her Doctorate in Business Administration. Her fields of interest are sustainable development, entrepreneurship and digital marketing.