Baby Lucia Margaret Ysabel Cojuangco Gonzalez has prematurely sealed her parents’ “love deal.”
She came into the lives of chefs Gino Gonzalez and China Cojuangco only three weeks ago—or about three months before the couple say their “I dos.” Surely, baby Lucia will make the occasion doubly special and memorable.
Gino, 34, and China, 35, have been together for six years and nine months, and it was food that brought them together.
It all started when China enrolled at the Center for Asian Culinary Studies (CACS) where Gino, son of celebrity chef Gene Gonzalez who founded the school, was one of the chef-instructors. They grew close and never took their eyes off each other, so to speak.
We’ve asked the couple to share some dishes that are dear to them—those they either create together or prepare for each other.
Al Nero Pasta
Both love pasta—and making it from scratch. One of their favorites is squid-ink pasta.
“It’s been my favorite for a long time, siya rin pala,” says Gino. “We’d order squid-ink pasta wherever it’s served, usually at Cibo.”
They also cook the pasta together at home. China makes the fresh pasta, while Gino readies the sauce or vice versa.
“Funny, when we are in the kitchen we don’t talk that much, maybe because we already know what to do, the flow and all. Sobrang sanay na kami,” says Gino.
To make it extra yummy, they give the dish a twist by dressing homemade saffron pasta with cherry tomatoes, roasted bell peppers, fresh basil and Korean chili flakes. It’s a pretty colorful dish, the dark sauce just at the bottom of the pasta.
Gino says it’s quite easy to cook, but getting the seafood at its right doneness is the tricky part.
Gino and China cook at least twice or thrice a week at home. Typically, these are family-style meals with one or two protein, starch and vegetable dishes. Sometimes, they make cooking an excuse to invite their friends or cousins over.
Asian short-ribs stew
Another favorite dish is the Asian short-ribs stew, a very aromatic beef seasoned with Asian spices.
“We are tired of the usual Western stew with potato, rosemary and thyme,” notes Gino. “So, we came up with an Asian version with star anise, chili garlic paste, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce and orange peel finished with cilantro and sesame seeds.”
Gino enjoys cooking stews at home, especially after China bought him a nice yellow Le Creuset ceramic pan (dutch oven) on one of her family trips abroad.
“I’ve always wanted to have a Le Creuset because it retains the juiciness and tenderness of the meat. You can serve it straight from the oven to the table. It’s very rustic,” says Gino.
But, even when not braising meat, China and Gino use the ceramic pan for cooking sinigang or nilaga.
“People are always surprised when we cook something out of the ordinary,” says Gino. “For us, it doesn’t have to be like our anniversary or something to cook a paella.
It can be an ordinary Saturday or just plain craving on our part.”
For dessert, they both love having chocolate fondue at home—made extra luxurious by using Toblerone instead of regular chocolate. The pair likes its almond, nougat-y flavor. A bit of amaretto is added to make the melted chocolate stronger.
Aside from strawberries and marshmallow, cherries or taisan cake are also used in chocolate fondue.
For cheese fondue, the couple usually go for raclette or gruyere.
They then pair their food with a glass of Shiraz or Zinfandel.
When not in the mood to cook, they just eat out. They enjoy checking out new restaurants, and consider dining out an education, to see new food trends and what people are talking about.
The pair keeps a list of favorite food escapades.
For Korean, they go to Awon Korean restaurant in Macapagal Avenue, Pasay.
For Japanese, they frequent Little Tokyo in Pasong Tamo.
If they crave for Mediterranean or Persian, they drive to Ziggurat or Behrouz.
If it’s as simple as chicken inasal, they don’t mind braving the traffic to go to Bacolod Chicken Parilla on the corner of Scout Reyes and Scout Gandia in Quezon City.
To complete the experience while already in QC, they have a warm bowl of lugaw with tripe and innards at Kabayan Lugawan in Kamuning.
“I learned about the lugaw from one of our chefs; I brought China there and she loved it,” Gino says.
Simple but delicious
The few times they have a misunderstanding, it’s always Gino who does everything in the kitchen.
“Sometimes if we have issues together, parang walang tumutulong sa akin in the kitchen,” he says. “It’s like I’ll just call China whenever the food is ready. I cook for her a lot but she cooks for me whenever I’m sick. She really takes care of me.”
China’s most recent concoction for her partner was toasted crabs with butter, lots of garlic and white wine. Simple but delicious.
“She’s a hopeless romantic,” says Gino. “Sweet din naman ako but she’s more romantic. I feel I’m the one who injects the harsh realities of life into her, which, I think, is good.”
Now Gino and China have been busy taking care of baby Lucia, running the school and planning their wedding.
The school has branches outside Metro Manila.
Gino also runs Café Ysabel and Buenisimo and other food projects.
The couple will have an intimate sunset wedding in Tagaytay.
Christian Espiritu, who designed the wedding gown of China’s mom, Margarita “Tingting” Cojuangco, will also make China’s gown.
“I always tell China that it will be her big day more than mine,” says Gino. “My focus on the wedding, more than anything, is the food. I want the food to be really, really good because I can’t accept the fact that we are chefs and the food’s going to be a disaster.”
He has what he says is solid formula for good buffet food—a nice cold cut platter with various cheeses (from Malagos Farm); a salad station; a pasta station with three kinds of sauces (white, red and olive oil); a carving station (rib-eye), roast pig; and a few other dishes like chicken and fish.
There’ll also be a dessert buffet with gummi bears, cupcakes, etc.
The wedding cake will be done by pastry chef Jill Sandique, a good family friend, with another noted pastry chef, Penk Ching.
“It will be a small wedding. China’s mom promised us no politicians will be invited, just our closest family, relatives and friends. We will just have small parties on both sides for extended friends afterwards,” Gino says.
E-mail the author at vbaga @inquirer.com.ph
PHOTOS BY RICHARD A. REYES