The only time Randy Ortiz ever worked in the food industry was nearly 30 years ago, back when he just got his hotel and restaurant management degree from De La Salle University.
Last Monday, the celebrity fashion designer invited some of his closest friends in the rag trade like Tweetie de Leon-Gonzalez and Rissa Mananquil-Trillo, as well as celebrities like Cristine Reyes and Rayver Cruz, to the housewarming fof his Makati café— “my carinderia,” as he fondly calls it.
Three weeks earlier, Ortiz and longtime friend Bernard Bañares opened the doors of Chef Bernard.com on a quiet side street in Legaspi Village, the culmination of a business partnership hatched only a few months prior.
Bañares, a professional model in the 1980s, had been living in California for the past 20 years. He is a trained chef and had for sometime been toying with the idea of coming home to set up a restaurant here. On the urging of Ortiz, he finally packed his bags and flew to Manila in April.
“His only condition was, the restaurant shouldn’t be expensive,” Ortiz says. “And I agreed. I see so many restaurants folding up. I didn’t want to set up a place where the food is too expensive that people only come to eat once in a while. That’s also why we chose this place and not a space in the mall where the rents are so high. We’re serving comfort food, food that you want to come back for, over and over. We set it up like a cafeteria. It’s not intimidating. You can come here and relax.”
The business partners settled on a menu that’s predominantly Filipino comfort food, prepared using classic French techniques, owing to Bañares’ training.
The menu is purposely lean, with familiar fare like pancit molo, fresh lumpia, pork binagoongan, embotido, as well as all-day breakfast meals of longganisa, beef tapa and tocino, all made in-house by the chef.
A fan of Thai cuisine, Bañares also included a green curry dish, and the classic French fare, beef bourguignon, in the offerings. There are also a couple of pasta dishes, as well as sandwiches.
Bañares is a born cook, as Ortiz would describe his friend. He learned his kitchen skills from an aunt back in Jaro, Iloilo, where he grew up. As a young boy, he learned how to debone a chicken without breaking the skin. When he was still modeling, he would bake tarts and pastries, as well as a chicken galantina dish, that were such hits his fellow models would order from him during the holidays.
When he moved to the United States, where he was a furniture entrepreneur, Bañares still occasionally made desserts and cured meats to sell. When the downturn forced him to shut down his furniture business, Bañares decided to answer his true calling and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu’s California campus.
“I knew how to cook,” he says. “I’ve been cooking since I was a boy. But I had to find out what else I could learn.” He wanted to study classic French techniques. “I got yelled at a lot,” he says, grinning. “I was set in my ways. I had a way of doing things, and [these chef-instructors] were telling me that wasn’t the way to do it.”
While he had to unlearn some old habits, he had impressed not a few professors for his kitchen know-how. A strict Italian instructor, for one, was wowed with Banares’ chicken deboning skills.
After graduating, he sought work at a casual fine-dining restaurant in Glendale, whose food he was a fan of.
“I just really liked the food in Bashan,” Bañares says. “I stayed for three months. Of course, I didn’t really get to cook the food, but I wanted to learn how they make it. And what I learned, I’m now applying to my cooking.” Bashan’s website says it uses classic French technique “infusing California, Mediterranean and Asian practices.”
Chef Bernard.com’s pork binagoongan is rendered in its own fat before it’s baked to exquisite tenderness for up to three hours. The bagoong is pureed and glazed on the meat before serving.
Following his training, Bañares’ sauces are all pureed. “I didn’t want to tweak the recipes so much that they become strange or unfamiliar to the Filipino palate,” he says. Most of his dishes are served with rice.
Bañares’ well-loved baked stuffed chicken from long ago, enlivened by the distinct flavor of pimiento in the stuffing, is also on the menu.
“When I moved to the States, I was so happy to find a great variety of sausages that I could stuff in the chicken,” he says. “I couldn’t use those sausages here because they’re quite expensive, so I had to adjust the recipe.”
Those who have tried it have been coming back for more. He serves it with a side of mashed camote spiced with ginger, and achara (pickled vegetable) made of grated squash instead of the typical papaya.
(The Baked Stuffed Chicken, as well as other party dishes not on the menu, is available to order.)
Chef Bernard.com is also especially proud of his Thai green curry chicken, which the shy chef says is gaining fans. The quintessential adobo is represented in a sandwich called Chicken Waldorf, and is served on ciabatta with fresh apples and lettuce with aioli and pickled onions. The chef’s homemade longganisa is also served as a sandwich with a side of purple yam chips.
Bañares is particularly proud of his desserts, which include a maja blanca as well as a squash creme brulee. His dense and moist banana bread has a sugar-free version for diabetics like Ortiz. It’s made with sour cream and walnuts, and served with coco sugar.
“What I love the most is baking,” says the chef. “I hope in the future I could make more desserts and my own bread.”
All items on the menu are priced between P120-P320.
Ortiz may not have been in the food trade for three decades, but it’s well known among friends that he’s a foodie and competent cook, and the consummate dinner host.
Anyone who has been in Ortiz’s chic Makati home would be reminded of it when they enter Chef Bernard.com. The café walls are washed in white and adorned with the paintings of Doltz Pilar, just like the fashion designer’s home.
Two long benches upholstered in dark gray fabric line one wall, complementing the sleek white tables, and the red and white chairs. The chandeliers, two imposing icicle-like fixtures, were sourced from Divisoria.
“See, I told you we didn’t want to spend,” says the designer with a knowing smile.
Chef Bernard.com is a family affair, with Ortiz’s siblings helping out in the operations. The kitchen is Bañares’ sole domain and the fashion designer is careful not to encroach in it. Ortiz isn’t leaving fashion anytime soon; the café is purely a business venture, he stresses.
Since it opened, the café has been the hangout of Ortiz’s friends. On this interview on a rainy Saturday, the painter Doltz Pilar is present for a late lunch, and so is fashion designer Rhett Eala.
“I’ve been holding my meetings here,” says Ortiz. “I tell my friends, ‘Come to my carinderia!’ At least they can’t say I’m robbing them blind since everything is affordable and delicious. I’ve been eating here almost every day, and I haven’t tired of the food.”
Chef Bernard.com is at Unit 1A Greenbelt Radissons, 106 Aguirre St. Legaspi Village, Makati City (at the back of AIM). Call 7519415 local 222, 0922-8335595, 0922-8707228; or City Delivery at 87878. It’s open 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Mondays-Saturdays.
PHOTOS: ALANAH TORRALBA