Ballet brought them together. But, it was food that sealed their relationship.
In 2001, Jerome Suico Espejo, a senior soloist of Ballet Manila (BM), met Jennifer Rose Olayvar, a newbie and scholar of BM. In between practicing their poses, steps, leaps, turns and twirls, Espejo, smitten, would steal glances at the young lass.
After two years of courtship, the two became officially together. And after nine years, Espejo and Olayvar said their wedding vows last June 16.
By then, Espejo had shifted careers—from being a ballet dancer to being a full-fledged chef.
“It was Jen who pushed me to take cooking seriously,” says the 34-year-old Espejo, who has danced Basilio in “Don Quixote,” Pierrot in “Harlequinade,” the Nutcracker Prince in “Nutcracker,” Conrad and Ali in “Le Corsaire,” among others.
Espejo started learning ballet at 16, but his love for cooking began at a younger age. He would watch and help his mom cook the family meals at home.
During BM’s out-of-town performances, Espejo would cook for the group. They enjoyed his different versions of barbecue, sinigang, butter garlic veggies, grilled pineapple, baked mussels.
“Jen told me after our Boracay outing to try my hand in culinary,” Espejo says. “She felt I was already at my peak doing lead roles in ballet. Culinary would be my fallback after dancing.”
In 2007, he enrolled at the International School for Culinary Arts and Hotel Management (Ischam) and finished second in his class. He then worked as commis chef for Aubergine restaurant. He was later sent to Guam for internship at the Pacific Islands Club. There, he was assigned to create menus for the different outlets of the resort hotel.
The hotel management saw Espejo’s dedication, discipline and admirable passion for his work. He was eventually absorbed by the company, and worked as an outsource consultant and later executive sous chef.
“I probably got the discipline from ballet,” Espejo says. “The discipline I learned from ballet is that you condition yourself every single day to perform your best. In the kitchen, you condition yourself into preparing good food for the clients. You can’t let your bad mood affect your work. You’re dealing with food and serving people.”
Espejo also held three positions in the hotel—head chef, specialty chef and wedding chapel chef.
His work allowed him to learn different cuisines, including Mediterranean, Korean, Japanese, Italian and Chinese. But he prefers Western cooking because he finds it more challenging.
Espejo is back in town, his Guam contract having ended. But he’s leaving again soon for another job in Brisbane, Australia. He will assume a managerial position in a food company.
Meanwhile, he spends most of his time bringing his 32-year-old wife, Jen, to ballet practices and performances and cooking healthy meals for her. Jen is one of BM’s senior soloists.
“She likes fish,” says Espejo, who was Jen’s first boyfriend. “I always prepare her a good mix of protein and carbohydrates. I was also a dancer, so I know what she needs to take in.”
Espejo gave us some of the healthy dishes he cooks for his wife: Soup a la Toscana; Pan-fried fillet of Halibut on roasted vegetable salad; and Yogurt with caramelized apple cake and lemon yogurt ice cream.
“These are also my favorite dishes,” adds Espejo.
Soup a la Toscana is a very light soup with chunks of veggies. Slices of spicy Italian sausage add texture to the dish. Just before serving, Espejo adds a dollop of sour cream to balance the spiciness and tartness. The sour cream and parmesan cheese give the dish an instant, flavorful kick.
“It’s very easy to do. You just put everything together. However, it’s better to do the broth from scratch to make it really healthy. I also put grated parmesan cheese to enrich the flavor,” he says.
Since his wife doesn’t eat rice, Espejo usually prepares a combo of fish and salad, such as pan-fried halibut (sometimes, snapper, tuna or cream dory) paired with roasted vegetable salad, topped with rocket arugula relish in caramelized shallots and walnut vinaigrette. He garnishes it with dried cranberry and feta cheese.
The fish and salad are loaded with flavors—salty, fresh, sweet and tangy. The vinaigrette gives the delicate dish a lovely touch.
For dessert, Espejo usually whips up ice cream from scratch and leaves it overnight in the freezer. He then bakes the apple cake in a molder before caramelizing it. He dresses up his ice cream with candied lemon and pistachio nuts.
“I like my dishes colorful,” he says. “They say you eat with your eyes first.”
Dancing or cooking?
When not eating, the couple does yoga and still practices ballet.
“I miss ballet,” Espejo admits. “I miss the body pain and the moves. I still watch ballet and I know their steps. I used to dance it.”
But, now, as a chef, Espejo prefers the rudiments of dishing out good food, from beginning to end. He doesn’t see cooking as work; he’s absolutely enjoying it.
“A chef is also an artist. You get to create food that will delight your guests.”
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