JUST like the light glinting off his rather large diamond earring, chef Gino Gonzalez’s youth stuns you. There are lot of young chefs heating up stoves all over the country every day – they’re getting younger still –but no one combines his age and his responsibilities quite like the 32-year-old Gino does.
“I was given too much responsibility early on,” Gino says with a grin. “And I like it.” At the moment, he is –deep breath – the Executive Chef of the venerable Café Ysabel in San Juan, the Culinary Arts Programs Director at the Center for Asian Culinary Studies (CACS), President and Executive Chef of the restaurant Buenisimo-all these while managing the Supreme Food & Beverage Consultancy.
Yet none of it daunts the bright-eyed Gino – far from it. “When I wake up in the morning, I always look forward to coming to work. The only difficult thing is how to fit everything in. I hate it when I don’t have work – I get really bored. That’s my drive, my passion for cooking, and I’m really thankful I inherited it from my dad.”
“Dad” of course is chef Gene Gonzalez, pioneering culinary force and founder of Café Ysabel.
Eugenio Sanvictores Gonzalez, Jr. is the elder of two children of chef Gene and banker Ysabel. Gino recalls how, as a Kapampangan family, most everything revolved around food, such as the Sunday lunches and dinners at their ancestral home, a tradition his great grandmother Lola Charing Gonzalez had maintained to keep the family tight.
As a child, Gino lived in the house of his Lola Pilar, who was a magnificent baker. “I would always wake up to the aroma of something being baked,” he recalls. He always saw his father in the kitchen, so it came as no surprise that the son would himself learn to cook as soon as he was tall enough to reach the stove. He had a little stool to help him at age 6. “I would cook endless varieties of fried rice,” Gino recalls.
Believe it or not, the thought did occur to him to become something else aside from being a chef. “It kind of crossed my mind to be a lawyer,” he admits. But when he saw the amount of work required, he changed his mind. “For me, the heat of the kitchen, the sound of sizzling food, the smell of caramelized butter – it made me realize that’s where I belong.”
Unlike most of his classmates, Gino didn’t spend summer breaks from school on vacations away from home. He spent his time at Café Ysabel. “During summers, my allowance would be cut so I would have to work in the kitchen if I wanted to have money for gimmicks,” he remembers. “I think I was paid lower than the other employees, but it was enough at that time to go out on weekends or go out on a date.”
It was definitely an instructive experience for the young Gino. After graduating from De La Salle University in 2000 with a degree in commerce major in business management, he took some time off. “I wanted to experience being a bum,” he says. His father had always encouraged him to work somewhere else, aside from a restaurant, before he made up his mind to join the family business, so Gino dutifully distributed his resumes.
But one fateful job interview would settle things. An application to a luxury imports company brought him face-to-face with the company’s manager. When the manager asked where Gino saw himself in a few years’ time, Gino answered, “I’m going to be a chef; I think I want to be a restaurateur like my dad because that’s my passion.” The manager replied: “So what are you doing here? You might thank me years from now, but you don’t belong here. You should go there and start doing it.” Gino saw that she clearly had a point.
Thus did Gino join the staff at Café Ysabel, bolstering his early exposure and experience with more on-the-job training. He was the bartender for a month before he worked in accounting for two more months. At the time, his father’s school CACS was still in its infancy, and Gino effectively attended classes, his first formal training.
“I got my foundation there,” he says.
Later, in addition to his on-the-job training and actual work at Café Ysabel, he was given the chance to get even more formal culinary education abroad. Gino attended the Barry Callebaut Chocolate College, the ADF-Le Centre de Formation d’Alain Ducasse and the Culinary Institute of America among other institutions. By 2001, he was already elbow-deep in Café Ysabel activities, and was being groomed as an instructor by his father.
In 2005, he became Ysabel’s Executive Chef and, with his younger sister, Giannina, helped manage the CACS. Giannina is the CACS school administrator and a food stylist.
Even with this busy schedule, Gino and his sister found the opportunity to set off on their own by setting up their own restaurant. Located at the Eastwood Mall, Buenisimo is now two years old and has its own following.
“I guess I had always wanted one,” Gino says of the restaurant. “We were fortunate to have that money at that time. It all happened so fast. We plan to make it a high-end catering arm of Café Ysabel.” The menu combines favorites from Café Ysabel and newer concoctions by Gino.
And as if that weren’t enough, Gino’s been busy with another Café Ysabel off-shoot: Chef Gino’s Gourmet takeout counter.
“It was really a blessing,” Gino recalls. SM called, offering space for a gourmet counter. From its first branch at Tiendesitas, the counter now has three outlets, with more to come. It was SM’s idea to put Gino’s name to the enterprise. “They probably thought: We want your name there to represent the new generation.”
All of this is happening while Gino is readying new platoons of chefs at CACS. He did not always see himself as the teaching type: “It’s kind of ironic and funny when I talk to my batch mates from high school. I was always kind of rowdy in class, and now I’m teaching.”
It may be ironic, but also providential. Gene had been searching for an understudy at CACS because the school was growing – and Gino fits the bill. “I’m not the usual chef who keeps his recipes to himself,” the second-generation chef explains. “We had a lot of relatives with superior recipes, and it all went with them when they passed on. It’s really sad because when it goes with them there’s no way to spread the legacy. So my training with Dad was always to give, the share the recipes so that other people – even those who aren’t our relatives— can enjoy our dishes on their tables. So when I teach my students, I teach everything. Whenever I come home from abroad, I’m always so excited to share what I’ve learned.”
Even with all that, Gino has found time to invade other forms of media. He previously appeared on TV at ABC-5’s “Gourmet Everyday.” Last year he hosted a cooking show with girlfriend China Cojuangco. “My Favorite Recipes” ran for three seasons on QTV. “It’s something different. It’s nice to be able to reach people in far-flung places in the Philippines and share your recipes with them.”
Gino is a big believer in the idea that chefs today need to be more than just cooks. “There are more frontliners now than back of the house, and Dad would always tell me that to be able to make it as a chef, you have to wear two or more hats,” he says. “You can’t just be stuck in the back. You have to do something else. Either you teach or you consult. Either you write a book or write for a daily.”
So Gino does a bit of it all. He writes a monthly column for the magazine Flavors called “Gourmet My Way.” His newest job title is author. He now has two cookbooks, “Meals in Minutes” books 1 and 2, from Anvil Publishing.
He recalls that in the past, whenever his father launched a new book, he would ask Gino when he would come out with his own book. So Gino thought seriously about it. “I was thinking of the modern Filipino urbanite who lives in a condo or a house. Cooking can sometimes be a turn-off if the recipe is too complicated. I thought of simple, easy-to-do recipes that have flavors which are very friendly to the Filipino, a good mix of Asian and Western dishes.” That led to the couple of editions of “Meals in Minutes.”
In the process, Gino has discovered that he loves being an author, so he’s now conceptualizing his third book. “I’m still looking for the time to do this, since the recipes go through a battery of tests because I want to make sure all of them are workable.”
One thing that Gino steadfastly hangs on to are his culinary adventures. Here is one chef who still enjoys eating out. “I like exploring new places,” he says. “From holes-in-the wall up to high-end restaurants, I want to see what’s out there and I like traveling, here and abroad, because you get to the culture of other places. Together with the culture, you taste their food.”
He also loves fish-not the sea bass on your plate but the ones swimming around in aquariums – and has 10 fish tanks at home. “It calms me down after a long day, after being in a hot environment. It relaxes me.”
A louder hobby is restoring and customizing cars, something he shares with his father. Gino sinks a lot of time tinkering with his dad’s car collection, working with things like audio systems and paint jobs. “It’s a bonding for us on a different level.”
Talking about his Dad is something Gino apparently can’t help. “He calls me ‘dude’ but I call him ‘Dad.’” People have asked him how it feels to be in his dad’s shadow. “I don’t think of it that way,” he says. ” I think of it the other around. He helped me and taught me everything.” The biggest difference between the two is that Gino considers himself more organized and considers his father as more artistic.
These days, Gino is looking forward to helping CACS grow, with a Northern Luzon and Cebu outpost on the horizon after their Davao venture. The other satellite businesses are meant to bring their products to grocery shelves. “It’s so we can bring the Café Ysabel experience closer to the people,” he says. “So close that they can just pull it from the shelf and serve it at home, without sacrificing quality.”
And without sacrificing his own brand of kitchen magic, one might add. His comes with a modern European flavor. “I like things very fresh, minimal without sacrificing flavor. When I cook I don’t just put my mind into it, but my heart as well. I tell my students, you cook in a routine everyday but people can taste it when you put your heart into it.”
This is perhaps something as precious as the heirloom gem in Gino Gonzalez’s left ear, something he wakes up and goes to sleep with, something that grows and thrives.
“Our profession is something very personal. You make something and they take it in. They digest it. So it requires a lot of responsibility. You take what you know, put your passion into it and that makes for the formula of the perfect dish.” •