Don’t hate Erwan Heussaff (pronounced U-Ssaf) for being this close to perfection. And yes, you’re bound to think just looking at him that there’s no justice in this world.
Because aside from good genes that have blessed him with above-average height, delicate patrician features courtesy of his French father, Louis Heussaff, and Filipino mother, Cynthia Adea, and a full head of wavy hair that people are just this tempted to run their hand through, he is also the younger brother of model, actress and singer Solenn Heussaff and the significant other for three years now of Anne Curtis, one of the hottest names in local showbiz and all-around brand model.
As if these were not enough to make him stand out, he is bilingual as well, being fluent in both English and French, and has an almost complete understanding of Filipino though he admits to still be working on it.
But what really defines this 27-year-old is something he painstakingly accomplished on his own in the exciting and hypercompetitive food business.
Heussaff is fast developing a reputation as an enfant terrible in the Philippines’ increasingly vibrant restaurant and bar scene, turning traditional concepts on their head through such restaurants as gastro pub Hungry Hound and craft cocktail specialist Niner Ichi Nana at the Globe Telecom tower in Bonifacio Global City; café, bakery and watering hole Hatch 22 at Rockwell Power Plant and the latest, Pink Panda in Makati City that gives traditional Southeast Asian favorites a welcome fresh twist.
Heussaff, who traveled extensively with his family and worked in China, Thailand, France, Vietnam, Greece and Russia, not only developed the menu in close coordination with his partners, he is also intimately involved in all facets of the operation. He visits all four food outlets to make sure that business is running according to plan.
He admits that working in the Philippines’ food and hospitality industry offers some challenges that he has yet to hurdle: the occasional delays in the delivery of ingredients, many of them sourced from abroad, and hiccups in the construction schedule.
Then there’s the fact that Filipinos work differently; they tend to take everything personally. He’s not one to raise his voice to his staff, says Heussaff but he recalls that on occasion, he had been asked to “soften” his tone and words so as not to hurt their feelings.
But he’s not wont to compromise when it comes to food and food concepts, this being a passion he’s been nursing since childhood when he cooked his first dish—salpicao—when he was just eight. He has since developed his beverage concoctions for friends coming over celebrate his birthday.
“During my birthday parties, I cook all the food and do the bartending. I have been doing it since I was 15. I love making people try different things,” says Heussaff, the youngest of three siblings who was born and raised in Manila.
That constant experimentation with different flavors and fine-turning his cooking skills continued until college, during which he also did odd jobs related to food.
“I work in food, that’s my life and it’s always been there, even in university,” he says, recalling how he worked as dishwasher and initially thought he’d become a hotel manager.
But the boom in real estate development in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates in 2006 inspired him to broaden his horizon and look beyond food to luxury and brand management which he specialized in as part of the business management degree he earned in Paris.
“I have always been in love with the idea of creating and selling. To this day, I am very headstrong when it comes to marketing,” explains Heussaff.
It did not take long before he found himself saying yes to a job offer in cold, cold Russia.
“I just thought it could be an adventure. Within 30 minutes of meeting the CEO, I agreed to take the job,” says Heussaff, who was just 21 years old when he was given the responsibility of producing an average of 1,000 meals a day for Sodexo.
“I took care of the logistics and the menu. I took care of hiring and operations. I stayed for almost two years and it was hell, but the experience gave me super thick skin,” says this then budding chef, who got beaten up twice on the street, perhaps because he eventually fired half of the people in his workplace. Not a few resented the entry of the young French-Filipino turk.
“It was difficult the first two months, but I slowly got to know the language. I never really made any friends. The person nearest to me in age was 38 years old. Everybody hated me. I became really good at talking about the weather,” Heussaff recalls. “When I came back here [after two years], I swear to God I was socially retarded. But it was an amazing life experience.”
It was exactly the kind of life experience he thought he needed to have before pursuing his MBA. He went through the application process, but as he did he saw what his father, the president of oil and gas exploration services provider Supply Oilfield Services, was doing through more mature eyes.
So when the opportunity came to go into business with his father—whom he refers to as a certified workaholic—he grabbed it. He ended up with a company that provided industrial catering in the oil rigs, which put his experience in Russia to good use. More than the revenues that came in, the biggest profit for Heussaff was the rare chance to work side by side with his father and learn from him.
“I have always admired my father,” he says, although he left the job after only two years. Even his father conceded that being part of an industrial catering outfit was not really what his son wanted to do in his life.
“He was always telling me to open something. But I don’t want to do that until it is the right time, until I am ready and feel I am mature enough. I believe that the time has come and yes, I am ready,” says Heussaff, who stresses that he is not a chef, but just someone who knows his way well around food.
Helping Heussaff make that decision to go out on his own was the growing popularity of his blog called www.thefatkidinside.com, which started gaining serious traction over the last six months. He started the blog in 2012.
In May 2013, the popular blog started featuring recipes as well as tips and advice on how to live a healthier lifestyle and bring down one’s weight.
So far, his blog has recorded three million views, while his Facebook page has over 70,000 likes, proof of how people are more open to the idea of shifting lifestyles to keep chronic diseases at bay as well as reach their ideal weight.
What attracts people to the blog with the distinctive logo—a drawing of Heussaff’s hair and glasses—aside from his obvious knowledge about food is the guy’s credibility.
For what better proof that his suggested recipes work than the fact that Heussaff once weighed 240 pounds because of his sedentary lifestyle and overindulgence in rich food. But four years later, thanks to regular exercise and a drastic change in eating habits, he was able to slim down to his current fighting weight of about 150 pounds.
But even he admits that there is always that “fat kid” inside who is ready to let loose if allowed.
“I believe that when you’ve been fat then you’re always fat even if you’ve got a six-pack. It is a psychological problem and I can understand why people become anorexic,” says Heussaff, who has not gotten rid of his habit of pulling his shirt down to hide his body, even if it is good enough to be featured in underwear ads and plastered in billboards all over the metropolis.
The struggle to keep the “fat kid” under lock and key is always there and Heussaff, who has produced videos for Yahoo featuring his meals, helps himself by working out at least twice a week and eating mostly fresh food with a healthy dose of fruits, vegetables and protein.
He does have his cheat meals—not days—during which he may eat fried chicken—just a few pieces, not the whole bucket. And he has been known to snatch workout time in the middle of the day when he feels he had overindulged himself on food served in his restaurants. Yes, just part of his duties as managing director.
“Everything is about balance, you can eat what you want but in quantities that will just fill your body. That is why the tagline of the blog is sometimes healthy, sometimes fatty,” says Heussaff, who takes charge of the blog content himself, although he now has a few guest writers to add variety to the content.
“Exercise for me is also a good way to de-stress,” adds the triathlete.
The immense popularity of the website combined with the growing success of his groups’ restaurant and bar concepts have opened other doors for Heussaff, who has turned into a workaholic just like his father and counts on his mother (“my greatest critic”) to keep his feet firmly on the ground.
Aside from the four restaurant and bar concepts, Heussaff, who regularly contributes articles on food and drink to Esquire magazine, has also taken in consulting work with other brands like Rustan’s, that now carries a line of healthy food options with the distinct “The Fat Kid Inside” logo.
Heussaff’s passion for food never fails to give Esquire Philippines’ editor in chief Erwin Romulo a thrill.
“He’s been such an integral part of the magazine. He’s always creative in the things he’s passionate about. We’re discussing even better ways to present food and drink in our issues, and that takes a lot of imagination,” Romulo says in an interview.
He adds that Heussaff, who comes across as serious and brooding, has a refined sense of humor.
“You got to love a guy who can make fun of himself as well,” says Romulo.
Another advocacy that gets Heussaff all pumped up is the campaign to elevate Filipino food and make more people appreciate the unique flavors and textures of local food.
“I want to get the Philippines on the map, make Filipino food achieve its potential,” says Heussaff, who says he intends to stay put in the Philippines for now despite having lived and worked in other countries.
“Filipino food has to be hyped up and presented nicely,” he says, citing Filipino culinary classics such as sisig, bulalo, tinola and bat-choy, “I may not be as well-versed in Filipino food, but I am its biggest advocate.”
His sister Solenn, also a partner in Hatch 22, says she welcomed the opportunity to work together in their Rockwell venture, especially in promoting local flavors.
Like other siblings, the two have their disagreements but Solenn says she defers to him when it comes to food since he is definitely more of an expert.
She is proud however, of fighting for the inclusion of long-time Filipino bread favorites, among them “Spanish” bread and the pan de regla.
But of course, Heussaff gave these two bakery staples a new twist: dipping the Spanish bread in condensed milk, and updating the look and taste of the pan de regla—which now goes by the more polite name, “pan de month.”
The two bread offerings have turned to be among Hatch 22’s bestsellers, which pleases Solenn no end.
She is proud of her brother’s accomplishments, she says, especially the way he has embraced healthy living, having witnessed his transformation from the perennially chubby kid into a swoon-worthy specimen of the male species. •