In the eight short years since he chose to make Cebu his home and the setting for his would-be culinary empire, The Abaca Group chef and owner Jason Hyatt has gained quite a loyal following.
In an age when food has become a reason to travel, the group’s restaurants have become a culinary Mecca of sorts, at least in Cebu.
After moving with his wife Anna to Cebu from Hong Kong where he was executive chef of the Lan Kwai Fong Group, Jason opened the award-winning Abaca Restaurant in 2006, followed by the Condé Nast-ranking Abaca Boutique Resort in 2008.
He ventured into other cuisines soon after, with Maya Mexican Restaurant; A Café, an all-day breakfast place; Tavolata, an Italian trattoria; Beqaa, a Middle Eastern kitchen; and Phat Pho, a Vietnamese noodle shop.
The last one has a branch at Serendra in Bonifacio Global City, the group’s first venture in Manila in partnership with The Moment Group.
Jason is perhaps the closest thing we have to a celebrity chef but he’s a very reluctant one; posing for a photo seems tantamount to pulling teeth.
So when he opened the Abaca Baking Company, a strictly from-scratch bakery at Crossroads Mall, Banilad, in February, he had to rely only on word of mouth before people started coming in droves.
Some show up as early as 7 a.m. for the all-butter croissants, rustic breads, bagels and scones paired with unlimited coffee, served with double-shot espresso unless you specify otherwise.
Others visit for brunch, lunch, or just breakfast any time of the day.
Its full menu includes gourmet salads, skillet breakfast and Eggs Benedict.
It should delight fans of the former A Café that Abaca’s full menu will be available in mid-June.
You’re always in for a surprise no matter how regular a customer you may be, and perhaps that’s why, as Jason said, “It’s been four months and the craziness hasn’t calmed down a bit.”
It’s not about to any time soon, not with plans to open four more branches, all in Cebu.
“We’ve always tried to control our product from start to finish, so this bakery is actually a natural progression for our group as we can now manage every aspect of our operation, including anything baked,” said Jason. “We are the first in town to use only 100-percent unbleached flour in our rustic loaves that are produced from hard American wheat.”
Unbleached flour is more natural and less processed, ultimately yielding a tastier product.
“We use long ferments of up to 36 hours, which really bring out the flavor and texture of our breads. We don’t use improvers or premixes of any kind, and absolutely nothing artificially flavored or colored,” he said.
The same philosophy has always applied to his other restaurants.
“We try to keep our products as natural and as real as possible. If something can be made by hand, we’ll make it by hand. For all of our restaurants, we are working and will continue to work with local farms to grow all of our greens, heirloom tomatoes and most of our small vegetables. In fact, 60 percent of our vegetables and herbs are organic,” he said.
Many refer to the Abaca Baking Company as ABC, and in many ways, it’s a very fitting nickname for this new venture that is all about going back to basics.
“Baking is a really cool art form,” Jason said. “You take something very simple like flour and water, and the amount and variety of things you can produce, with only these two ingredients as foundations, just blow my mind.”
It’s a little known fact that Jason’s childhood dream was to be a baker. While he employs a master baker at ABC, he can often be found in the open kitchen, baking and experimenting as early as 4 a.m.
He may brush these romantic notions aside, but we can’t help but think that the bakery has turned the seasoned chef into a kid again.
That the Abaca Group is revisiting its childhood through ABC is also evident in the space itself. Regulars will notice that the bakery is a bit of a departure from the sexy, some say slightly intimidating, look the group has become known for.
While still maintaining the formula of warm wood and chic lighting, there’s a sense of playfulness and whimsy in ABC. The restored furniture is mismatched, there are dreamy string lights on the ceiling, and most shockingly, there’s lots of color.
Qube, a local art gallery next door, displays art on the second floor, but there’s also hand-painted art on the walls and the menu clipboards courtesy of Happy Garaje, a creative studio based in Lahug co-founded by couple Mark and Johanna Deutsch in 2009. Next to the food, their work has become the unforeseen star of ABC.
Happy Garaje shares ABC’s vision of a fun, creative space. As co-founder Mark said, “We are influenced by children’s book art, drawings from classic tales, comic books and old paintings. We like to mix traditional ways of doing things with new digital techniques.”
Many in Cebu were introduced to the work of Happy Garaje only through ABC, but Mark and Jo have already made a name for themselves in their field.
Just this year, they got to art direct for Disney. “A dream project for us,” says Mark. In 2010, Johanna also received the Gold Award from the Society of Illustrators in Los Angeles for her work, which then gave Happy Garaje an opportunity to gold exhibits in galleries in the United States for several years now.
“We were really happy that Jason gave us creative freedom. That was really cool of him. The wall and ceiling murals are depictions of a happy day—Jason suggested a girl and boy riding scooters on their way to the bakery. He wanted it to look like chalkboard art, but the murals are done in paint,” Mark said.
“The clipboards began as a set of 20 where we were asked to paint anything. We thought it would be fun if we could paint the alphabet. We asked them for six more clipboards so that each clipboard art would represent a letter of the alphabet—the ABC’s of ABC.”
Back to basics, indeed.
Visit theabacagroup.com; like Abaca Baking Co. on Facebook; follow @theabacagroup on Instagram.Visit happygaraje.com; follow @happygaraje on Instagram.