From Coppola to Don Ado: Villa Escudero has a new ‘balikbayan’ chef | Inquirer Lifestyle

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A BOUNTY of fried vegetable ‘lumpia,’ classic ‘lechon manok’ that weighs a kilo, ‘inihaw na tilapia,’ jicama, tomatoes and calamansi.

From Coppola to Don Ado: Villa Escudero has a new ‘balikbayan’ chef

A BOUNTY of fried vegetable ‘lumpia,’ classic ‘lechon manok’ that weighs a kilo, ‘inihaw na tilapia,’ jicama, tomatoes and calamansi.
A BOUNTY of fried vegetable ‘lumpia,’ classic ‘lechon manok’ that weighs a kilo, ‘inihaw na tilapia,’ jicama, tomatoes and calamansi.  PHOTOS BY KAI HUANG



The photograph of pancit buko, strips of young coconut packed with pork belly, chicken, shrimps, garlic and Tagalog onions and made colorful by stir-fried carrots, green peppers and green peas, was an arresting sight.


Cornelio “Cocoy” Ventura III, then a student at Cornell University, came across “The Coconut Cookbook,” a 180-recipe book of coconut dishes, compiled by alumnus Conrado “Ado” Escudero.


“I was mesmerized by it,” recalls Ventura.


As a chef in the United States, he served pancit buko as a gluten-free alternative.  “You can use annatto oil to add a little color and garnish with green onions and cilantro,” he adds.


Today his boss is Don Ado, no less, and Ventura is updating the “The Coconut Cookbook,” to be relaunched late this year.


Villa Escudero’s balikbayan executive chef holds impressive credentials:  opening Filipino restaurants in the West Coast and working for Francis Ford Coppola and the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group.


It’s been said that his former employer, Fil-Am tech inventor Diosdado Banatao, flew in just to invite him to be his private chef again.


CHEF Cocoy Ventura
CHEF Cocoy Ventura


Heirloom recipes


Ventura resettled in Isabela, his home province, until he got the chance to work for Villa Escudero. As a tourist destination, it receives many visitors every day, especially on weekends. Hence, it needed an executive chef to reorganize the kitchen.


He modernized the country-style cuisine and heirloom recipes. “The kalderata (meat in tomato-based stew) used to have 25 components.  Now it’s down to seven. We have better meat, unlike before, where many of its ingredients came from the can. Hey, this is in the middle of nowhere.”


Ventura would walk on foot to meet local vendors and farmers. He sources fresh produce from Banahaw, Nagcarlan and Malarayat.  A fishermen’s cooperative gathers the tilapia from Lake Tikob, in Tiaong, Quezon, and supplies Villa Escudero exclusively. The fire-roasted tilapia is one of the signature dishes.


The longganisa is not just the zesty Lucban longganisa, a contrast to the popular sweet version.  Other native sausages are produced in Pampanga and Laguna.


“Our guideline is that they have to be hand-chopped, with lots of native garlic. The longganisa from Imus, Cavite, is served on Sundays. It’s chunkier, infused with more garlic and vinegar,” explains Ventura.


Before Villa Escudero became a theme park, the Escudero clan would have a picnic by the waterfalls during Easter. The traditional fare consisted of  lechon manok or chicken, stuffed with tamarind leaves and butter and roasted over live coals; kaldereta and inihaw na baboy or grilled pork, all of which have become the Villa’s  staples.


Unlike the popular lapu-lapu salad, steamed grouper embellished  with stripes of chopped eggs, carrots, pickle relish and red bell pepper over a mayonnaise base, Villa Escudero’s version is simpler. A 14-kilo talakitok or jack fish is deboned, flaked and mixed with pineapple and potato. It is dressed with cucumber slices to suggest flakes.


Vegetables are not to be overlooked.


Says Ventura, “I’m Ilokano. We hold vegetables sacred. Our salads are done countryside approach—fresh vegetables blanched properly with bagoong (shrimp paste) on the side, vinegar, garlic.”


The fried lumpia is filled with mung bean sprouts, sweet potatoes, carrots, jicama, bell peppers, green beans and cabbage, accompanied by a classic dip made with vinegar and chilli.


The food is cooked, using rice hull as fuel. “The taste of the food comes out cleaner,” says the chef.


The meal ends with comforting gula melaka or tapioca pudding drenched in coconut milk and coco sugar; caramelized banana or sweet potato on skewers; and Don Ado’s crèma de ube, which is purple yam pudding with coconut cream.


“This is an exciting time for Villa Escudero and its cuisine.  While much of the traditional cuisine will linger, we will see a lot of clean, fresh and locally sourced items.  And because we are expanding the food choices, especially with  our new delicatessen, Mariposa,  at our new swimming pool, we’ll be tapping into wholesome international flavors just to mix up our choices a bit—so there’s something for everybody,” says Ventura.