Chef and restaurant owner Stephen Escalante goes over his journey to recovery and finding purpose through food
It’s easy to describe an activity or a pursuit as your life.
It’s a statement uttered loosely, whether referring to an aspiration one is passionate about, or a goal one has worked towards through the years. However, when your craft becomes the sole driving force getting you out of your bed—the very object your life revolves around—the difference is as clear as day. Nothing can compare to a creation with everything poured into it.
For chef and restaurant owner Stephen Escalante, each dish served at Stephen’s at Balay Puti is prepared with the utmost care and attention to detail. But beyond the culinary know-how, within the walls of Silay’s famed heritage mansion, lies a cook who has and continues to struggle against the hand he was dealt with through food.
Stephen’s at Balay Puti
Located along Calle Ledesma in Silay City, Negros Occidental, Stephen’s at Balay Puti resides within a mansion that has withstood the test of time.
Balay Puti, which translates to “White House” in Filipino, was built in 1920 as the home of Emilio Ledesma and his wife Rosario Locsin, atop land once owned by Don Jose “Pepe” Del Rosario Ledesma. The White House was designed by Italian architect Lucio Bernasconi, who was also commissioned to work on the nearby San Diego Pro-Cathedral. Neo-classical in design, Balay Puti also features a massive lawn area inspired by American-styled homes. It is a quality evident also in Casa Vicente all the way north in Vigan City.
The heritage mansion, which was handed over to their daughter Adela, would eventually undergo restoration during the pandemic—a project spearheaded by Solo Locsin alongside his cousin Ar. Eduardo Locsin Ledesma.
Escalante describes his menu as “Simple, straightforward, but with a technique that’s executed well.” He explains, “When you bite into my food, you taste different textures and flavors. It’s not one-dimensional. You have the sweet, the sour—the five senses of the palate must have that feeling of being involved.”
However, beyond textures and flavors, Stephen’s at Balay Puti’s menu also features a blend of cuisines. Where Truffle Pasta and Beef and Chicken Kebab are served alongside Fish Tacos and Peruvian Chicken, Escalante sought inspiration from European, South American, Korean, Spanish, and Filipino tastes.
Free to experiment without restriction to a singular flavor profile, Escalante explains that the choice to include other cuisines stems from a desire to stand out. He shares, “I wanted to be different from the others. That’s all you can do to survive. If I’m not going to be different, then nothing’s going to happen.”
“When you bite into my food, you taste different textures and flavors. It’s not one-dimensional. You have the sweet, the sour—the five senses of the palate must have that feeling of being involved.”
As for his favorite dishes on his menu, he recommends the Talangka Pasta and their Boquerones. That being said, you definitely cannot miss out on their Cuban Empanadas, Stephen’s Fried Chicken, and Bad Boy Cola Braised Pork Ribs.
Escalante wishes that each and every customer who enters his restaurant encounters the magic of being transported to a dining experience inside a 1930s mansion. And while he admits that he has not yet captured the complete vision—where each bite is accompanied by a rich and cultural setting—Stephen’s at Balay Puti has much in store.
Stephen Escalante: Finding purpose in food
Before Balay Puti, Escalante was a basketball player who only wanted to party, drink, and have a good time. Directionless and uninterested in anything that did not pique his attention, he would later tell his parents that he had no interest in pursuing the sport due to his lack of discipline.
Forced to look within, in search of what he wanted to do in life, he entered the American Hospitality Academy in California and the International School for Culinary Arts and Hotel Management in Manila. After, Chef Escalante honed his skills in the kitchens of the InterContinental Hotel, Crowne Plaza, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and Sala Restaurant.
With everything going well, his life soon took an unforeseen turn after a freak accident resulted in a severe injury to his spinal cord, causing partial paralysis.
Escalante reveals that it was a period where he was at his lowest. He was depressed over losing his mobility and his independence. He recalls moments when he was lying down in the hospital bed, wondering and asking God about what he had done to deserve such a fate.
He shares that he later found inspiration through Eugene Tejada, an ex-PBA player who suffered a similar injury during a game in 2006. It was a chance encounter in Fort Bonifacio that got the two talking. Escalante then found someone he could relate to, who also encouraged him to seek rehabilitation abroad.
It was during his time in the United States that he found his next source of inspiration: the indomitable will of the disabled. Seeing others in rehab striving to achieve what they otherwise could not do, in his words, lit a “fire in his belly.” He adds, “If they could do it, so could I.”
However, Escalante sought more from his life beyond the monotonous cycle he had begun. Living for him, meant more than just repeatedly laying down, working out, and eating healthily. He desired fulfillment.
Soon enough, he started cooking again through his food delivery business Low and Slow, before eventually coming to Silay to open shop at Balay Puti.
Having conceptualized and orchestrated the opening of his new restaurant, it’s safe to say that Escalante has set in motion a well-oiled machine that can run itself. And yet despite this, he shows up every single day to cook and help out in the kitchen. When asked what drives him to take part in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations, he explains that it is solely for finding purpose in life.
He shares, “There are many normal people. They’re out there and they get to do whatever they want. But, they have no purpose. They don’t know what they want to do. When I wake up, I want to have purpose.”
“There are many normal people. They’re out there and they get to do whatever they want. But, they have no purpose. They don’t know what they want to do. When I wake up, I want to have purpose.”
When asked what he wants others in similar situations to learn from his story, he shares, “Never give up. Difficulties are always in the mind. The mind is powerful. It’s a powerful machine that can drive you down or get you up. Keep your mind healthy and always be positive. It’s a matter of mindset, discipline, and drive.”