Askal: Melbourne’s love letter to Filipino cuisine

OCTOBER 27, 2022

For LIFESTYLE.INQ’s latest cover story, the team behind Melbourne’s hottest new venue discuss everything from family and culture to food and representation



Perhaps one of the greatest joys of being Filipino is the comfort of knowing that no matter where you are in the world, you will inevitably meet a kabayan. 

Literally translating to “countryman,” the term ‘kabayan’ has evolved with the growth of Filipinos abroad. As a noun, it affectionately identifies an individual with whom you share your home country. As an adjective, however, it encompasses a feeling of connection and belonging. 

This is a concept the team behind Askal, Melbourne’s hottest new restaurant, knows all too well. Walking along Exhibition Street, Askal’s raw exteriors are hard to miss. Housed in the former Shakespeare Hotel, the venue’s 188-year-old bones still shine through despite its contemporary refresh.

Inside, you’re greeted with exposed brick and dark wood that contrasts with the cinematic lighting aglow over marble tables. Look above and flowing streams of capiz shells hang delicately. A spot at the bar coincidentally makes for one of the best seats in the house with a Grade A view of everything happening behind the scenes.


Helmed by a five-member team, Askal’s day-to-day operations are spearheaded by a motley crew of Filipino-Australian F&B veterans. In the kitchen, John Rivera serves as culinary director while Dhenvirg Ugot takes on the role of head of kitchen operations. Together, the two work on the evolution of Askal’s menu and the creation of dishes with seasonal ingredients.

Behind the bar, you’ll find beverage director Ralph Libo-On concocting cocktails while sommelier Carlos Consunji shares his expertise on all things wine while working the stage as general manager. 

Meanwhile, Michael Mabuti heads operations and management for Askal, essentially working as an executive producer to ensure each piece of the restaurant’s puzzle fits perfectly together. 

At the time of our visit, Askal had only been open for a little over a week. Despite this, the venue exuded a confidence in both look and feel. The kind you’d typically expect from an establishment that’s been around for a while. 

But, in the words of Mabuti, “It’s been a long time coming.” When he tells me this, I shake my head and can’t help but agree. Filipinos make up a fifth of the country’s largest migrant community and yet representation within the Australian culinary landscape remained lacking. Askal hopes to change this narrative.

Askal is unapologetically Filipino

“The name’s been the most controversial part,” culinary director John Rivera tells LIFESTYLE.INQ. 

Prior to Askal, Rivera had already established a name for himself in the Australian food industry. In 2018, he was crowned the S. Pelligrino Young Chef 2018 Pacific Region competition champion, leading him to hone his craft at celebrated institutions such as Lûmé, Amaru, and Attica. Two years later, Rivera would go on to co-found one of Melbourne’s most beloved gelaterias, Kariton


Askal culinary director and chef John Rivera / Photo courtesy of Askal Melbourne

“I wanted to represent everybody in the Philippines, in every region. And the only thing I saw in every region—whether it was Luzon, Visayas, or Mindanao—was a stray dog.”

Born in Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija, Rivera spent his formative years in New Zealand surrounded by a close-knit Filipino community. Juxtaposing this to the ever-growing Filipino diaspora, Rivera also parallelled the venue’s name to the resilience and adaptability of stray dogs.

“They have to scavenge for their food. They have to fight to live. As immigrants, that was us,”


“Growing up, my parents had to learn, adapt, and be resilient enough not to give up and go back home. They had to stick it out.” 

Emboldened by an abundance of rich experiences, Rivera now utilizes Askal as an avenue to bring unapologetic Filipino cuisine to the global stage. 

While hyper-experimentation is necessary to a certain extent to carve a niche in the competitive restaurant world, this is certainly not the case for Askal. In fact, it’s the total opposite. Peruse the menu and you won’t find classic Filipino food reinvented by overly ambitious twists and turns. Instead, you’re presented a careful curation of elevated dishes made with ingredients attuned to the season. 

At its core, Askal celebrates all the nuances of Filipino cuisine. “Our approach here with the food is that it needs to look and taste like how it should look and taste,” Rivera shares.

Heritage pandesal and latik butter

And when you do look and taste it for yourself, you understand what Rivera says. 

For our starters—rightfully coined ‘pulutan’—we begin the degustation with Askal’s rendition of a pandesal, a fluffy and light breakfast bread toasted to perfection and served with a helping of latik butter for a warm and nutty opening to the palate.

Next, a serving of Manong Al’s barbecue pork skewers easily leaves you hankering for more. Dressed in banana ketchup and topped with atchara (papaya relish), this simple dish is a star on its own, versatile enough to go with the pandesal or plain rice. 


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Upping the ante, Rivera’s sizzling sisig is an elevated refresh on the Kapampangan staple, thanks to his clever use of abalone instead of just the usual pork jowl, ears, and belly. For balance, a side of lettuce adds a lightness to the dish—a perfect compliment to the sisig.

For our ulam (main dish), a showstopping serving of Angus beef oyster blade with pares clay pot rice and bone marrow is an easy favorite. The melt-in-your-mouth beef pairs beautifully with the fattiness of the bone marrow. Toasted bits of rice add texture while a good squeeze of lime offers a bright acidity to cut through all the richness.

A refreshing halo-halo—ironically named ‘that’s not halo-halo’—caps off the evening. Rivera says the reason it was called as such is that he wasn’t very fond of the Filipino summer staple but felt it was something they needed to incorporate into their menu. Perhaps the most experimental item Askal serves to date, the well-loved dessert consists of fresh stone fruit, chrysanthemum, and almond panna cotta. 

Stage one 

After the sumptuous dinner, we take a tour of the three-level building with Michael Mabuti, Askal’s head of operations and management, where he indulges us in their vision for the restaurant.

“Askal’s a restaurant, but we didn’t start this just to do that. This is stage one. The goal really—and it always has been—is to be able to do something like this in the Philippines.”


Askal head of operations and management Michael Mabuti / Photography by Alex Winner

Drawing back deep red drapes as we are shown the second story of the building, Mabuti says the space is set to be transformed into a private dining room for intimate gatherings. The third floor, which features an al fresco area overlooking the Melbourne CBD skyline, is envisioned to become an ‘inuman’ (drinking) space, which meets the demands of Australia’s beverage culture.

As we make our way back down, I can’t help but notice the towering wall that divides the staircase from the rest of Askal. Made of cork, Mabuti shares how the decision to use this material went beyond aesthetics as it also helps to regulate acoustics within the restaurant. 

A builder by profession, Mabuti initially graduated with a degree in pharmacology but pivoted after 10 years into his career. After taking up construction management at The University of Melbourne, he went into project management consultancy and launched his own building company. In light of his rich career, Mabuti recalled reaching a point where he felt it was time for something more, something different. 

“I actually reached out to John [Rivera],” he recounts. “I was always interested in food, but I was more interested in what Filipinos were doing in Melbourne. We are one of the bigger Asian populations in Australia, and yet we tend to hide behind most—if not all—of the Asian cultures.” 

After reaching out to Rivera over Instagram, the two quickly formed a rapport, leading them to co-found Kariton in 2020 alongside their other business partner Minh Duong. 

When asked how he would describe his role in Askal, Mabuti explains, “My training is in project management and while I am a builder and I created this space, my role here is project manager, and that’s bringing together the sum of parts to make a whole,”

“I think within four to six weeks, we’d gathered [Askal’s] team, and the team was pretty obvious because it was people we’d already known and worked with. Ralph was a barman. Carlos was a sommelier. We knew that John was going to be busy with Kariton, so John couldn’t be a chef full-time, but Dhenvirg was great and they had worked together before, so we had the team.” 


“I think a lot of what we do, while there’s five of us, everyone has their respective roles. And it made sense because everyone is focused on their part to be able to create the bigger picture, and the bigger picture is what we’re sitting in right now.”


A collective narrative

Despite their diverse backgrounds, each member of Askal’s team shares one collective experience: immigration. It’s a common denominator that has made Askal the unique dining concept it is amid such a highly populated gastronomic landscape. 

Beyond food, Askal serves as a beacon of representation for hundreds of thousands of Filipino immigrants longing for a connection to home. “I came here way back in 2017. It was a roller coaster ride. Typical OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker) story,” says executive chef Dhenvirg Ugot

Admitting that it was a challenge to adapt to the culture and start fresh, Ugot reveals he used to constantly tell himself that he “didn’t come to this country just to be average.”

Askal executive chef and head of kitchen operations Dhenvirg Ugot / Photography by Alex Winner

Focused solely on survival, Ugot’s first year in Australia proved to be difficult. “I got to a point where I didn’t have a job for six months. The funny thing is, I’m the breadwinner of my family back home.” 

Recalling how he would take on casual work in order to keep himself afloat, Ugot remained steadfast in his goals despite these difficulties. After months of searching, Ugot eventually found a long-term employer that later sponsored his visa and just before Australia went into lockdown due to the pandemic, he managed to successfully secure permanent residency. 

When asked what pushed him to be part of Askal’s team, Ugot recalls a conversation with a former employer that stuck with him. “I remember he joked to me that he could never imagine seeing a striving Filipino entrepreneur here in Australia,” he says. “That stuck out to me. It served as my motivation. It only added fuel to the fire, so I think I managed to manifest Askal.”

Fortified by a wealth of experiences, Ugot’s path to success may not have been the easiest of routes, but he admits that it has resulted in the person he is today. Defined by resilience and grounded by the hurdles he has overcome in life, Askal is only the beginning. 

When asked what advice he would give aspiring OFWs, Ugot says:


“Always be a sponge. Always try to learn. At the end of the day, we are all just students of life. You just have to absorb everything that comes your way. If you refuse to learn, then you won’t grow.”


Askal sommelier and general manager Carlos Consunji / Photography by Alex Winner

Similarly, sommelier and general manager Carlos Consunji immigrated to Melbourne following his formative years, admitting that he didn’t even plan on staying in Australia for more than one or two years. “I moved here six years ago thinking I’d just have a little bit of time away from Manila, one or two years, maybe,” 

Influenced by his mother who used to work in hospitality, she encouraged Consunji to pursue a career in the field but suggested he pursue a business degree first to have a good backbone. Consunji completed his business marketing degree at Ateneo de Manila University, and subsequently earned his qualifications to become a chef when he arrived in Australia. 

After working at brunch cafes for years, Consunji confessed that when the pandemic hit, things became slightly overwhelming, which led him to burn out. After long days working in the kitchen, Consunji would come home and unwind by reading about wines. 

“I was like, ‘You know what, now might actually be a good time for me to get my foot in the door and start learning about wines.’ So I studied, I did my WSET [Wine Spirit Education Trust] and at the same time, I realized that I loved working at the front. I loved communicating with people, I loved talking to customers, so I gave that a shot as well.”

“Hospitality in Victoria is such a dynamic scene. You have people from all over the world who come here. It’s also such a good learning experience to be able to work with different people from different backgrounds. I’ve learned from books and everything but also learning from my colleagues has really helped get me to where I am now.”

When it comes to Askal’s overall team dynamic, Consunji finds strength in their diversity and the different stories that shape each of them as an individual. As a result, the team is made up of varying voices that offer layers and depth to the work they all create. 

“We all have stories to tell. I think that people have been so warm and welcoming because all five of us have different backgrounds. Dhenvirg and I grew up in Manila. Michael grew up here. John and Ralph grew up in Auckland,” Consunji explains.


“We all have different experiences of growing up, different perspectives on what it means to be Filipino.”


Askal beverage director Ralph Libo-On / Photography by Alex Winner

As for Askal beverage director Ralph Libo-On, he echoes Consunji’s sentiments in celebrating how there can be diversity in being Filipino. 

Having grown up in New Zealand, Libo-On shared how his foray into the F&B industry was a mixture of familial influence, a passion for food, and a little bit of happenstance.

“My parents immigrated to Auckland in the ’80s… My mum went into the food industry and worked at a deli in a supermarket. Down the line, she worked and owned a cafe and restaurant. Eventually, my dad ended up opening his own restaurant as well where he started selling barbecues.” To note, the very barbecue we had over dinner earlier happened to be the creation of Libo-On’s father, “Manong Al.” 

“I got my first proper job in hospitality when I was 16 years old, and it actually happened because I snuck into the biggest stadium in New Zealand to watch a rugby game.” Recalling how one of his friends was working at the catering company that looked after all the corporate bosses in the stadium, he was told to just put on a white shirt and pretend that he worked there. 

“They put me as a barback. That was basically the assistant to the bar, and I’d take dirty glassware, bring drinks to people, and that was my first experience of working in a bar. I ended up loving it.” After this stint, Libo-On admitted that his conscience eventually got the better of him as he decided to go to the office and confess. “They laughed at me and then they gave me the job.” 

Several years on, Libo-On’s passion for working the bar only continues to grow. Only this time, it’s more official. Through his role as beverage director, he shares how he is positively challenged and driven to craft cocktails to intrigue the curious palates of discerning Melbournians. 

When it comes to crafting the actual cocktails, he takes several factors into consideration as not all alcohols mix seamlessly together. “I don’t have a favorite cocktail, but I do have one that I’m most proud of because it was the one I spent the most time working on.” 

The Mango Claro, which took Libo-On 15 different trials to perfect, mimics the flavor notes of a classic mango float, complete with the graham cracker that comes as a garnish. “That’s the drink I’m most proud of. Each drink tells their own story.”

When asked if he is drawn to any particular region of the Philippines when looking for inspiration for his cocktails, Libo-On shares, “No. But I think that’s part of the fun. There are 7,000+ islands, so there’s always something different,” 

The Filipino food movement

“I think we’re at the start of a wave where it’s not just Melbourne. It’s global… If I have a friend over, I want to show them what ube tastes like or what a Filipino barbecue tastes like,” Mabuti says. 

“Food is something everyone connects with. To me, it’s like a very low-hanging fruit. If you can find those little things—the Askals or the Karitons—that you can point to and say, ‘That’s Filipino,’ those are the things that if you’re away from home or you haven’t been to the Philippines for a while, remind you that ‘Oh okay. I’m still Filipino,’ and I think that’s such a cool thing.”


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Driven by a collective passion to grow the Filipino food scene across Australia, Askal not only captures our culture in flavor but in service as well. The warm hospitality Filipinos are known for is personified through the grace of each person working the floor, and every smile that greets you throughout the venue. 

When asked what the most rewarding aspect of opening Askal has been, Consunji shares: “Just seeing it all come to life. Hearing feedback from people telling us how they’re so happy that we’ve come up with a concept to promote Filipino food, it’s the small things, really.”

At its core, Askal is the kind of venue you would happily take your entire family or your best group of friends to. It’s the kind of place you would want to celebrate life’s milestones in. A sanctuary. A safe space where you can sit in solidarity with other people who could perhaps share the same experiences as you; it’s nothing short of a piece of the Philippines for when you are yearning for the comforts of home, away from home.

Askal is located in 167 Exhibition St, Melbourne VIC 3000. For reservations, visit their website

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