I envied the custom-made bookshelf of hard wood and beveled glass but I wanted the books he had in that bookshelf even more.
Larry J. Cruz (LJC) was interviewing me for a job as one of the editors of his new glossy magazine Metro, The City Life, dedicated to Manila’s yuppies, but the titles of the books on his shelves distracted me. The books looked time-worn, yet everything in the room looked elegant.
Nice way to decorate an office, I said to myself then.
The last time we talked was in this very same room. By that time, I had read through most of the books in that shelf. In fact, new titles had replaced old ones. There were books on history, writing, politics, art, culture, Filipiniana, philosophy, food, cigars, wines, gardening, antiques and entertaining. His office was a book lover’s sanctuary.
In the ’70s, he had an art gallery that he named ABC Gallery, probably because he loved Art, Books and Canvasses.
The last time we talked, he wasn’t asking me questions; instead he was giving me a list of things to do in his absence. He was leaving for the US the next day for medical treatment. It was a farewell of sorts, though he was very calm and cheerful, and showed restraint while leaving instructions on things that needed to be done. We never talked again. LJC died in February, 2008.
That last time we talked, no old bookshelf could distract me. I was focused on the man. He had style.
Working for LJC was not easy. He was a demanding boss who never for a minute suffered mediocrity. In fact, my friendship dated just a couple of years back, compared to the 20 years that I had worked for him.
The friendship was something I had to earn, not easy considering that he gave me the most tedious assignments, and never patted me on the back when I did something well.
I watched as the senior editors got all the plum assignments, perks, tokens and rewards. I know now that he was really testing me and seeing how much I could put up with.
As the years went by, I saw how he valued loyalty and commitment. It turned out he was fair in giving credit when due and encouragement when you needed it. Only after many mistakes and frustrations did I begin to reap the joy of working with a mentor who helped me see the fun in what I was doing. He always made sure I had all the resources on hand to do a good job, no excuses allowed. He coached me patiently though he was often impatient for results. But he would take time to answer questions, more so if they pertained to his interests.
Although I worked with his publishing arm, Metromedia Publishing, he involved me in marketing his restaurants and made sure I would stick around long after he was gone.
The last years of working with him were enjoyable and revealed the man beyond his being my boss. He would tell me to take the day off to enjoy the fiesta in Sta. Rita, Pampanga whose highlight was the year’s harvest of duman (the green, young variety of malagkit or sticky rice). Or he’d leave me for weeks on my own to catalogue his father’s (writer-painter E. Aguilar Cruz’s) boxes of drawings and sketches. By that time, he had gotten me involved in his personal interests. Work had become multi dimensional and looking back, I realized these were the happiest years of my entire work history.
Knowing how we’ve worked together for some time, people would often ask me: What got LJC into the restaurant business in the first place?
Now that he’s gone, people ask a corollary question: So how did he change the way Filipinos dine?
A book just published by Anvil should answer that last question. “Larry Can’t Cook” sheds light on LJC’s life and the many twists and turns it took that led to his being recognized as helping define the taste of a generation, the generation that now takes pride in learning everything about Philippine food in all its brown glory, from calorific fiesta fare to the simplest peasant dishes.
It’s a generation that’s sophisticated enough to distinguish between Mediterranean and European fare, who knows the nuances of Asian regional cookery, the difference between dry and sweet wine, and are inveterate coffee drinkers.
LJC brought upscale Filipino cuisine to Hong Kong, Daly City, California and Georgetown, Washington DC and gave a lasting good impression of Filipino cuisine and style.
In 2005, he combined the exciting flavors of Indian cuisine with Hindi cinema’s vibrant romantic musicals and opened Bollywood, one delicious masala of dining, entertainment and ambience.
He opened some 35 restaurants, cafes and bars, most of them with a different theme and ambiance that distinguished them from the cut and dried foreign food chain concepts so popular today. Larry’s restaurants always pay homage to, and celebrate the good aspects of, Filipino living that earned for him a place in the history of Philippine restaurants, food and dining.
So how did someone who can’t cook earn this iconic status?
Nana Ozaeta, editor-in-chief of Food Magazine, shared her notes from what could be the last interview with LJC for a local paper. Recalled Ozaeta:
“In October 2007, I found myself in Larry J. Cruz’s office, preparing to interview him for F&B World Magazine that I edited back then. Months later, I learned that he had left for the United States to undergo medical treatment and that he had sadly passed away soon after.
“As I was seated in his office surrounded by his antiques and books, I had no inkling that this would become one of the last interviews he’d give.
“While it is well known that LJC popularized the café lifestyle with Café Adriatico, we may not realize how much impact this had on the local dining scene. We take for granted the coffee shops and al fresco dining now, but it was LJC who paved the way for this kind of casual, drop-by-anytime café we enjoy today.
“During that interview, he said, ‘There’s the Starbucks concept (now) where you can bring your computer and stay long with only one coffee. (But) as far as we’re concerned, Café Adriatico was already doing that then.’ (F&B World, Nov-Dec 2007)
“What struck me as really incisive on his part was how he linked the success of the café lifestyle with the emergence of lifestyle sections in the broadsheets and lifestyle-oriented glossy magazines. ‘Dining out’ wasn’t simply about going out to eat anymore, but about adding some style to the experience-from the elegant interiors, menu design, the presentation of the food, even the witty names given to the dishes.
“Today, you’d notice that countless popular restaurants are created with the LJC model in mind-great food at affordable prices, innovative signature dishes, beautiful interiors and that media-worthy buzz that gets people’s attention.
“The concept may have been long due, but LJC once said: ‘I think I’m a bit of a risk taker. If I were extra cautious, I wouldn’t be opening these restaurants!’
“LJC launched Café Havana and Bollywood. Who else would have dared introduce Cuban and Indian cuisines in town? During my interview with him, he was particularly excited about Couscous, a new restaurant in the works, and was raving about Middle Eastern cuisine and whether Manila was ready for this type of food.
“He was preparing for a food tasting that evening with Chef George Lizares, and he insisted that I join him. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for that food tasting, but it was one invitation I so wish I had accepted.
“In the article that I wrote after the interview, he succinctly summed up his take on the restaurant business. He said, ‘You need dedication and patience. A restaurateur doesn’t need to cook, but he must know what his restaurant is serving. Otherwise, you’re just a businessman, and probably a richer businessman. I’m into it because I enjoy it; that’s half of the reason why I’m here.’ (F&B World, Nov-Dec 2007)
“In that lovely afternoon spent with LJC, I certainly felt that his success wasn’t in the millions that he made, but in the pure enjoyment he had for good food, the many jobs he had created, and the sheer excitement of introducing something new and delicious to the dining scene.
“While most aspiring restaurateurs may not possess his ‘magic touch,’ I think they can learn from LJC about how to make their business more than just a business, but a real source of enjoyment and passion.” •