From Paddock to Plate

Sandra Lyn Hataway is a graduate from Le Cordon Bleu in Texas and a devotee of both Slow Food USA and iconic restaurateur Alice Waters. Slow Food proclaims it is redressing the balance of our fast food life by preserving traditional cuisines. Aiming to educate Filipinos about the Slow Food Movement, Chef Sandra opened a restaurant last year called Tourné.

The restaurant was named for the tournée cut, a challenging cut for any aspiring chef that even requires a special knife, the bird’s beak, to shape the vegetable (squash, potato, carrot) into a seven-sided oblong, not unlike a rugby ball. It is a shape as challenging to achieve as Slow Food success in Manila, renowned for its fast food restaurant chains and huge reliance on imported food products.

Tourné opened early in 2011 down at the Strip in Fort Bonifacio. The exterior was painted an eye-catching blue, and the interior continued the light, bright blue theme, with checked gingham tablecloths giving the place a touch of the French farm kitchen. Alice Waters is quoted in huge, brightly coloured paints on the wall:

“If you have the best and tastiest ingredients, you can cook very simply and the food will be extraordinary because it tastes like what it is.”

Chef Sandra subscribes to this theory in practice, by always using fresh, sustainable, locally grown, products. The kitchen at Tourné was open to the view of diners, and Chef Sandra was just as open in her personal approach to customers, by being seen as often in the dining room as behind the stove.

On December 10, 2011, Chef Sandra arranged a special brunch for Terra Madre Day, the worldwide celebration of the Slow Food Movement . The restaurant got good reviews for its inspirational approach, but unfortunately there were a lot of teething problems. Less than three  months later, Tourné had closed. When I asked what had happened, Sandra Lyn laughed wryly.

“I found I could not be a humanitarian and a business woman at same time!” Amongst other issues, a lot of her staff members were kids she had taken in off the street, who had little idea about service or waiting tables, but she was loath to fire them.

Her humanitarian approach extends to the education of her countrymen and women. It is a big step from the realms of American style fast food chains and imported products into the land of slow food and local ingredients.

“A lot of people thought I was crazy,” she told me, “but a lot would come back for favourites.”

If Slow food is about preserving traditional cooking methods and cuisines, did that allow her any room for innovation? I asked her. Definitely, she confirmed, explaining that she uses traditional methods of preparation and serving, but with an innovative use of favourite staple vegetables. The difficulty with serving traditional cuisine in Manila is a problem probably unique to the Philippines, whose cuisine is based on home cooking. “How can I make adobo, and suggest it is better than the one their mother makes?”

Other restaurateurs and chefs are picking up the baton, but this has created a Catch 22. The enthusiasm for organic ingredients is spreading faster than the suppliers can provide the produce.

And is it too much too soon? Perhaps the Philippines, still dealing with major issues about food security, not to mention the culinary cringe that has arisen from over four hundred years of colonization, is not ready for such a revolution yet?

Chef Sandra  outlines the need to educate consumers as a critical part of changing consumption patterns. She is determined to educate Filipinos to be more than wannabe Americans and is a firm advocate for the theory ‘eat who you are.’ She also asserts that national cuisine doesn’t have to be made from imported ingredients to be good.

Her menus reflect this, in her use of fresh indigenous produce over imported ingredients, which she claims, change the flavour of traditional dishes. “It’s more important that it [food] is served fresh and without any preservatives, all homemade,” stresses Chef Sandra. “We want to support all the local farmers and fisheries. All our ingredients are 100% local.” And “don’t panic, it’s organic…even the worms” she says of her latest catering venture.

“We need to start from the ground up,” she says about education, and, like Stephanie Alexander before her, is planning to create indigenous gardens in barangays and urban schools in order to show children how to grow their own food.Yet, while the kids are being pin-pointed, many small producers, as well as consumers, do not fully understand the terminology.

She tells a story about visiting a regional market where one stall holder had painted a sign proclaiming that his pork was organic. When asked what he meant by organic, the man replied proudly, “it’s oven-baked ma’am.

This anecdote, while amusing, illustrates a problem recognized by many entrepreneurs interested in changing the direction of Filipino foodways, from processed and imported back to regional and organic, but as Chef Sandra says optimistically: “It has to start somewhere!”

* Excerpt from paper: “Regional food producers: the challenges of changing the shape of Filipino foodways, presented at the LCB Region Food Cultures and Networks Conference 2012.




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