The mind of Chef Tatung

Published May 10, 2018, 12:05 AM


By Nina Daza-Puyat

LIFE OF A CHEF : The woman behind the chef, Joji Atilla
LIFE OF A CHEF : The woman behind the chef, Joji Atilla

They say that behind every successful man is a woman. For some, that woman may be his wife; but for many men, it is often their mother, the one who gives them unconditional love and support. In the case of Tatung Sarthou, chef, restaurateur, author, and TV and online personality, it is undoubtedly his mom, Joji Atilla.

A soft-spoken, poised, and elegant woman, Joji shares some amusing anecdotes about her eldest son’s childhood and growing up years. These revelations give us a glimpse into the kind of chef he would eventually become: playful, innovative, creative, inquisitive, and intelligent.

12 Things That Will Surprise You to Know About Chef Tatung

Tatung as a toddler with his Mama: a true testament to how a mother’s unconditional love can be the best confidence booster.
Tatung as a toddler with his Mama: a true testament to how a mother’s unconditional love can be the best confidence booster.
  1. He was named after a brand of electric fan, Tatung. While pregnant, Mommy Joji was asked by friends what she was going to call her first baby. When she looked around the room, she saw an electric fan labeled Tatung. Her face lit up and decided she liked the sound of “Tatung.”
  2. He baked his first brownies with the help of his mom when he was old enough to wield a mixing spoon—even before he went to school. The next time he made brownies by himself, he added a tootsie roll in each of the squares, a clear indication of his playfulness and creativity in food.
  3. Joji encouraged her three children to be creative in the kitchen. She would buy flour and sugar in bulk, encouraging her children to play with baking ingredients. Later on, she taught them to decorate their homebaked cakes and cookies. This was how the young Tatung eventually learned to make gumpaste flowers.
  4. When he was around eight or nine years old, Tatung helped his neighbor make puto. He would sell these rice cakes and earn a little money on the side to buy his favorite drink—a bottle of ice cold Coke.
  5. He made his first food and drink pairing of banana turon and Coke. Another foretaste of his fun-loving attitude in food was when he made up a song about this merienda pairing to the tune of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana,” singing “Coke and, Coke and banana…”
  6. As children growing up in Cebu, Tatung and his siblings would make pizza from scratch in their home kitchen. They would even have friendly competitions, trying to outdo each other in pizza making. Tatung says he was already baking artisan breads long before it was a fad, and was in fact one of the first to own a brick oven before it became commercially available. Mommy Joji would send her son all sorts of grains, flours, and seeds to bake with—all the way from Germany, where Joji now lives.
  7. His grandfather worked in an international shipping company and would bring home food gifts from friends coming from different ports around the world. Growing up in Cebu in the ‘80s, Tatung was already exposed to all kinds of gourmet food: cheeses, wines, pāté, caviar, fine chocolates, and even kimchee.
  8. Both sides of the family influenced Tatung’s culinary career. Joji says that, in their family, “everyone was passionate about food.” On the Sarthou side, his paternal grandfather—who was very Spanish and was quite strict in his ways—was from Sta. Cruz, Manila, while his lola was from Bicol. His mother’s family is Cebuano with Chinese roots. Tatung realizes now how the mixed influences helped him understand regional palates. “I was exposed to different foods growing up because my grandparents didn’t particularly like each other’s food,” he says. “Each home was different. Tinowa versus sinigang, kare-kare versus balbacua, traditional adobo with toyo versus dry adobo without toyo.”
  9. He was once the business manager of the Cebu-born pop-rock band, Cueshé, and helped release their double platinum-selling album. He also directed events and music videos, and even produced music records and movie sound tracks.
  10. He would design and style outfits for the band. “He has a feel for cloth,” Joji reveals. She was in the business of sewing clothes and curtains, and Tatung would accompany her to buy fabric.
  11. He was once a photographer (like his grandfather) and a writer for Cebu’s Sunstar weekend magazine.
  12. Tatung can whip up excellent Indian curries and vegetarian food, for he himself was also once a vegetarian. The first Chef Tatung restaurant along Matipid Street in Quezon City was often the venue for meetings of their meditation group.

The Ultimate Multi-Hyphenate

Knowing Tatung’s interesting and diverse background, we’re not surprised at how the mind of this well-loved chef is always brimming with ideas. Set to release his third book called Dishkarte in June, this latest project of Tatung teaches cooking fundamentals and kitchen hacks for the home cook. It contains master recipes that will serve as templates for cooks to follow so that they can later innovate and create their own recipes. He’s also working on an online show based on this framework, as well as a documentary series on food sustainability entitled Roots.

On the restaurant front, Tatung partnered with Chef Robby Goco of Cyma, Green Pastures and Souv!, and Serye’s Alvin and Gretchen Limto to open Juanhmi, a Vietnamese-inspired Filipino restaurant in Greenhills. He also found time to open Layag, a beachside kilawen bar and grill all the way in San Juan, La Union.

As if these weren’t enough, Tatung is now the culinary consultant and food stylist for an upcoming comedy flick for Star Cinema called Kusina Kings, where he creates the signature dish central to the story of the movie.

Yes, his plate full and overflowing, Tatung remains cheerful, cool, and collected. He knows his Momma’s got his back.