By Regina Posadas
Expat chef Steve Shrimski of Circa 1900 in Cebu talks about his unique ube ravioli, his favorite local ingredient, and hating an item on his menu.
My recent trip to Cebu featured a lot of “firsts.” It was my first time to travel without my family, the first time I stayed at a hotel-cum-wellness complex (the inviting Maayo Hotel and Maayo Medical in Mandaue), and the first time I visited a popular destination dining spot with so much character, Circa 1900.
There were even more “firsts” at this sprawling and picturesque ancestral home turned restaurant, bar, bakery, and events place, where I remained from sunset until almost closing time. It was there that I tasted my first craft beer, Cebu Brewing Company’s Mighty Mango, and downed an entire cocktail called Siam Fizz, a mix of Bombay Sapphire Gin, lime juice, ginger ale, chili syrup, and coriander. Both were light and refreshing, which was surprising to me, considering I don’t drink at all.
But the highlight of my Circa 1900 visit was easily the full course group dinner I had at the charming old world-themed Casa Uno. Tasting a succession of gastronomic delights, nine of them plus the legendary Cebu lechon, I was transported to food heaven, particularly after sampling the flavorful truffled squid and prawn risotto with fragrant herbs and turmeric and the delectable maja blanca and rosquillos cheesecake with coconut mousse and caramel corn (both new to me). Like my dinner companions, I was simultaneously impressed and intrigued by the ube ravioli filled with shredded pork lechon and apple, cocodobo cream sauce (another first), especially since it got Circa 1900’s Australian executive chef Steve Shrimski to open up about the dish’s origin and other kitchen “confidentialities.”
On how his ube ravioli came about:
A magazine asked me and other chefs to prepare and submit a recipe using ube. I wanted to do something savory, not sweet, and something completely different that nobody else would do. So that’s what we did. We experimented and played around. We practiced to get the texture and flavor right. We were already doing pasta here, like the squid ink, and we’ve done different flavors of pasta, so it was just practice, practice, practice. That’s it. Now, the dish we did for them is on the menu and it sells very well. And yes, we use fresh ube.
On what he says to first-time visitors:
So many people say, “Chef, what’s the best thing on your menu?” And I say, “Well, it’s all the things on the menu,” and we laugh. It’s more like, do you love beef, pork, fish, chicken? What do you like? That’s a hard question.
On his favorite local ingredient to use in cooking:
Moringa! It’s very healthy, but if you use too much, it’s too strong. Like if you make pesto, and use too much moringa, it’s too strong, it’s too bitter. If you make it into ice cream, like gelato, and use the right amount of flavor, it’s good. That’s a beautiful thing. It’s very healthy for you. So it’s a favorite thing.
On cooking for Filipinos and Australians:
It’s not a matter of who’s easier to cook for. Whether you’re a Filipino or an Australian, people like comfort food. So if you’re an Australian and you like eggs and bacon, that’s fine. And if you’re Filipino, and you like the same thing, but you put in something Filipino like chorizo or malunggay or tapa, it’s very similar. It’s like you need to find a balance between what the Filipinos like and what your peers like as well.
On developing the menu and being in charge:
Yes, it’s me, I do that. But when all these people say, “Chef, the food was great!” “Thank you very much,” “Thanks for cooking for me,” I always tell them, “I will pass it on to the staff.” I may be here but the guys are the ones who do the hard work. All the guys in the background, the people don’t see, they’re the ones who work hard. It’s not just one person. It’s a group effort. Always.
On what makes pricing and serving healthy meals challenging:
I can buy local eggs for P6 for one egg or buy organic eggs for P12 each. And people will look at an egg and go, “It’s an egg. It’s just an egg.” They don’t want to understand that it’s an organic egg and that it’s different from an ordinary egg. It’s hard.
If you’re a healthy person, a vegetarian or a health nut cooking for others, it’s hard.
On having a dish that he hates on the menu:
The food that we serve, my wife (Circa 1900 operations manager Eya Shrimski) and I don’t eat like that. We like things simple and we like to eat healthy. We have braised beef here and it sells really well, but I hate it. I hate it with a passion. But it’s not about what I want or what my wife wants. It’s what customers want. You give them what they want. What I did was to tweak the recipe of the braised beef a little. Now, I’m happy and the people who order it are also happy.
Circa 1900 is at Sanjercasvil Road, Gorordo Avenue, Lahug, Cebu City. www.circa1900cebu.com