By Dom Galeon
Images by Noel Pabalate
A calm, cozy celebratory feel wraps everything inside Café Ysabel in San Juan, sometime in the early afternoon. In contrast, outside the café, busy workers keep at it with the ongoing construction of the new buildings of the Center for Asian Culinary Studies. Nevertheless, both are a celebration of the man behind who made them possible, celebrity chef and Manila Bulletin Lifestyle Dining section editor Gene Gonzalez. Both serve as the perfect backdrop for yet another reason to celebrate Chef Gene, the two new books he is releasing through Anvil Publishing.
Modern Philippine Confections and Breads, Cakes, Pastries, and More are the two latest books from Chef Gene, adding to his almost 30 other works that he has written to promote Filipino cuisine. Modern Philippine Confections features various local desserts and delicacies, which Chef Gene says Filipinos can be proud of. After all, there’s more to Filipino desserts than just the already popular halo-halo.
“I feel that its high-time I gave recipes that would give inspiration to our tourist-oriented businesses, like the pasalubong counters,” he explains in a speech. “We’re stuck on polvoron, yema, pastillas—not that there’s anything wrong with that—but I think we can give more variety by showing that these confections are possible and can be made, and can give a signature island flavor.”
On the other hand, Breads, Cakes, Pastries, and More is annotation of baking recipes originally written by Efren Bunquin, a cerealist and food technologist from Duke University, in his work The Golden Treasury of Baking. Bunquin is the father of fellow Kundirana member and a good friend of Chef Gene, who tells us that many of the recipes featured in the original book, written over 50 years ago, were “ahead of its time.”
“Four years ago, I was in a practice with my Kundirana brother Raymond [Bunquin], who told me he’d give me a recipe of my dad. I’ve never heard of the book, but that’s because his dad had passed in the ‘70s. So I started doing research on Efren Bunquin and I even found a whole batch of housewife recipes. He came out with recipes that were advanced, which his book had polished a lot—his book had pita. [The book] was way ahead of its time, for a book that was printed in the ‘60s. So I said, why don’t we share this to the world?” Chef Gene says. “I did not touch any of the recipes, I just tested them and gave annotations.”
“The book was just there,” says Raymond. “We were talking about it four years ago, and here it is. We’re glad to taste the food and the breads from my dad’s creation, and Gene brought it back to life.”
Both books, like a number of Chef Gene’s works, have received the Gourmand World Cookbook Award, the equivalent of a Pulitzer or a Palanca for chefs and their cookbooks.
Without a doubt, he is an accomplished master in the kitchen, with a penchant for bringing what he cooks into the hands of people. In fact, he first thought of the idea of cooking with a small recipe book in hand, which inspired his first little cookbook series.
“Just churn it out,” he says about writing. “There are a lot of recipes I just keep on compiling, that we keep classifying. They’re up for re-test, and I just classify all of these through the years.”
About his books, Chef Gene says, “I’m after dissemination. Basically, for the young Filipino who is interested to cook, or the student—the HRM or hospitality student—and, of course, some of the aficionados who really don’t need nice pictures but need a good, tested recipe.”
The chef jokes that he is “probably the prince of cheap books,” And his books are affordable enough, proving his point that, all he’s after is dissemination, sharing all that he has learned throughout his long career in the culinary industry, a career that continues to flourish.
He already has a couple of books in the pipeline, proof of how prolific a writer Chef Gene is, and that’s on top of his weekly column. One of his next books, he says, is different from everything else he’s written. “It’s more literary,” Chef Gene says, “the adventures and misadventures of a chef. It’s like ‘true confessions,’ tongue in cheek. But there are also some recipes, because people expect them.”
Through it all, even with writing regularly, teaching at the Center for Asian Culinary Studies, playing sports, and once in a while singing, Chef Gene says that cooking remains to be his number one passion.
“Everything else ranks equally,” he adds. Second to cooking, that is.