Dressmaker launches passion food project inspired by his grandmother

Mario Santos presents baked goods and lola’s lessons with his brand Huntahan

Many things come to mind when we think of our grandparents. It can be a carefree summertime in our lola’s place. A day full of laughter courtesy of our lolo’s corny jokes. Or a journey to the past via photo albums they lovingly build through the years. Whatever it is, a time spent with our grandparents is always special, filled with lessons and stories shared, of course, through good food.

Food is among the best legacies we have from our grandparents. By now, many of us know that there is no connection like a bond founded by their food. No boo-boos are painful enough not to be whisked away by grandma’s cookies and a party is not a party without their home cooking. Even in our pandemic time, we still cling to the dishes and values they have given us. Because if there is one thing we know, our grandparents’ recipes and lessons are tested by time and will definitely help us survive anything.

Devil's food cake

Following this is dressmaker Mario Santos as he turns to food entrepreneurship to make a living. The pandemic has made it hard for many young designers to thrive, that’s why he is bringing out the lessons and recipes of her lola and shares them through his online bakeshop Huntahan,

A tribute to his lola, Huntahan’s ethos is also inspired by her stories and teachings of going back to one’s roots and finding the beauty in the basic things, appreciating simple ingredients, and turning them into something utterly delightful. Since establishing the brand last June, Mario has been offering artisanal cakes and tarts, from a truly decadent Devil’s food cake to spiced carrot cake and an intoxicating mojito cheesecake.

In a conversation with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle, Mario shares how Huntahan honors his grandma through food and why having good chitchat is essential in this pandemic, and so are desserts.

What inspired you to pursue fashion designing? And how was your early experience working in the industry?

As a kid, I never pictured myself working in fashion but I always have been a fan of it. My earliest memory of sketching dresses was when I was in Grade 1. It’s not until I was in my fourth year in high school when I decided that I wanted to make clothes. I also do not label myself as a fashion designer. I prefer to be tagged as a dressmaker.

I studied at Slim's right after I graduated high school and became part of numerous school activities which led me to become one of the director’s apprentices, together with Hannah Adrias (Ternocon 2020 winner) and Abdul Gaffar (Ternocon 2020 finalist). I learned a lot from the apprenticeship and was exposed to how the fashion scene of Manila works. It was a fun and exciting time. Pre-COVID days (laughs).

Of all the businesses you would have pursued this pandemic, why did you choose to do baked goods?

Aside from sketching, another hobby of mine is cooking and baking. I’m fascinated with Russian cake decorators and their impeccable realistic handcrafted sugar flowers which look like handmade embroideries in couture. If I’m not in my sewing station, you can look for me in the kitchen trying out recipes I found online.

Lola Florita

You mentioned that Huntahan is partly inspired by your Lola. How is she reflected in our brand today?

On usual weekends, when we had a chance to talk for hours before realizing that it’s getting late, nanay would start yelling at us, “Huntahan nang huntahan, yung mga hugasan! (Endless chitchats, the dishes are waiting!)” And only then would we start clearing the table that was set at around seven in the evening, and be finally done moments before midnight.

Nanay is the one who taught us to appreciate cooking, baking, and enjoying the goodness of food over stories. An endless string of stories only made us want to hear more. How she met our grandfather, how they would talk about meeting in a pier somewhere with just mere trust that they both will be there. How they kept their promises as husband and wife despite the distance because my grandfather was a seaman.

Nanay is also the person who taught us practical things in life. She’s responsible for some lessons in being daring and ambitious. Huntahan is from our Nanay who cared enough to teach us the value of ingenuity at a young age (making a “Basta!” dish from leftovers in the refrigerator), and now as adults, perfection (premium cakes only use premium ingredients).

What is the most important lesson or story you learn from her?

She just recovered from COVID-19. Tough woman. Her name is Florita Añosa Ramirez born in Boronggan, Eastern Samar in 1938. She’s the most practical person I've ever met since she grew up without the things we have now. She’s a constant reminder that little and simple things in life are the best.

Spiced carrot cake

What can people expect from your brand? Do you have certain skills as a designer that you use while making your baked goods?

My aesthetic in fashion is minimalist, straightforward, functional, classic, muted yet refined. I want these things to reflect in our brand. Something simple yet complex. Quoting our “suki”, stylist Pam Quinones, “There's no cheating in simple. Because the good kind of simple is complex and calculated.”

I think everyone knows and expects that if you are a graduate of Slim's, you must have a very keen eye on things. I think that is something I’ve gained from Slim's that I was able to apply in Huntahan. Every detail counts. Sir Mark and the late Ms. Sandy Higgins also taught us how to be very systematic and organized. As I run my own small business, some of the things they taught us that I didn't understand before made so much sense now.

Why name your brand Huntahan?

Huntahan is our family’s love language. We’re not the showy type of family. You won’t hear us say our “I love yous” but you can see us chitchatting at the dining table from breakfast to lunch.

See more of Mario’s delectable cakes and tarts @huntahan.mnl on Instagram.