Food is more than just something to fill one’s belly. Embedded in each dish are the land and the traditions of the culture that birthed it, and it has the potential to be linked with the memories of not only the people who cook it, but of the people who eat it as well.
This is the concept behind each “surprisingly familiar” dish at James & Daughters (J&D), a comfort food restaurant in Estancia Mall in Pasig. Like the compass that adorns its logo, the restaurant’s menu items are from all over the globe, each one a significant dish from the restaurant partners’ life stories.
“I really wanted to open a restaurant with dad and mom’s names on it. Mom’s style of food, which is comfort food, and dad’s way of running things, which is literally caring about people,” says Chef Jonas Ng who, before helming J&D, worked in various cuisines, including heading French restaurant Le Jardin. “We do simple, nutritious food, [and] we don’t use preservatives. Making everything from scratch gives us a lot of control over what we want to do.”
Made from memories
One of the most popular dishes on the menu is the Tuna Kilawin. It was developed in honor of Ng’s ancestors, who were pioneers in General Santos City’s tuna industry. “…we really do have some of the best tuna in the world, and I thought what better way to represent it and just really allow it to sing.”
Their version has sashimi grade tuna from GenSan, organic coconut vinegar from Quezon, fish sauce and sea salt from Bolinao, fresh gata, and herbs from Ng’s and the head and sous chefs’ personal gardens. The dish is served with fritters for textural contrast. “It’s a way to honor our heritage. It’s a way to honor the fish that really built the City.”
The Seared Togarashi Tuna was inspired by one of Ng’s mentors, chef Tina Fineza, who is credited with revolutionizing the Vancouver dining scene through her Asian street food. Tuna is rolled in togarashi, seared on each side, and served with ponzu sauce and sesame noodles. It’s a light, cold, and subtly flavored dish.
There is also Phad See Iw, a Thai noodle dish, on the menu. Ng says it’s what he used to eat while training for a Thai restaurant in Bangkok. Their version includes house-made noodles and beef that they smoked themselves.
The Dessert Gils, named after another of Ng’s mentors, French chef Gils Brault who ran one of the most popular French restaurants in Ho Chi Minh, is made up of his “favorite things to serve to himself during service when he got hungry,” Ng says. “Strawberry or raspberry sherbet.., vanilla bean ice cream, nougatine, merengue, coulis, and more berries.”
Suman a la Hasset, one of the stars in the entire menu, is a combination of Ng’s friend chef Hasset Go’s favorite desserts: suman stuffed with ube halaya topped with leche flan and served with coconut sherbet, coconut glaze, and latik bits. It’s a must-try.
A focus on local
Most of the restaurant’s ingredients are sourced locally. Because of this, the restaurant’s menu may change depending on what’s in season. “We’re fortunate to have so much good produce around the country. It just needs a little bit of effort to seek them out.”
Many of his initial contacts came courtesy of his father, who is in the cold storage business. He also found other like-minded chefs who alert each other to potential suppliers. “Having that conversation between the producers and us [chefs and restaurateurs] enriches our cuisine…. And a rising tide lifts all ships, right? If we all help each other, the whole industry will grow.”
Each meal made memorable
When asked why memory plays such an integral part in the menu, Ng replies, “This is storytelling… And chefs, restaurateurs, we’re multisensory storytellers. Sense memory is the most powerful… The taste of something will bring you back.”
For Ng, a meal at James & Daughters is a chance for the diner to make memories of their own. “You remember how you felt in all your best restaurant experiences… that’s why you go back,” Ng says. “If we can be part of people’s special occasions… that’s a different feeling. You’re part of their story.”
The three chefs mentioned have all passed away, and having their dishes on the menu is Ng’s way of keeping their legacies alive. “This is their story…. It’s also now become my story. And if you like it and you tell somebody else about it, then you’re carrying on that story, and that’s the most powerful.”
He adds, “Everybody has food in their lives…. We’re all connected [through food]. So you ask me why we’re doing [this, its] because we want to connect…. That’s all it is.”