A 12-hands collaboration lunch in a Kapampangan forest

Six chefs come together to reimagine Pampanga’s most beloved dishes

At a glance

  • With six chefs handpicked for the occasion, the lunch epicurean and restaurateur Angelo Comsti organized at Balé Pampanga, a sprawl of forest thick with mahogany trees, had all the eloquence of romance, if cooking, as presented in The Taste of Things, were a language of love.


Something ethereal in a table long enough for 45 hungry guests set on an autumnal carpet of fallen leaves beneath a canopy of forest trees, a scene worthy of the FrenchVietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung’s culinary drama The Taste of Things, starring Benoît Magimel and Juliette Binoche, who reunite in this film after their real-life romance and marriage, with a child to show for it, at some point in their personal histories.

Granted, there is neither Eugénie, Binoche’s character, nor Dodin, whom Magimel played, the fictional gourmand considered the “Napoleon of the culinary arts,” at the lunch epicurean and restaurateur Angelo Comsti organized at Balé Pampanga, a sprawl of forest thick with mahogany trees, in collaboration with his college friend William Panlilio, who has turned this family vacation spot in the Kapampangan countryside of Sta. Rita into a culinary destination, and with six chefs handpicked for the occasion, it had all the eloquence of romance, if cooking, as presented in The Taste of Things, were a language of love.


Inspired by a birthday party he threw at Balé Pampanga, to which he invited only some of Manila’s most respected, most exciting chefs, Angelo, the visionary behind the new Boracay hotspot Hain, put this lunch together, calling it “Manyaman,” the Kapampangan word for delectable, with the idea of having his invited chefs reinterpret Pampanga’s celebrated dishes.

I went alone and early, with hours to spare before taking my spot at the long table, so I had the chance to watch the chefs putter about in the kitchen, where I did see those loving gestures so celebrated in what The New York Times calls “an instant culinary classic,” a triumph both sensorial and sensual, a feast not only for the eyes but also for the rest of the senses.


At Balé Pampanga, as in the Belle Epoque countryside in which the 2023 kitchen-set film unfolded, love, if only for food, was articulated in an orchestra of hands blanching, boiling, sautéeing, searing, whipping, whisking, and churning ingredients chosen carefully for the pleasures they could bring to the table.

My senses already full, it only crossed my mind to take my place at the table by the fifth course, when one of the chefs Rhea Rizzo, the woman behind the famous Mrs. Saldo’s in Silang, Cavite, arranged on my plate a serving of atsuete rice with toasted peanuts and begucan babi, a version of the binagoongan she reimagined with pork belly twice cooked then tossed in a sauce of shrimp paste, tomato, garlic, and crab fat.


Before the binagoongan, I ate on my feet, literally standing up at the kiosk the chefs set up as a food station in the woods. I started with a bowl of suam na mais, which Angelo tweaked, serving it like an egg drop soup, in ham broth with chicharon and smoked pork, instead of shrimp, and a topping of herbed croutons, crispy bacon, and chili crisp.


Next on my eating agenda was the sipo egg by Don Baldosano of Linamnam fame, whose version of it featured quail eggs cooked in shrimp fat and a shrimp mi-cuit. Topped with a sprinkle of bougainvillea powder in zesty magenta, it was served with a cream sauce made of potato, carrots, and smoked peas.

Veering away from carabeef, the more traditional component of his chosen dish, Pat Go, head chef at Your Local, prepared a version of pindang with fermented beef, a radish gremolata, pickled onion, and assorted herbs and flowers in a handmade soft taco from Los Tacos Manila.


I’d give Tina Legarda of Bamba Bistro five stars for presentation. Her take on bringhe, the Kapampanganstyle paella, merged it with relleno, the result being rice cooked in a crab, pork, coconut, and atsuete broth, topped with chicharon, mustasa, and crabmeat, and served beautifully in a crab shell.

By this time, I was really full, but there still was asadong matua by Marvin Agustin, whose growing empire of dining establishments include Cochi and Tango Tandoor. Crafting this traditional asado, a Kapampangan dish of whole pork rump slowly simmered in tomatoes, soy sauce, vinegar, and spices, was to this actor-turned-chef and entrepreneur a return to his roots in Pampanga. The sauce in which he slow-cooked the pork, thinly sliced, was rich with bay leaves, onion, garlic, and calamansi, but, as if it wasn’t flavorful enough, he served the dish with a relish of spices and chicken liver, pickled red cabbage, crushed chicharon, and chili garlic sauce, and pan de sal he bought at a panaderia he found on his way to Sta. Rita.


There was more food to try, including Balé Pampanga’s “Simply Sisig,” which was served with heirloom rice grown in Bauko in the Mountain Province, as well as the pititian or chicharon, to which, along with the crab fat, pickled onions, lettuce it came with, we had helped ourselves multiple times, as the guests began to arrive earlier that day.

For desserts, Frankie Peralta of Caking Giant, who made the allwhite wedding cake of handmade sugar flowers, pearls, and sails for the renewal of vows of Chiz Escudero and Heart Evangelista on Balesin Island earlier this year, showcased tibok tibok. The distinctly Kapampangan delicacy, made with carabao’s milk, was served on an otap base and topped with crunchy latik or toasted coconut with crushed cashews. He also brought with him, anticipating how hot and humid it would be to dine al fresco in a tropical forest, a selection of ice candy—ube, langka, and toasted pinipig with macapuno.

BEGUCAN BABI, binagoongan with atsuete rice by Rhea Rizzo

Lunch didn’t end there, extending as it did to the end of the day with “Sunset Sessions,” when we were all asked to move to a clearing next to a dragonfruit farm that stretches far, as far as the eyes could see, into the horizon. A DJ played music we were encouraged to dance to, and with wine from Origine having put us in the mood since before lunch, the invitation was gladly accepted.

Oscar Wilde, known as much for his bons mots as for his poems and plays, once said that “Marriage is a long, dull meal with dessert served at the beginning.” Somehow, I agree, albeit bitterly, but had he been invited to this lunch, in which every course proved as exciting as the last one, or had he seen The Taste of Things, I’m sure he would have found a different metaphor for the dullness of a long, drawn-out affair.