Mikel Zaguirre, the chef behind Locavore, FAT, and Poke Poke has been very busy taking the Filipino food scene by storm with is passionate approach to reimagining classic dining table favorites into his own. And foodies all over the Metro are obsessed with it.
To Chef Kel, as he is fondly known within the industry, food is more than just putting dishes out on a table. Every flavor, every texture, it all adds up to creating an experience for all the senses, and eating at any of his restaurants is a testament to this.
This may come as a surprise, but Chef Kel didn’t always want to be a chef. Growing up, he dreamed of becoming a basketball player. Cooking was just a medium for him to satiate his hunger.
It was only when his grandfather, seeing his talent before anybody else, talked him into considering a career in food. Taking this advice to heart, he applied to culinary school, explored numerous opportunities, had his ups and downs, and the rest is history unfolding before our eyes.
We catch up with Chef Kel amidst his busy schedule to talk about his journey to the kitchen and back, the local culinary scene, gaining traction, and everything on what it took for him to be where he is in his career.
How would you describe yourself as a chef?
Straightforward, unapologetic, and extremely passionate about my craft. I love and appreciate food, but I never take things at face value. I rely heavily on good flavors, good pairings, and textures and aesthetics. And I always want to try to reinvent things, to keep things exciting.
For me, it’s not just about putting out good food, but making sure the food is presented and represented well. The food that I try to make is something that even I would want to step out of the house for.
What would you say was your defining moment as a chef?
It’s hard to pick just one as each experience, both good and not so good, has shaped me into who I am today. Though there are three moments that stick out. First was the first time I was able to follow a recipe and execute a certain dish properly in culinary school. I knew then that I could be a good cook. Little did I realize that there is more to being a chef than being able to cook well, which leads me to the second experience.
Even before I graduated, I started working at the kitchen of a small resort in Boracay. I actually flew back to Manila for a few days just to attend my graduation, celebrate a little with family, and then flew back to Boracay for work.
As someone who is always looking for something new and exciting, I did a lot of different things.
After Boracay, I worked at a French restaurant headed by a Michelin star chef, became the executive food producer for the Junior Masterchef franchise in the Philippines, was part of the pioneer team that opened Eastwood Richmonde Hotel, and headed the kitchen there for a while. Then I got so burnt out that I just had to stop being in the kitchen. I decided to start teaching in my Alma Mater (De LaSalle College of Saint Benilde). It was when I was interacting with the kids that I was reminded about how much fun being in the kitchen was. Their dreams reminded me of my own, and made me remember that this was what I really wanted to do for the rest of my life, to be in the kitchen, and to open my own restaurant.
Then, of course, there was Locavore. I don’t think anyone expected it to be the success it is today. I was surprised at how receptive people were of how I interpreted the food that I love. Their appreciation of the food validated all the questions I had in my head, and made all the unpleasant experiences worth it.
You’ve also ventured into consulting for restaurants. How did that start for you?
It started out when I was still teaching. I had a lot of free time and didn’t know what to do with that. Since I knew the ins and outs of the restaurant industry with experiences in opening establishments, I decided to take on projects that were given by some colleagues.
I enjoy doing consultations because I get to help entrepreneurs build their businesses, I get to travel because of what I do, and to learn more about culture especially with projects outside of Manila.
How did gaining traction for your cuisine change you as a chef?
It’s always nice to feel appreciated, especially with the amount of work, time and sweat we put into our craft. But it’s always important to stay grounded.
I think I am lucky enough to have a good environment, a good support system in my family, my girlfriend, my partners, and my friends. They always remind me to be myself, to never loose sight of what I want to do in life. The success makes me more hungry to be better and to set more goals for myself because there is always still so much to do and learn, and there is always room for improvement.
There’s a saying that goes,” You can’t please everyone.” Does this apply to you and your food?
Yes, and it’s particularly hard when serving Filipino food. There are certain people who wouldn’t want to eat at Filipno restaurants because Filipino food is always better at home. So you really have to have that “something different” to get them to even consider going to your restaurant and trying your food. But at the end of the day you always have to continue to strive for perfection so that in case you fall short it is still excellent.
How do you think the Filipino food scene is changing? What is your role in this change?
The Filipino food scene is emerging. We are at a point where Filipino food is being recognized on a more global scale.
I guess my role, as a Filipino food advocate is to share my knowledge by cooking and promoting Filipino food. Researching more about our heritage, and educating people about Filipino food. Striving even harder to put the cuisine in the global scale.
What’s the next year like for you? What are you looking forward to?
We’re focusing on the expansion of Locavore—we are looking to open two more branches in Manila and hopefully one outside of the Philippines. We really hope to be able to introduce Filipino food to the foreign market and make them love our food the way we do. Allow them to enjoy the full experience of Filipino food and flavors, and make them see that eating is not just a way to satiate hunger, but a whole experience in itself, best enjoyed with family, friends and loved ones.
Illustrations by Kiel Vasquez
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