By Alex Y. Vergara
Images by Advan Ramirez
Video by Janus Matthew Martinez
These are interesting times for chef Gene Gonzalez and children Gino Gonzalez, 38, and Giannina Gonzalez, 33. By July 31, Café Ysabel, the family-owned restaurant on P. Guevarra Street in San Juan, which is known for its Filipino heirloom dishes heavily influenced by the Gonzalez clan’s Kapampangan heritage, will temporarily close its doors to the public after nearly 30 years in business.
The development is both a bittersweet and exciting time for the trio, as they move to a bigger, much better location a few blocks away. At the same time, both Gino and Giannina, having grown up under their father’s tutelage, take stock of the situation and recall the times that shaped them to become who they are today.
Apart from being a full-fledged chef himself, Gino also teaches at the family-owned Center for Asian Culinary Studies. As a chef du pets, Giannina, a food stylist and dog lover, runs Whole Pet Kitchen, a café for pets and their owners. Both establishments will also be part of Café Ysabel’s big move to M. Paterno and Pasadena Streets, also in San Juan.
WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY
To hear it from Chef Gene, “I never forced them to enter the industry and become chefs. I just want my children to get to a point where I don’t have to worry about them. But they were free to pursue whatever they wanted.”
And pursue they did. Like almost everyone else in the Gonzalez family, both Gino and Giannina are graduates of De La Salle University. While Gino pursued a business degree, his younger sister, who loves various creative pursuits like photography, took up Communication Arts.
They later took up supplementary courses on culinary arts after college. Gino, who secured a number of scholarships, even studied at Alain Ducasse’s elite cooking school in Paris. The three are also proud of the fact that they all studied in New York, albeit in different years, under legendary American chef and teacher Dolores Custer.
Gino echoed his father’s words: “My dad never forced me to become a chef. In fact, he was encouraging me to work outside first.”
Since he also loves branded luxury items, the young man found himself applying for a marketing position in a luxury retail company soon after college. His epiphany came even before he could finish answering the interviewer’s second question.
When the interviewer deduced that Gino’s eventual plan was to really become a chef, she told him not to waste a single minute in the luxury business. It was Gino’s first and only interview before he found himself back in his father’s kitchen.
“The interviewer asked me what I was doing there,” said Gino. “She said I should be helping out with the family’s business instead.”
Although the place wasn’t exactly alien to him, as he used to work at Café Ysabel during summer vacations doing all sorts of things to earn his allowance, Gino had to relearn everything by starting from the bottom like everyone else.
LIKE FATHER LIKE SON
Soon enough, Gino also followed in his dad’s footsteps by becoming a culinary teacher whose specialty was savory dishes, including a number of offerings based on the Gonzalez clan’s recipes.
Now on its 17th year, the family’s culinary school was barely a year old when Gino entered it a few months after college as one of its students. Giannina took her turn a few years later.
Readily sharing his knowledge is one thing Gino learned from his dad, which he now tries to impart to his students. And such knowledge consists of authentic Kapampangan cooking from an old family like the Gonzalezes who hail from Apalit, Pampanga. (Chef Gene’s mother is from the town of Arayat, making him a pure Kapampangan.)
“I’ve seen how a number of relatives have passed on taking their recipes with them,” said Gino. “To preserve what’s left, we have decided to make our old recipes part of our school’s syllabus.”
As such, Gino’s father was one of the first culinary teachers in the country to include a day devoted to Filipino cuisine in his regular courses.
“The culinary tradition and foundation still remain very French, very international,” said Chef Gene. “For me, it’s a matter of pride to give equal importance to Filipino food. I hope other local culinary schools will follow.”
Gino also finds it heartening to share his family’s culinary legacy with students, especially when he sees cherished family dishes on other people’s tables during special occasions like birthdays and Christmas.
When it comes to Giannina, Chef Gene now sees it differently. There was a time when his daughter felt that she was even discouraged by her dad to embark on a culinary career.
“I didn’t discourage her,” he countered. “I simply told her that since she’s petite, she’d get literally knocked over by bigger guys in the kitchen.”
WHERE THE MONEY IS
Instead, Chef Gene encouraged her to tap into her visual creativity and culinary training by “going for the big bucks” like food styling. Apart from being Café Ysabel’s resident food stylist, Giannina works as a consultant for a number of food establishments.
“Oh, you should see the list of her accounts,” Chef Gene teased. “She won’t fully disclose them to us because there’s secrecy of income.”
Because of the waiting time involved in the profession, Giannina was initially reluctant to take up food styling. But her perspective started to change the more she immersed herself in the Culinary Arts.
“I’m not totally sorry that I didn’t take that road, especially after seeing so many people struggle,” she said, referring to her initial desire to become a full-time chef.
Instead, she pursued a slightly different path by forming another company, which now serves the needs of four-legged furry creatures, including cats and their humans.
But make no mistake about it, Giannina is equally passionate when it comes to cooking. Up to now, she still enjoys doing her own research and development by “tweaking recipes to make them better.”
Like her dad, she does things “which pleases me” without considering so much what other people would say. And this thinking has allowed her to expand on a number of basic ideas involving her culinary career.
“He also taught us the importance of customer service. My dad is really hands on when it comes to dealing with customers,” she said.
WEAR MANY HATS
Chef Gene’s reason for steering his children into other paths within the culinary world stems from his own experience as well as those of other chefs.
“When you’re a chef, it’s very difficult and quite limiting to wear only one hat,” he said. “Whether you go corporate or artistic, both roads are very steep roads to climb. You have to tap into your other skills and talents by wearing other hats. In my case, I’m also into food styling. I also have credentials when it comes to wine. I even went into teaching and later writing.”
As a chef, it’s important to “evolve and be well-rounded,” he added, if you are to support a family. While you climb such a steep route to perfect your craft, you have to develop other sources of income to be able to sustain your family and lifestyle.
Of all the big and small life lessons he imparted to his children, Chef Gene cites perseverance and the value one puts on education as two of the most important. As a chef, he also instilled in them a love for reading and research, two activities necessary if they were to continue to thrive and excel in their craft.
“A growing number of young people don’t like to read these days. Reading and regularly engaging in research are important if a chef is to grow and continue to be relevant,” said Chef Gene, whose line of kitchen utensils under the Masflex Kitchen Pro brand is the result of his own research and first-hand experience in the kitchen.
It’s also important to “never stop learning,” he said. This thinking not only involves and benefits his two children, but also his key kitchen staff at Café Ysabel. Once or twice a year, Chef Gene and his staff go on mini sabbaticals by enrolling in quick, sometimes customized culinary courses in neighboring countries.
Learning, of course, is a two-way street. Gino and Giannina’s innovative ways have definitely rubbed off on their father. “While working with my children, I realized that there’s always room to learn new things. You can’t just be an old fogey and sit on your laurels,” Chef Gene said.
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