Ecstatic is how award-winning actress and passionate cook Judy Ann Santos felt and looked on her graduation from the Center for Asian Culinary Studies (CACS) in San Juan, Metro Manila. That was last December 13, 2006, when she received two medals for completing two certificate courses.
Renowned chef Gene Gonzalez, owner and president of CACS and of Café Ysabel, hung the silver medal for Basic Cooking and Baking, and the gold medal for Advanced Baking and Cooking, around Juday’s neck.
“Bata pa lang ako, mahilig na akong makisali sa mga luto-luto,” says Juday, who enjoyed watching her mom and dad cook when she was a little girl. In fact, the first few dishes she learned to cook were the dishes she saw her Mommy Carol whip up.
The photos on this spread show Juday in a different setting, away from the heat of the klieg lights and braving the heat of the kitchen. Here, she is in her best element, preparing appetizers, decorating cakes, pan-frying scallops.
“I don’t want people to think na I enrolled just for fun,” says Juday. “I want them to know na I went to culinary school because it’s my passion.”
December 12 was the night of the finals for Advanced Cooking and Baking. It was an exciting and at the same time anxious night for Judy Ann and her four classmates—older brother Jeffrey Santos, road manager Mary Jane dela Cruz, long-time friend Dante Nico Garcia, and fellow actress and dear friend Beth Tamayo.
Juday and company were given a menu. They themselves had to figure out how to prepare, cook, and present everything, without any assistance from their teachers. They were to be graded based on over-all presentation and taste.
“’Yong preparations kasi, ’yon ’yong nakakakaba,” Juday explains. “At saka ’yong final exam itself, ’yon ’yong nakakanerbiyos. Para kang nagkaroon ng entry sa isang international filmfest na maraming judges. Sa sitwasyon ko dito, I was being graded for what I cooked, not for what I did as a movie star or as an actress.”
To earn her certificates, the eager culinary student made sure that she also passed the written exams with high grades.
“Lagi ’yan nagte-take-down ng notes sa klase,” classmate Dante relates. “Natatawa nga ako, e. Kinarir niya talaga ’yong pagiging estudyante niya. Kaya nga noong nakatanggap siya ng medal, tinutukso ko. Sabi ko, ‘Aba, Juday, may gold medal ka na. Dati, best in handwriting ka lang.’ Sagot niya naman, ‘Hoy, dati best in muse ako, ’no!’”
The best actress of the 2006 Metro Manila Film Festival (for Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo) had so much fun in culinary class that she can’t think of the most difficult part of the course.
“Kung meron man, siguro hindi ko naramdaman,” she says. “I guess totoo ’yong kasabihan na if you really love what you’re doing, walang hirap. Hindi mo maiisip na mahirap.”
The silver-and-white motif of the setup that Juday and company decided to use for their finals presentation transformed Café Ysabel’s garden into a romantic setting with understated elegance.
When the group informed the school management that they wanted to do the setup in the garden, chef Gino Gonzalez jested: “Naku, ’yong last na nag-setup dito, napamura kami”—meaning, the last time there was a garden setup for a finals presentation, the setup was so impressive it elicited expletives from the staff.
Juday took that comment as a challenge and told cooking classmate Dante Nico Garcia, her friend of 15 years, who happens to be a production designer and who was to be in charge of the setup: “Narinig mo ’yon? Gusto ko, hindi lang mura ang gagawin nila pag nakita ang setup natin. Gusto ko, higit pa roon.”
Juday went all-out, spending thousands to buy everything needed for their finals’ setup. Says Dante: “Nakita na rin kasi ni Chef Gene ’yong pag-aabala namin noong first finals namin sa Basic Cooking and Baking, where pati table napkins pinasadya namin.”
Chef Gene then had the garden fixed up a bit, covering the ground with gravel.
“Noong malapit na ang finals,” Dante recalls, “’yong mga pictures na ilalagay sa bawat lamp post, hindi pa ready. Madaling-araw na, tumatawag pa sa akin si Juday.”
Dante says that Juday instructed him: “Kulitin mo nga si Ryan, kasi hindi pa niya ginagawa ’yong mga photos. Hindi pinapansin ng lolo mo, e. Parang nakalimutan niya yata na nangako siya sa akin. Ikaw na mag-remind.”
Ryan, of course, is none other than Juday’s boyfriend, actor and TV host Ryan Agoncillo, who’s a photographer on the side. On the night of the finals, the enlarged black-and-white snapshots taken during the cooking classes—which were printed and framed by Ryan himself—were prominently displayed in the garden.
“Iba’t ibang moments ’yon ng happy times namin sa klase na kuha ng iba-ibang tao,” Dante says.
While teachers, guests, and family members of the graduating group enjoyed the food and the atmosphere, Judy Ann busied herself checking on things and making sure people were having a good time.
At around 6 p.m. on December 13, 2006, the low-ceilinged tiny room on the ground floor of Café Ysabel was filled with the graduates and their families and friends.
Students who completed the more than 90 modules required to earn the title of chef wore the tall white hats known as toques, and received their chef certificates. Juday and others like her who finished advanced courses but are still lacking units to complete the modules wore soft black caps.
When somebody addressed her as Chef Juday after the graduation ceremony, the actress smiled and said: “I’m not yet a chef. We’re getting there, we’re getting there.”
Mommy Carol reveals that Juday has already completed around 18 modules and adds, probably in jest: “Kaya konti na lang, professional chef na siya.”
Juday herself says she intends to complete the modules, and is looking forward to doing the 100 hours on-the-job training (OJT) at Café Ysabel.
“Natapos namin ’yong modules ng basic and advanced, kaya kasali kami sa graduation. Pero it doesn’t end there, because we still have to take OJT, and then another module for Asian [cuisine], and then more sessions for industrial skill and baking. And then, the chef certificate na.”
The basic and advanced baking and cooking courses took four months to complete. “Pero ’yong professional course talaga, mga nine months,” says Juday.
Once she gets a chef certificate from CACS, Juday plans to go abroad and study some more. “I’m just starting my journey in culinary arts. Marami pa akong gustong malaman. As long as may time and pera, itutuloy-tuloy ko ito.”