Celebrities are said to have a new favorite hangout in town, and it’s owned by the group of Junior Master Chef judge Fernando Aracama, TV host-eventologist Tim Yap, and their business partners.
No, it’s not a new “it” club like those they successfully put up all over Manila and on Boracay Island in recent years.
This one is a restaurant called Aracama Filipino Cuisine, located at The Fort in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, right where the old Embassy and Encore clubs used to be.
Compared to their previous businesses, this one is clearly quieter, more relaxed, perhaps even more substantial in menu.
Asked why they decided to put up a restaurant and not a club this time around, Chef Fern tells PEP (Philippine Entertainment Portal), in an interview on June 25: “Naikot na namin ang negosyo sa Manila pero wala pa kami talagang restaurant na natitigilan.
“We’ve always been going for the after-dark people, the late-night folks. And now, I think, as we’re gracefully going through our lives—me as I’m getting older and my partners are getting married—parang lahat kami nagse-settle down na in a way.
“So, parang ngayon na lumalabas talaga sa concept namin iyong need to have a base for families na ulit.
“We always yearned for that, e, to have a family restaurant, but we’ve always just ended up being more successful club makers. We just ended up being more successful during the dark.
“So now, ito na. This is our time to literally shine in the light talaga. Our name and life are everything in light na.
“Dito, we actually feel bare. We actually feel naked here, kasi talagang naiisa-isa ka dito, napupuntirya ka na. Unlike sa clubs na, ‘Ano ba’ng sine-serve mo do’n? Alak? Iinom ka lang.’ Dito hindi.
“Now, the concept of finding beauty and believing in Filipino cuisine as the ‘it’ cuisine in this country is the challenge.”
FILIPINO FOOD IS THE STAR. It’s been a longtime dream of Chef Fern to see Filipino food at par with international fares, like French or Japanese cuisine.
But to get there, he had to find the answer to these questions: “Ano nga ba ang problema sa Filipino food? Bakit nga ba hindi sikat?”
It was in 2007 when Chef Fern said he had an epiphany. At the time, he had joined the National Culinary Team to compete in the Hong Kong International Culinary Competition.
“For eleven years, nawala ang Philippines sa competitive stage, but when we went back in 2007, we immediately won a gold medal in one of the most difficult competitions!” he said, pertaining to the Gourmet Team Challenge, where each team was asked to cook 25 dishes in 24 hours.
“Doon, we cooked a Filipino-inspired menu, and we won gold!
"We’d always win medals every year, and we’d always come home with awards ever since.
“So, iyong movement na iyon was sort of like an affirmation na iyong mga Pinoy and our talents are really beyond our shores. Dapat talaga ipinapakita.
“And at the same time, parang sinasagot na rin namin iyong tanong.”
Chef Fern then gathered that the reason why Filipino food is not well-known internationally is because it is not even popular in our own country.
“Sa sariling bayan natin, ano'ng pagkaing sikat? Japanese? Italian?
“Tingnan mo iyong mga top restaurants sa Pilipinas, it’s not Filipino. It’s not even on the list.”
Chef Fern observed that when it comes to food, Filipinos are stuck with a colonial mentality that is akin to an inferiority complex.
“Parang patago pa tayo, e. Parang may complex pa tayo.
“So now, I wanted to break that mold by just being ballsy, by just putting it out there, and saying, ‘Yeah, we spent millions in a restaurant that serves fried tilapia—the lowly fried tilapia—and the fishballs that you make tusok, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that!'"
It is, to him, simply coincidental that the Filipino pride movement has gotten bigger nowadays, thanks to the Department of Tourism’s “It’s more fun in the Philippines” campaign.
And Chef Fern is serious about saying that his advocacy is not just a fad.
“I think, to be a Pinoy, more than ever, now is the best time. Hindi ako nakiki-ride on sa Pinoy pride. I just really think that this is the right time.”
CELEBRITY FAVORITES. Apparently, Chef Fern’s hunch is right.
His group officially opened the restaurant only last June, and already it's getting rave reviews from customers, including some of the country’s hottest showbiz stars.
Their line of celebrity fans include Maxene Magalona, Bela Padilla, Sarah Lahbati, Carla Humphries, Fabio Ide, Bubbles and Paolo Paraiso, Jackie Manzano-Yllana, JM Rodriguez, Wendy Valdez, and Bangs Garcia.
Even Anne Curtis and Solenn Heussaff have tweeted about how excited they are to go and try the restaurants’ offerings soon.
“Juday [Judy Ann Santos] was here just a few Saturdays ago unannounced. ‘Di man lang nagsabi. Nag-text na lang sa ‘kin, sabi, ‘Cheffy, I’m downstairs,’ gumanyan lang siya with no announcement.
“She was with Ryan [Agoncillo, her husband] and a big group of friends. Kumain sila, uminom sila, natuwa sila.
“First day of opening pa lang namin in June, Iza Calzado was here with her group. Kasama niya si Karylle and…marami sila, e.
“Richard and Raymond Gutierrez have also been here several times and Ruffa [Gutierrez] spent her birthday here last June 30.
“Champ Lui-Pio [formerly of the band Hale] sang for us on our opening night.
“Celebrities come here a lot, and for us it’s very gratifying na they still support us in our new venture.
“Hindi lang pala sila panggabi, hindi lang sila pang-club. Kumakain din sila and they like to eat well!” says Chef Fern.
Among the top favorites are the “tusok-tusok” fishball appetizers, which he says they make from scratch in their kitchen.
“They also love the chicken inasal here and most of the Ilonggo food.
“The lumpia sisig is also one of our bestsellers. Even the desserts, so always save room for the dolce de gatas and the Chocnut ice cream,” Chef Fern adds.
UNIQUE FILIPINO MENU. As he tells PEP, the hardest part in putting up the restaurant was coming up with a decent starting menu.
Chef Fern says, “Among the group, sa akin nila ibinigay iyong task na, ‘How do I define Filipino food?’
“And believe me, it was mahirap by every sense of mahirap, because I’ve been cooking for the last twenty-three years. And when you eat and you cook for so long, you ask, ‘How do you edit? Where do you start?’
“So, stressed out ako up until I realized, ‘I’m gonna go home. I’m gonna go home to where I’m most comfortable. I’m gonna go home where I love the food most.’”
Chef Fern is a native of Bacolod, Negros Occidental—hence the restaurant's Negros-centric menu.
“It is where I’m most comfortable to cook. It is where I’m most confident to serve. It is my identity, and from there, doon ko na inipon, ‘Ano pa ang mga gusto ng Pinoy?’
“Nag-aral ako sa UP sa Maynila, naalala ko iyong mga Assumpsionista kong kaklase, nagtutusok-tusok ng fishballs. Iyon ang ginawa ko.
“Pero iyong fishballs namin dito, we make from scratch. I don’t go to the grocery to buy fishballs. We really get pieces of fish, pinu-puree namin, ginagawan ng paraan.
“I think I owe that not only to myself as a chef, but also my clients who come here, because I want to give them the best.
“You give them what you can make from what God has given you between your two ears, between your two hands.
“Iyong bagoong namin, ginagawa din namin from scratch. Lahat ng puwede naming gawin in-house, gagawin namin.
“Why? Because this is the way you celebrate the joy of eating Filipino food.”
Showcasing his creativity in making Filipino dishes more appealing to a global audience is not his chief concern, says Chef Fern.
His foremost objective, he says, is to create a dining experience that Filipino families can enjoy and be proud of.
“Ito lang iyong filling na art form. Ito lang iyong art na kinakain mo. Culinary arts is the only art that uses all five senses.
“You take this [food], you enjoy this, you come together for it, and you celebrate it. And you really remember it. May babalikan ka and you can talk about it for a long time.
“So, iyong gusto kong ma-experience ng tao dito is more like...more than the food. You can have a great dining experience here.
“We want families to come here for lunch, for dinner. We want the late night crowd to have a seat outside and have a nice cold beer or a nice mojito made of lambanog.
“Our cocktails here are developed using local liquor, by the way.
“Gusto ko talagang ma-complete iyong dining experience and there’s no more excuses.
"I’m cooking Filipino food with no apologies.
“I’ve put my name right beside it, not to prove a point, but just to lift up a cuisine that has nourished all of us.
"Not just the ones living here, but the ones cooking Filipino food as OFWs abroad and everywhere else.
“So ano na ito, kumbaga, icing on the cake na lang na nakikilala kami. Icing on the cake na maraming celebrities na nagpupunta dito.
“I guess the vision of this restaurant is really to be the best in the country because if you’re the best Filipino restaurant in the Philippines, you will be the best Filipino restaurant in the world.
“It won’t be in New York, it won’t be in Hong Kong, it won’t be in Italy. It will be here in Manila. It will be here in this country.
“And if it means to start a revolution, kasi they always say, ‘Really? You’ll really build a restaurant to serve pritong isda, pritong baboy?’ I say, ‘Hell yeah, we did!’
“And I have no excuses for it. Why? It’s great cuisine. It’s fantastic. It’s meant to be celebrated!”