“I was thinking that I was just going to close it,” Gene Gonzalez says. “But it got hard when I got all the letters.”
He is talking of course about Café Ysabel, one of the very few real restaurant institutions in Metro Manila. Nothing ever really lasts in this constantly changing metropolis. Demographics change, cities transform, and what is essentially a neighborhood place like Café Ysabel might get lost in the dust. But it has lasted three decades in its current spot, amassing a wealth of stories and memories that will have to be packed and moved to a new location.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” the chef/owner admits. “I’m too caught up in the stress of finding a new place.”
“It’s my kids who really took it hard. And it’s the customers.” Those are the letters that he was referring to: the legion of faithful diners who grew up on the restaurants classic dishes: the pasta Ysabel, the paellla, the lamb shank, the Peter Pan pie. They all broke out their pens to plead to the chef to keep the place open somehow. There was a woman, the chef says, who went into the restaurant one day, and started crying while hugging one of the restaurant’s wooden pillars.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he says with a wry smile.
It would have made sense for Chef Gonzalez to move on from Café Ysabel. At 58, and having recently gone through a bout with cancer, he doesn’t seem entirely enthused with the administrative aspects of having to run a restaurant. He seems to be finding more satisfaction now in his consulting work, which allows him to apply his culinary creativity without a lot of the headaches of having to manage a successful restaurant business. And then there’s the school, where he gets to guide new generations of chefs in their quests for culinary careers.
Chef Gene Gonzalez with a bottle of Corté Riva, a Filipino-made wine making a name for itself in California.
The school is tying into what seems to be his main interest right now: the development of a national cuisine. He talks enthusiastically about the food that is coming out of the provinces, the heritage cuisines that are now only being brought to light. “Bicol is really exciting right now,” Gonzalez says. “They’re really aggressive about promoting their cuisine. They brought a group of us around the region and just showed us what people are eating. It was amazing.”
In training new culinary professionals and trying to codify traditional techniques and methods, the chef is hoping that there will be more of a conversation about what Filipino food is. He points to Davao, where there are at least a hundred new restaurants staffed by graduates of his school, all of them trying to do something new with the dishes that they grew up with.
Dutch oil lamps hang above – antiques dating back to the 1800s.
“You know, when you visit a place in the Philippines, and you say you want to eat something that everybody eats there, they seem almost embarrassed. ‘Ha? Gusto mo kainin ‘yan?’ They don’t know that what they’re serving is really good. They don’t know how special it is.”
He still gets excited about discovering the food of this country. There is joy in his voice as he describes the taste of some wild strawberries that are growing in Bicol. He is raving over some green honey that was sent to him from Davao. He wants to spend some time investigating it, figuring out exactly where it came from. Chef Gonzalez just seems ready to take on the next great culinary adventure.
Chef Gene served us the crowd favorites: Braised Lamb Shank, Paella, Pasta Ysabel – a pasta served in the Café since day one.
In light of that, it is perfectly understandable why Chef Gonzalez thought of just closing down Café Ysabel forever after doing the math of just how much it would cost to keep it running on the land the restaurant has been on for thirty plus years. There is so much for the chef to do. But again: his customers. He talks warmly about the people who still visit everyday: the lawyer who sits by the window, doing his readings; the old Chinese man with two cell phones, doing business while snacking on some of the restaurant’s most beloved dishes. The frescoed walls have been witness to countless first dates, marriage proposals, and wedding receptions. Generations have passed under the soft, warm light of the antique Dutch oil lamps hanging from the ceiling, and they aren’t ready to let it go.
And so Gene Gonzalez is not entirely done with Café Ysabel. He has found another old house on a street on the outskirts of San Juan, in a mostly quiet neighborhood just off E. Rodriguez.
He will be tearing down the restaurant in June, hoping to bring as much of the old place to the new location. And in this new neighborhood, this chef, who so often looks to our country’s past to forge its culinary future, will welcome customers new and old, serving them a piece of Café Ysabel’s history in every bite.
Café Ysabel is located in 455 P. Guevarra Street, San Juan Metro Manila. Deconstruction will start around June.