Interview by Marga Buenaventura
It is interesting to pick the brain of someone like Chef Bruce Ricketts. He’s been called the poster boy for the country’s growing restaurant scene, and the adage really shines when Ricketts describes his process. Not just of the actual way he makes food; rather, how the genesis of every dish comes from a desire to constantly push boundaries.
Ricketts studied culinary management in San Diego and spent some time earning his keep at Californian restaurants. He eventually came home to the Philippines, and first set up shop at Sensei Sushi in Parañaque, before opening Japanese fusion concept Mecha Uma in Taguig. Ricketts now has casual dining restaurant Ooma (in partnership with the Moment Group) and now a Mexican restaurant La Chinesca, right beside Sensei.
Through his restaurants, Ricketts has created for himself avenues of conversation between him and his diners, in which the stories are different but one thing is constant — the food, of course, is decidedly delicious. And just before Mecha Uma opened for the day, we caught up with Ricketts to talk more about the importance of ingredients, the local food scene’s direction, and just why Filipino diners are more difficult to please than any other.
What drew you into Japanese food?
It wasn’t really my base style to begin with. I got into it, because when I was starting out, Japanese food was a way for me to learn about the Filipino clientele. Japanese cuisine is the type of cuisine that people go out for, so that’s kind of how I got into it. I come from a background where the food that I do is really more on the fine dining end, but I didn’t have the money to do that. I didn’t have the funds or the resources, so I said, “Maybe it’s best to just understand the market and really see — get my feet wet.” As I got into it, I became obsessed with it. And because I didn’t have any formal training, everything I saw about it, fascinated me. I was discovering things in my own way, and everything was more special.
What have you learned so far about Filipino diners?
I find Filipino diners more difficult than diners elsewhere.
Really? In what way?
I believe that the Filipino palate is more exposed than people think it is. People assume that Filipino tastes has to taste sweet — Filipinos have learned to love that flavor, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only thing they look for. They like sweet, they like sour, but deliciousness in the Filipino palate doesn’t just end in the first two tastes. It has to linger. I think that’s why it’s really challenging. If you come from a different background and you don’t immerse yourself in what’s happening here, it’ll feel like you’re cooking out of the book. For me, it felt like the perfect playground: what happens if you do something excessively sweet? How do you pull it back? Being here, I learned how to use bitter flavors. I had to use different sensations for the clients here. But I had to find a way to do it that doesn’t feel like it’s poorly executed.
It’s interesting that you’re exploring different concepts now. And now you’ve opened La Chinesca, a Mexican restaurant.
The reason is I’ve been obsessed with Mexican food, even before I went back [to the Philippines]. My default cooking style is Mexican cuisine. The way I use acid is reflective of how Mexican chefs cook in Baja, California food stands. It’s like one big ceviche lifestyle — that’s my belief.
When I started to focus on Japanese, I began to chisel the edges. Japanese cuisine taught me to come back to what I believe in, which is bold, really assertive flavors, but to kind of clean it up a bit and focus on still using that but making sure that the main products are shown with utmost respect. It’s great what the Japanese did, but it’s great to have that restaurant opening because it’s like giving hugs to customers again. When you’re in this cuisine, [motions to kitchen] there’s a bit of restraint happening. A lot of restraint, a lot of thought. But at the end of the day, it has to taste good. Sometimes, I miss being carefree. To squeeze excessive amounts of lime juice, to make something excessively sour. I want my restaurant La Chinesca to be a place where you eat the food, and you feel like the chef loves you.
Before La Chinesca, you already have three Japanese concepts — Sensei, Ooma, and Mecha Uma. How do you distinguish them from each other?
Ooma is definitely guilty-pleasure food. On my day off, I wouldn’t eat the kind of food that I make in Mecha Uma. This is the kind of food for me that is my craft. Ooma is more like the kind of food that I want to give to customers with the same level of happiness, but at a price that more people can afford. Sensei is just the restaurant where the focus is trying to use good products, but still trying to be democratic with the pricing, the style, and the portions. The thing kasi with cuisine is that people charge excessive amounts [of money] for food and I think it’s not about the idea or what you’re selling. The price should be dictated by the materials you’re using. If the materials are good, a customer sits down, they eat it, and they can feel like the restaurant spent money on what goes on their plate. In Mecha Uma, we can find the best products that we can, spend a lot of money on it, and serve it to the customer. But it doesn’t change the intention, as thought we cook with less love and less passion in Sensei compared to Mecha Uma. All the same. I think everyone who cooks in my restaurants, even when I cook there, it’s same, same, energy. Whether it’s tacos or a tasting menus. What changes for me, it’s the quality of the ingredients.
As a diner, what excites you about local cuisine right now?
Oh, I think it’s continuously growing. So many local talent that’s emerging right now. At this point, it’s only gonna get even better. No way the scene is gonna work backwards. It’s like an avalanche effect — it gets bigger and bigger the further it goes. I have nothing but support for all the chefs, all of the people trying to do their own thing, trying to do their own businesses. They all deserve it, and I just hope that everyone stays inspired and stays excited. And I hope that whatever it is that they do, they believe in it 100 percent.
Photos by Ina Jacobe
Mecha Uma is located at 25th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, RCBC Corporate Center, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig.