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Gene Gonzalez' recipe for success

The Philippines may not be a top culinary destination, but it has produced a number of chefs who've made it in global kitchens, often thanks to Eugenio "Gene" Gonzalez.

by: Reuters: Karen Lema | 03 Feb 2009

Chef, restaurateur, best-selling author and teacher rolled into one, Gonzalez was a former bond market dealer who set up his first restaurant, Cafe Ysabel, at the age of 23, and it's still going strong 27 years later.

The 50-year-old self-confessed chocoholic, who studied behavioural science, hosted gourmet cooking shows on Philippine television in the 1980s and he has written several recipe books that have made it to Manila's best-seller lists.

In 2000, he set up "The Centre for Asian Culinary Studies" from which about 500 chefs have graduated so far.

Q: How and when did your love for cooking begin?
A: "I started cooking when I could stand on a stool. I grew up in a kitchen. We came from a very special town that is well known for entertaining and for food. My family entertained the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, then Prince Norodom (Sihanouk), who later became king of Cambodia, and Arthur MacArthur (a former Philippine governor-general), they were so many."

Q: What inspired you to go into the restaurant business?
A: "Our family has a food company. We have a bakery that sells and distributes to supermarkets, and we have the oldest taco and tortilla company. My siblings continued the business, although I am pretty much on my own with the restaurant.

I opened Cafe Ysabel, which later became a chain of nine restaurants. But, somewhere along the way, I felt we could not rely on one line of business, so we delved into food consultancy. We have helped set up 65 restaurants and 10 major food systems. We have a very good batting average. Of the 65 restaurants, 60 are still operating."

Q: How did you come up with name of Cafe Ysabel?
A: "I named the restaurant after my aunt. I found it very sexy because her name was spelled with a Y."

Q: Has Cafe Ysabel undergone many changes since it was established 27 years ago?
A: "Not really. Cafe Ysabel stood the test of time. Thirty-three percent of the menu has stayed, and these are the things that you will never be able to take out because they are such classics, like the Pasta Ysabel, Steak ala Pobre, Caesar Salad, spaghetti with "angry" sauce, and Cafe's Puttanesa."

Q: What sets it apart from other restaurants in Manila?
A: "It is very casual. It is not pretentious. You can come in shorts. But, what make us different is that, we are not scared to try a lot of new things. We have been a haven of gastronomy.

We have been known for "custom made" menus. We have done a lot of very wild dinners. During the era of cigars, we did cigar dinners. During the 90s, I did chocolate dinners. I am a chocoholic and I am a certified Belgian chocolate instructor.

You go to my office, you go to my room, within arms reach, there is chocolate everywhere."

Q: What makes a great chef?
A:"Everybody talks about passion, but, you also need to be creative and you need to have administrative skills as well.

But, there is one aspect that chefs tend to overlook – the importance of being fit. You need stamina. If you are not fit, you will not be able to endure the rigors of standing up for long periods of time.

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