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At Large

A young chef’s bold dreams

/ 11:55 PM September 01, 2012

She had set her dreams on a career in medicine but found to her dismay as a medical student at UCLA that “I easily got scared by cadavers.”

Seeking to recover from the shock of finding her childhood ambitions laid to waste, Francesca Cariño, 28, joined an aunt in Madrid to collect her wits and find a new path in life. And there she found the challenging boundaries of cuisine, Spain being the contemporary center of gastronomy in the world. In Spain, Cheska discovered restaurants and chefs that both kept true to traditional recipes and approaches to food, and also broke new ground in terms of food technology and exploration of new and novel ingredients and combinations.

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Her taste buds thus awakened, Cheska found herself back in Los Angeles two months later and enrolling in the LA branch of Le Cordon Bleu. “Plenty of tears” is how she describes her parents’ reaction to her decision to switch careers from medicine to cuisine. But, perhaps thinking this was just a passing phase, the older Cariños agreed to bankroll her culinary education, including on-the-job training at Le Cordon Bleu Paris.

Cheska soon proved her parents wrong when, after obtaining her certificate from the famed culinary academy, she embarked on a series of training classes, apprenticeships and jobs in such places as Las Vegas, Okinawa, even Fairways and Bluewater Resort in Boracay of which her father, a lawyer, was once co-owner. Most memorable was a stint as line cook in the catering kitchen of Wolfgang Puck in LA, preparing dishes for events like the Oscars, the Emmys and the Grammys.

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Then her parents called her home, luring her with an offer no young chef-in-the-making can refuse: open her own restaurant.

The timing could not have been more perfect for at the time, Cheska had begun thinking of ways to improve the preparation, presentation and flavor of “food I had grown up eating,” she reflects. “I was thinking about what kind of cuisine I wanted to concentrate on, and it always came back to Filipino food, to familiar tastes and experiences.”

One problem she and other young Filipino foodies in LA recognized was that Pinoy dishes, even the most beloved, “don’t look good.” Who was it who once said that the problem with the most famous and tasty local dishes—adobo,  menudo,  kare-kare—is that “they all look brown”? To make local dishes more visually appealing and better fit to serve as fine dining, Cheska believes that all it takes is a touch of creative presentation and portioning. “With some tweaking, I believe we can elevate Filipino food to world-class standards,” declares this young chef.

This explains her decision to name her new restaurant “Premio,” because, she says, “with some care and careful thinking we can make Filipino cuisine prize-winning.”

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Premio is located on one of Bonifacio Global City’s main drags, 32nd Street, across such landmarks as St. Luke’s Hospital, S&R and Home Depot, on the ground floor of the same building that houses the F1 Hotel.

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It has a rather quiet frontage, and the interiors themselves are a muted combination of brick walls, tiled floors and black granite tables. There is a bar area on the second floor, and save for the  capiz  doors on the restrooms, nary a hint of the establishment’s Filipino identity.

Maybe we can call it “Mediterraneo-Filipino,” a combination of continental classics as well as Filipino staples.

The bestseller, Cheska proudly declares, is her  kare-kare, presented in the fashionable “deconstructed” manner of large cubes of beef loin sitting on a bed of vegetables and mild peanut sauce. But where’s the  bagoong? Tasty and pungent, it lies just beneath the cubes of meat, providing the expected salty-sweet kick to the meaty goodness.

Another surprise is the baked chicken, a whole spring chicken stewed in a combination of spices that hark back to Caribbean, Indian and Southeast Asian origins, coupled with stewed young bananas and banana heart.

Among the appetizers—or as cocktail fare—I recommend the smoked  chicharon  from Premio’s in-house butchers, crisp and crackling but without a hint of fat, and the cheese platter that brings together cheeses from around the world (including Gouda, Parmigiano Reggiano, Brie and cheddars) paired with grapes, parma ham and figs. You can also try a wide selection of wines, including one called “Premio” from Chile.

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In the two times I’ve visited Premio, Cheska capped every table-side spiel with the plea: “Save room for dessert!” Diners would do well to heed her.

Her flourless chocolate cake combines a slab of this dessert classic with crumbs of peanut butter  polvoron  and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, while her pannacotta is a surprisingly light but flavorful pudding of goat cheese topped with blueberry compote and mint.

This last is made from goat’s milk sourced from goats (albeit exotic foreign breeds) that Cheska’s father raises in his own farm. In fact, this is one other practice that Cheska wishes to institutionalize with Premio: “I’ve been going around talking with vegetable growers, farmers and plantation owners who could supply me directly with our ingredients, literally ‘farm to table.’”

Her parents may have been disappointed when she chose to exchange her doctor’s scrubs with an apron, but they surely are basking in the good their daughter has done with Premio: providing a warm, cozy place where friends and families can gather, sharing not just good food and excellent wine, warm conversation and company, but also a shared dream to elevate Filipino cuisine to a standard equal to any in the world.

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TAGS: At Large, Chef, food, Francesca Cariño, opinion, Rina Jimenez-David
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