REX SORIANO: On One’s Own

How does a seasoned chef make it outside America’s celebrity kitchens and make his mark in the fierce F&B game of the culinary capital?

The low-key master chef wears his favorite steward shirt because, "It's very comfortable!"

Keeping it real: Low-key master chef wears his favorite steward shirt because, “It’s very comfortable!”

Words: Christine Nunag
Photography: Limuel Dayrit

Banh Mi Vietnamese Sandwich Eatery stands out with its hip, progressively industrial look, a stark contrast from its downtown location in Angeles City’s heritage district and from what it once was. In February 2012, Rex Soriano quietly opened Banh Mi in the neighborhood as a simple take-out counter. It occupied a tiny space in front of a sari-sari store cum softdrinks dealership run by his Vietnamese mother-in-law. Back then, my companions and I snacked on hefty sandwiches paired with softdrinks served through the narrow store window. We ate right there, tambay-style – either standing, leaning against the counter, or finding anything to sit on, usually a random monoblock chair perhaps intended for their “boy” workers on break. One day they managed to fit a plastic table into the cramped area along with a few more seats. From there, I waited until I saw the one thing that I used to travel to Manila for whenever I craved Vietnamese – the real deal noodle soup, pho. In June 2013, the kiosk transformed into an enclosed 20-seater eatery to accommodate its growing customer base. Though now air-conditioned, the place kept its street-style vibe with its down-to-earth design, including my favorite spot against the glass wall — a low wooden bar-bench that lets you look out to the road outside and its passing cars and jeepneys.

Mural by Kapampangan artist Mike Allapitan depicts Vietnam's quintessential street food scene.

Mural by Kapampangan artist Mike Allapitan depicts Vietnam’s quintessential street food scene.

Banh Mi today is a spacious restaurant that can fill up to 80 guests coming from and beyond the culinary capital. It has since paved the way for more players from Angeles City’s Vietnamese community to establish their well-loved cuisine as a permanent addition to Pampanga’s bustling food scene.

Progressive ideas: Banh Mi's interiors combine traditional Vietnamese elements and contemporary, industrial designs.

Conversation piece: Banh Mi’s interiors combine traditional Vietnamese elements and contemporary, industrial designs.

Authentic vs. traditional 

Banh Mi’s takeout menu began with a few but well-thought out choices. Pan-toasted sandwiches looked familiar but were distinguishably gourmet with their impeccable presentation and skillful execution. This is where I first laid eyes on an exquisite slice of sisig terrine lying inside my cold cuts sandwich, a memorable sight which offered a sneak preview of the maker’s refined taste and advanced-level training. At the time, Soriano was gaining a reputation in our local community as “the chef from Nobu who graduated from CIA” (Culinary Institute of America in New York). Early offerings also included traditional Vietnamese fare such as fried spring rolls dipped in pineapple and alubebe (fish sauce), summer rolls with peanut sauce, savory egg crepe (banh xeo) and finally, pho.

Banh Mi food Vietnamese iced coffee

Banh Mi’s menu reflects Soriano’s comfort food while living in the US. Clockwise from top left: Special combination banh mi with housemade chicharon, signature salad roll with housemade sausage, Vietnamese cabbage chicken salad in miso-vinaigrette dressing, Vietnamese iced coffee.

While the menu was inspired in part by stories of Soriano’s mother-in-law about the food they cooked and ate in Vietnam with the changing seasons, the US-born Kapampangan chef combined these ideas with the Vietnamese flavor profiles he adapted while living in the US. Soriano then developed and tested these recipes with his Kapampangan-Vietnamese wife, Ivee. Today, visitors find something new in Banh Mi’s non-traditional items, such as his take on goi ga which becomes cabbage chicken salad in miso-ginger vinaigrette. While supplies such as rice paper, noodles, hot sauce and coffee come from Vietnam, Soriano makes the cold cuts, sausage and ham. Although Vietnamese guests enjoy the food, Soriano clarifies that it is more accurate to describe Banh Mi’s menu as both traditional and non-traditional. “It’s important  to give justice to Vietnamese cuisine. But to me, authentic Vietnamese means that the food is cooked in Vietnam [and/or] by a Vietnamese using ingredients from that country,” he explains.

New look: Banh Mi Vietnamese Sandwich Eatery

Progressive contemporary: From restaurant design to menu concept, Banh Mi  represents the owner-chef’s personal sensibilities.

No short cuts

Through Banh Mi, Soriano succeeded in establishing Vietnamese cuisine in Pampanga. But the journey was not a walk in the park. The chef, who also worked for famous hotel and restaurant brands such as Raffles, Four Seasons, Neiman Marcus, Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck, proved through experience that a sterling background does not guarantee quick success. “School teaches discipline; working in kitchens builds professionalism,” he points out. Indeed, when we set out on our own, life teaches us a whole new set of lessons through trials and errors, successes and failures. Soriano, who used to teach international cuisine at Holy Angel University in Angeles City, always believed in a one-product business model. He cites his own start-up story and how he learned from his mistake: “I decided to sell funnel cake near a big public school in Pampanga. I didn’t listen to local advice. In the end, I realized that food is not the students’ priority. They would rather invest their time and money on cellphone load and cigarettes.”

Food for thought: Words that inspired the student chef in the Culinary Institute of America

Food for thought: Posted in the library of the Culinary Institute of America in New York , these words inspired Soriano as a student chef to always keep an open mind.

Reality check

With his growing family in mind, the new entrepreneur turned to what was closest to his heart: his comfort food. “As a student in the US with limited cash, I always went for Vietnamese food — particularly the banh mi — when I wanted good, affordable food,” Soriano shares. Inspired ideas turned into product development, until it was time to test the market. Through catering requests, the practical chef incorporated Vietnamese items into the menu. At every opportunity to contribute food — at friends’ gatherings, small potluck parties, even in funerals where, instead of the customary cash abuloy, Soriano donated sandwiches and springrolls. Meanwhile, Soriano knew about my food work when he and I first met as judges at an Ayala Mall restaurant competition in 2011. So with every Banh Mi visit with friends, he would bring out new items for sampling. These “market research” scenarios allowed the resourceful chef to gather handy insights based on the people’s reaction to his food.

No chefs jacket: Soriano in his usual denim or Hedley & Bennett apron.

No chef jacket: The practical chef in his usual denim or Hedley & Bennett apron.

Setting up a working kitchen was a huge challenge. “In the beginning, menu items were limited primarily because of the limited equipment,” he narrates. The transition from the professional kitchens to the very basic household equipment and appliances frustrated Soriano who used to work with top-of-the-line equipment custom-built to the user’s functionality and movement. In building his business, the gourmet chef found himself doing things that were not part of his job description — from carpentry, plumbing to maintenance. These are the kind of real life tests which force us out of our comfort zone. But in Soriano’s case, they brought out the chef’s innate creativity and true character.

Banh Mi serves traditional and non-traditional Vietnamese cuisine

Banh Mi serves traditional and non-traditional Vietnamese cuisine

Social media

How does one begin and maintain a food business in such a picky, hard-to-please market as Pampanga? “It’s all about educating the market,” Soriano affirms. “The locals are well-travelled, and timing was also key. Facebook was becoming popular and people were sharing experiences online.” According to Soriano, there had been previous undertakings by the Vietnamese community to set up shop in the city around the mid-2000. However, key factors had not yet come together; the market was not ready. As of this writing, there are six Vietnamese restaurants in Angeles City offering traditional and regional dishes.

Banh Mi is about great food, great value for money and great customer service.

The Banh Mi experience is all about good food, good value for money and good customer service.

Heart for service

Prior to becoming a chef, the young Soriano worked in a factory assembly line, as a busboy and bartender in a restaurant in Los Angeles, California and as banquet waiter in a 3-star hotel in Alaska. The ex-dentistry student also worked in healthcare, as a physical therapy aide for geriatric patients for two years. Soriano, who now operates his very own and growing food business, sets his focus towards maintaining quality and consistency of food as well as customer service at Banh Mi.

Banh Mi family: Some of Soriano's trusted staff refer to their chef-boss as Koya, Kapampangan for big brother.

Banh Mi family: Some of Soriano’s trusted staff refer to their chef-boss as “koya” which is Kapampangan for big brother.

Moving forward

Excited to expand his playground and explore new business ventures, Soriano is set to launch his very own koobideh project, a curb-side pick-up grilled chicken concept — Soriano’s version of roadside lechong manok. While he loves to work with Vietnamese influences for the Filipino market, he keeps himself inspired by playing with seasonal ingredients and different themes. In October 2014, Soriano set up a separate space within the newly expanded restaurant to serve non-Vietnamese cuisine. This pop-up concept, which continues what he used to do as Rex Supperclub upon his return to the Philippines several years ago, lets Soriano serve degustation and family-style meals to a minimum group of 10 pax upon request. I have brought several groups of chefs, foodies and culinary media to these events which allowed us to experience Soriano’s masterful work honed by years of labor and sweat inside international hot kitchens. Amidst the demands of the restaurant, family and fatherhood, the passionate chef never ceases to find fun in food, to keep the fire burning.

chef Rex Soriano Banh Mi Angeles City

From one soft-spoken master to aspiring chefs: “The restaurant business is always a work in progress. It takes a lot of heart, dedication, patience, discipline and humility to get the job done.”

Banh Mi Vietnamese Sandwich Eatery
1-1 Pacimar Estate, Jesus St., Bgy. Pulungbulu, Angeles City, Philippines
Phone: (63) (45) 436 2296
Mobile: (63) (999) 817 7896
Mon-Sat: 12NN-9PM

Photoshoot interview for this story, May 2015

Photoshoot interview for this story, May 2015

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How the Culinary Capital Moves with the Times

PampanGastronomy Dine Philippines 2015

PampanGastronomy recently presented in the form of an interactive talk for the F&B/tourism trade from Pampanga/Central Luzon: Using data and insights culled from 12 years of experience in culinary research, management of specialty gastronomic events and multi-sphere food work, I highlighted topics which served to:

  • shed light on Kapampangan food vs lutong Kapampangan
  • tackle Kapampangan myths and refresh perspectives
  • show how Pampanga continues to live up to its tourism brand as the country’s culinary capital by showcasing the recent evolution of my hometown’s foodscape through classic vs. contemporary approaches, trends vs heritage, international influences and factors that shape our cuisine and make us who we are.

Christine Nunag Dine Philippines 2015 Pampanga

While the material also served as a case study on tourism strategies related to research, product development, marketing & promotion, ultimately, the underlying goal was to offer a sample approach which may help bridge the gap between islands/borders by recognizing and focusing on our regional strengths and collectively celebrating our delicious diversity in order to promote Philippine cuisine as one.

This presentation was prepared based on Dine Philippines 2015’s theme, Changing the F&B Game, for its Pampanga leg held on August 19, 2015 at the Angeles University Foundation Sports & Cultural Center upon the invitation of educator  & marketing specialist Adolf Aran of Courage Asia.

Thank you to my partner purveyors for your support & participation:

Homemade Treasures
Porac, Pampanga
0928-507-0928

Apag Marangle
Park Square Makati: 0928-8751100, 02-6685812
Marquee Mall, Angeles City : 0925-8858979
Jose Abad Santos Avenue, Sta. Barbara, Bacolor, Pampanga: 0922-8800568

Limuel Dayrit Photography
Angeles City
l.dayrit@yahoo.com
09194901903

 

Posted in advocacy, culture, destinations, dining, events, gastronomic tours, Philippines, tourism, trends | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Introduction to Heirloom Rice

How to cook Filipino heirloom rice, food pairing and The Heirloom Rice Project featuring varieties from the Cordilleras, which include rice cultivated in ancient terrace clusters inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Site. This continues my last post on UP Los Baños culinary tourism for FOOD Magazine Issue 1, 2015.

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Los Baños Food Tour

Yes, Los Baños is a foodie place, too! Find out where to go and what to eat around this budget-friendly culinary destination located just south of Metro Manila. While there, discover the amazing Zacamote and other delicious, new farm products grown or made by our country’s modern-day Filipino farmers. Published in FOOD Magazine Issue 1, 2015. With bonus recipes.

Posted in cuisine, destinations, dining, farms, food, gastronomic tours, Philippines, restaurants, tourism, travel | Leave a comment

DALCIELO: The Place to Be in LB

Looking for an alternative dining destination within an hour-and-a-half drive from Manila? Dalcielo’s two branches in UP Los Banos, Laguna offer an extensive array of delicious comfort food that will make you want to “live” there (i.e. camp out at the SEARCA branch for breakfast, lunch and dinner.) To quote a foodie/traveler friend, “Gusto kong bumalik ng LB pero Dalcielo lang tayo!” You’ll know what we mean when you get there 😉

To read full story, click PDF or JPG file. This feature is also in the Food Hubs section of the Marketing Challenge issue of F&B World Magazine, available in bookstores.

Dalcielo UP Los Banos F&B World 2014 PDF

Dalcielo UP Los Banos F&B World 2014

Dalcielo is open Monday thru Sundays 630am- 10pm SEARCA branch, 10am- 10pm Lopez main store.

 

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