By Angelo G. Garcia
When New Zealand basketball team Tall Backs received boos from Filipino fans last year during their traditional haka dance performance, it showed how clueless most Pinoys were to the culture of the Kiwis. The only thing Filipinos probably know about the South Pacific country is Hobbiton, thanks to The Lord of the Rings movies.
The unfamiliarity, however, goes both ways. Auckland-based Filipino chef Leo Fernandez says that New Zealanders, too, know little about the Philippines. Most of them don’t know that we speak English and they don’t know nothing about the food. When he opened a restaurant after finishing second place in New Zealand MasterChef in 2015, Kiwi diners have no clue what to expect about Filipino cuisine.
“Because they (people in NZ) are unaware of Filipino food, they were thinking that it might be like Indonesian, Vietnamese, or Thai. Some are disappointed because it didn’t meet their expectation,” says Leo. “But some are blown away because of the flavors. Filipino food is quite polarizing at times, it’s either you like it or hate it.”
The celebrity chef recently visited the country for Food Connection Manila, a one-day trade show of New Zealand export products, organized by the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE). Chef Leo was a practicing veterinarian here in the country when he migrated to New Zealand in 2008. He worked for a dairy farm and then in a pig farm before landing a spot in the reality television show.
He admits that everything he knows about cooking was self taught, considering that he comes from a family of food connoisseurs. Chef Leo was forced to cook when his cravings started for Filipino food.
“I was forced to learn because as a migrant, I had to teach myself how to cook Filipino comfort food,” he says. “I took my family by surprise when I told them I was joining MasterChef.”
One of his main goals in the competition was to introduce Filipino cuisine to the Kiwis, cooking Pinoy dishes like arroz caldo, escabeche, bilo-bilo and, other dishes in the challenges. His plan worked because it got the audience curious of Filipino fare.
Last year, along with fellow Pinoy partners, chef Leo opened Azon. With this restaurant, he tries to elevate Filipino food by creating contemporary dishes but keeping with the roots in terms of flavors and service.
“The restaurant’s concept is contemporary Filipino. It’s more on tweaking Filipino dishes, just presented in a different way but the flavors are still there. It’s a family oriented restaurant, a sharing concept, which is very Filipino,” he says.
According to him, the challenge is getting the ingredients. He has suppliers that import Filipino ingredients but the challenge comes from local fresh ingredients. For instance, he uses goat in his caldereta, a meat that is not popular in New Zealand. There are a few but he has tough competition from other restaurants that cook foreign cuisines like Indian food that also use a lot of goat meat. The seafood is expensive, too, since the country observe sustainable fishing.
But this is also what Chef Leo loves about NZ, that you could just go to the coast and pluck muscles from the rocks on the beach and it’s safe to eat. The country also produces a lot of quality and premium products from dairy to wine to fruits, which is a dream come true for any chef.
He says that the restaurant trend now in Kiwi country is offeringsustainable and organic eats. It’s all the about farm-to-table trend. New Zealand prides itself for its clean and safe products. The country makes sure that products are safe and traceable, after all, it exports majority of its products.
“We export 70 percent of what we produce,” explains NZTE trade commissioner to the Philippines Hernando Banal II. “By default, everything we produce in New Zealand should be traceable and sustainable.”
During the Food Connection Manila, the South Pacific country showcased its best like Antipodes, a premium bottled water brand that was judged as the “World’s Best Water”; New Zealand Natural, maker of premium ice cream; Charlie’s Fruit Fix Smoothies; Phoenix Organics’ juices and sodas; Whittaker’s chocolates; Palm corned beef; Annie’s Fruit Bars; Schubert wines; Babich wines; Tohu wines; Te Pa wines; and Anchor products.
The total trade between NZ and PH has been steadily growing reaching NZ$1B in export products last year. Hernando says that the Philippines is New Zealand’s 18th largest export market.
“What we are promoting are our brands these are value added products. We would like to see more New Zealand brands in local supermarkets,” Hernando says. “The awareness is growing, the interest about the Philippines. Of course, the economic performance of the Philippines in the last six years help, it’s becoming more obvious now to business people. The dream is to use the Philippines as a launching pad, we are a good entry point to Southeast Asia.”
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