Filipinos have this penchant for honoring fellows who are somehow under an international spotlight. Case in point is today's Twittersphere's rejoice over Jessica Sanchez' inclusion in American Idol's top three finalists. But in an alternate society where the culinary world is more glitzy than the entertainment industry, it is probably Village Tavern's Corporate Chef Mary Grace Viado-Howard, not Jessica Sanchez, who is the Fil-Am of the hour.
From Manila, To America...
The Chef of The Hour
Born and raised in the Philippines, Chef Mary Grace received her first distinction when she graduated cum laude with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Administration from the University of the Philippines. Her restaurant career began when she joined the Bistro Holding Group as an assistant kitchen manager for the first Italiannis in Greenbelt. Her thirst for more challenges led her to taking up further studies in the Culinary Institute of America. A natural achiever, she graduated with highest honors on top of her many awards and scholarships such as James Beard Foundation Scholarship, Culinary Institute of America Service Award, Culinary Institute of America President’s Scholarship, Guest Services Endowed Scholarship, Katharine Angell Scholastic Achievement Award and International Student Scholarship.
It was after graduating when casual neighborhood bar Village Tavern piqued her interest. With a promising lady knocking at their door, Village Tavern did the right thing and welcomed her to the team.
“I've been with Village Tavern for eight years; I started as an assistant kitchen manager. I worked my way up. I applied for the position of corporate chef and luckily I got it,” she said with a humble smile and a still overwhelmed expression. But her superiors will probably argue that it was not luck that brought her to the top. Her decorated resume, her remarkable training in top New York restaurants (Restaurant Daniel, Aquavit, Le Cirque 2000, Aureole, Payard Patisserie and Bistro, to name a few), plus her hard work are all they needed to promote her to the Corporate Chef position.
Now based in Alabama, the chef once hailed by New York’s Four Seasons Hotel's Executive Chef Brooke Vosika as “the consummate 21st century culinarian,” found a chance to make a homecoming when Village Tavern's first international branch opened up in the Fort. With a perpetual expression of disbelief and a humble smile in her face, Chef Mary Grace Viado-Howard welcomed a small press group a couple of weeks back during the media launch of the brand.
When asked how she felt when the news of Bistro's intent to franchise the popular bar reached her, she was quick to answer: “It's like, you know, what Steve Jobs said-- that we're all connected by dots. When I learned that Bistro wants to franchise Village Tavern, I was happy. It felt like it was a (homecoming). Because Tony Santarelli, who is (now Bistro's) CEO, was the vice president of TGIFridays and Italianni's at that time when I was an assistant kitchen manager in Italiannis Greenbelt.”
According to her, Village Tavern is doing well in America and she's certain that Filipinos will also love it. She sees her being a Filipino as an advantage as well, as she can easily adjust the flavors to suit the market. “But the dishes will have the same profile. The adjustments will be as minor like just the levels of saltiness,” she promised.
To Give Filipinos a Taste of Her Cooking
Going through the entire length of Village Tavern's thick menu will take you at least a month and a bank account of a CEO since average cost per plate is around P500. To make choosing dishes easier for hesitant first-timers, here are some of her recommendations:
The Hot Crab Dip (P495) always headlines the best-sellers. “It has cream cheese, mayonnaise, mustard, plus imported and top quality crabs,” Chef Mary Grace explained. Like a tasteful choice of a sexy dress, the Hot Crab Dip reveals just enough to make one excited. It's not surprising for this dish to make you yearn for second and third helpings.
Hot Crab Dip
The Ahi Tuna Sashimi (P495), on the other hand, will give you a more upfront satisfaction. With nothing to mask its flavor but the sesame seeds that crown it, the softer-than-tongue tuna slices are fresh enough to send any sashimi-lover into a brief high.
Ahi Tuna Sashimi
Those who prefer to coat their stomach with vegetables at the start of their meal should order the Grilled Chicken, Spinach, and Mixed Greens Salad (P595) that's filling enough to warrant its price. In addition to the normal greens, there are dried cranberries, spiced pecans, sliced green apples, sweet vinaigrette, apple smoke wood bacon, and bleu cheese to be expected and thanked for in this bowl.
Grilled Chicken, Spinach, and Mixed Greens Salad
Top-selling main course options take the form of the interesting Crispy Chicken Tacos (P475) with chocolate vanilla beans, the diverse-flavored Ten-Spice Glazed Salmon with Israeli Couscous (P595), and the buttery Snapper Hemingway (P550). But if you were to order just one dish from the menu, make it the Maryland-style Crab Cakes (P550), which is arguably the best way to eat crabs in this side of town.
Ten-Spice Glazed Salmon
Get all the satisfaction from eating a whole crab without dealing with the shells when you order one plate of this for yourself.
Maryland-style Crab Cakes
Appetizers and main fares are exquisite in this restaurant but the Banana Crepes (P395) dessert upstages them all. “This is a last minute thing that I came up with my mind. I was surprised that everyone loved it!” Chef Mary Grace shared. The must-have dessert is comprised of caramel sauce, in house made crepe, chocolate hazelnut fudge, custom made banana ice cream, fresh bananas, and chocolate flavored espresso beans.
Unlike her fellow successful Filipinos recognized by the entertainment industry abroad, the internationally-acclaimed Chef Mary Grace came and left the country without warranting that much of a media hype. Hopefully, I'd live long enough to see this society allocate equal pride to everybody making an effort to put a positive adjective next to the name of this country-- may he or she be a cooking or a singing idol.