Roberto Pengson is a culinary school founder, educator, restaurateur, degustación savant, and a creative genius in the kitchen. Chef Rob, who studied in California Culinary Academy, is the co-founder and CEO of Global Academy, and is at the helm of many popular restuarants in the metro, that you have probably eaten at one, or two (or all) of them. He leads the flock at The Goose Station, a restaurant championing degustacion since 2009. Degustacion is now slowly entering Manila's restaurant scene, with chefs both local and foreign whipping up what is now being commonly referred to as tasting menus.
Photo from Chef Rob's Facebook page
Chef Rob is also at the helm of Shine Bakery & Cafe, where he mans the cafe kitchen while his wife Chef Sunshine Pengson is in charge of the bakery. He also has Hyve and Vyne, The Hungry Hound and Niner Ichi Nana, and Olive Tree Kitchen & Bar in his restaurant line up. "Now, it's catering," he adds, when we meet one evening at The Goose Station for a sneak peek of the restaurant's exciting menu that will be revived in September.
Rizal: A Cultural Narrative of Emotion is a tasting menu that is inspired by Jose Rizal; it was first introduced a couple of years back, and now the highly acclaimed restaurant will be bringing it back soon–and timing it well, what with all the international restaurant brands coming in to our already aggressive food industry. High time to showcase our own cuisine and own flavors, and in even more inventive ways to feed not just our stomach, but also our other senses. 'There are so many creative Filipino chefs out there that have to try to give more focus on this,' the chef shares, and as a writer who loves sharing food discoveries, I agree and cross my fingers that more Filipino cooks will follow suit in putting out there even more local culinary art to feed the soul.
The Goose Station, located at the W Tower, 39th Street, BGC
Over dinner, the chef shares his beginnings in culinary, his fond memories of living away from home, and his thought process on creating a degustation that is proudly Filipino, and deeply rooted in quotes from Jose Rizal. 'I said to myself, if I could capture what he was going through when he wrote those things, but translate it to food, how awesome would that be?' Chef Rob says.
Chef Rob in the kitchen of The Goose Station
'Here's one of our dishes from the Rizal menu,' the chef tells me, as it was laid on our table. Before I savor it, I savor first the words printed on the menu, words of Rizal that inspired this item. For the Rizal degustation, each dish comes with a letter that guests will open and read, making the dining experience participative. For this particular dish, it reads a moment in Jose Rizal's life when he was in Madrid. Walking in foreign streets, he is mistaken for other nationalities, but never called a Filipino. "…anything but Filipino! Our poor country–nobody has ever heard of you," the quote ends. Then, I read the key ingredients: Foie Gras Taho, Pedro Ximénez (a Spanish sherry), Tapioca. "The way we approached this dish is in the way Rizal must have felt when he wrote this, something like, you have to exert a louder effort just to get noticed?" the chef explains. "Imagine the taho. It has to become more than what it is."
Mistaken Identity: Foie Gras Taho, Pedro Ximénez, Tapioca
The dish, oozing of a midnight dream, is served on a lacquer bowl with a lacquer spoon. Chef Rob explains that this keeps the flavors pure. I gently dip my dark spoon into an even darker pool of the mysterious custard–it's taho but not quite, it has transformed into something else. It's deeper and darker, its aromas laced with something savory. I serve myself a spoonful, welcoming it into my mouth. Immediately, I am stunned–my eyes are staring at stars, my lips just had their first kiss. This is what just a single dish from the upcoming tasting menu feels like. If a sampling of a degustacion elicits these kinds of feelings from an eager diner, what more an entire tasting menu? Boy, do I look forward to Chef Rob's Rizal degustation even more.
Below are the highlights of the interview.
Who were your early influences when it came to food and cooking?
Chef Rob Pengson: I grew up under my mom's cooking. She was a very good cook, now she doesn't really cook that much. When I six years old I remember I was already making stuff like chicken galantina, because she used to sell them during Christmas. My favorite part was when we had to mince the vienna sausage. [laughs] I was a kid, right? And I found out that the best way to mince it was just to squish it with my fingers. [laughs] And I was like, this cooking is fun! So I remember during Christmas we'd make 100, 200 chickens and I was squishing all that vienna sausage. So you know, for a young kid to eat chicken galantina… She also had this really good cannelloni recipe which had bacon, pork, and chicken liver. I'd eat chicken liver when I was young, I was happy with it. My love for food was so alive since I was young. In fact, it was too alive that I became 210 pounds when I was 5'3"…When I was like, grade 7? I was walking around without a neck! [laughs]
What made you decide to do this–food, cooking–professionally?
I was cooking for myself, cooking was a part of my life. I wasn't good academically, I was a creative. So I went to UST because I got accepted there, for one year I took Interior Design because my mom's an Interior Designer. Then, in my friend's place, I saw this brochure of California Culinary Academy, and I saw this male and female image of chefs, and it looks so professional. They were cooking and the food looks so great. I didn't realize that cooking was a profession, but when I saw that, 'Oh, there's like this pala.' Then I started researching abroad, researching on all of the schools. And eventually I landed on California Culinary Academy. I was 19, I left home when I was 19. And then it was quite dramatic for me then because I broke up with my long time girlfriend just to go to school…
Like a life changing moment?
Life changing talaga! I was 19, first time to leave the house. Siyempre if you're an American, no big deal yun, diba? But when you're Pinoy at 19, going away on your own is a big deal. And I was stuck there for almost 3 years because it was expensive to visit home. I wanted to prove people wrong that I wasn't a spoiled kid. So I started there, and I came back home. I was cooking there for a while, and I was living on $300 a month, which included my electricity and phone bill. [laughs] Can you imagine? Now, I'm thinking, how did I do that?! [laughs] But then the good thing was in school, we could eat every day. There's a lot of food, we could take home. You'd take home literally, sometimes, one whole roast chicken, sometimes we'd take home two cakes. You're baking and cooking everyday, eh. Pasta some days, pizza one day. There's plenty food for the students. So I was pretty well fed, and with my 300 bucks. Sayang lang I wasn't such a foodie back then because San Francisco was such a nice place to become a foodie. But then I just went to McDonald's and Blondie's Pizza. And that's it! And on weekends, wala, gutom! Beer nalang. [laughs] Or whatever else that won't make you gutom. So yeah, that was my life there, then I started to work. And I was so amazed by the fact that I worked for 5 hours and someone gave me 100 bucks. I was like, are you serious? Five thousand, four thousand Pesos, and all I did was put vegetables on a platter and cheese? [laughs] That was my life abroad, then I came back home.
I applied in Shangri-La, and I met with the chef. He had never seen a formally-educated young kid before, because at that time, it was all people rising in the ranks. I was overqualified daw, and I got disheartened. Then I started making paninis in a coffee shop, until one day, this chef goes up to me. I was wearing my school uniform, because I was proud of my profession. I was making paninis in the shop, and the chef goes to me and says–he made fun of me but in a good way–"What are you doing here making panini?!" His name is Philip Golding. [laughs] Classic! Everybody knows Philip Golding. At that time, Azzurro was the talk of the town. Eventually I worked for him for a while, and I learned a lot. I worked in different restaurants, and then I taught in CCA. I felt that I could do a better job teaching, so I then opened a school which eventually became Global [Global Culinary & Hospitality Academy].
Photo from Global Academy Facebook page
What made you pursue teaching?
Well, when I was cooking, it was fun. Then when I was teaching, for some reason it was more fulfilling. You touch lives. And parang the best feeling in the world is when a student comes back to you later on, and they say, "Thank you." Or that you see someone so successful in life, I'm overjoyed. It's fulfilling. But then a part of me was missing, the actual cooking. So that's why I kind of went crazy when I opened The Goose Station, and all the rest. Now, it's catering naman. So The Goose Station was the first, then Hungry Hound, OTKB, Shine, Vyne, and Hyve.
So you have all these brands, plus the venture to catering. Then you have your school. How do you balance everything?
Well, the school is run by my best friend and my partner. I told him that I need to run this restaurant thing for a while. But part of my drive is that majority of our kitchens are run by my students. We have different themes in every restaurant, and it pretty much works on its own. Most of the days, I spend lunch at Shine, then The Goose Station for dinner.
And here we are now at The Goose Station for dinner. Degustación can be a pretty intimidating term for your average restaurant diner. How would you explain simply to someone unfamiliar with a degustation or tasting menu what they can experience with it?
The way I would explain it is that degustation, or a tasting menu, is something where you would want to appreciate, number one, the craftsmanship of the cook. I say 'cook' as an endearment, and not 'chef,' because I think a cook is more pure. It's a way to show the craftsmanship of a cook, and the way to usually do this is in small courses, and is usually in multiple courses. If you were an artist in music, you're judged by your whole album. Diba? If you were a fashion designer, it's your line, your collection. So if you're a cook, it's your tasting menu.
That's an excellent analogy!
Diba? It's very hard to judge in one dish, or two dishes lang. And it's also the way you combine one dish with another, what goes on next, what goes after…
Yeah! Kind of how the album has a tracklisting, and there's thought to the order of the songs in that album.
Yes. And also, it's not about being busog. There's a hierarchy of needs–of course there's the need to nourish your body. But when people have that need pretty much met, it becomes more a quest for entertainment. They're not looking to get stuffed now, if they wanna get stuffed they can go to a buffet. However, from entertainment, we're trying to do something different now in The Goose Station. It's like a gastrocultural experience, where instead of just entertainment, we try to communicate a whole culture and give our own interpretation of our own cuisine, Filipino cuisine. And the reason why this is so important to me is that so many of the world's cuisines are already all over the world, except Filipino cuisine. I know plenty chefs are trying it, and I was like, I guess we have to try it din. But then we need to do something different.
Kesong Puti, Yogurt Curd, Tagaytay Tomatoes, Strawberries, Sorrel, Salami Milanese, Black Pepper Quinoa
'Rizal: A Cultural Narrative Emotion' is a Filipiniana tasting menu available soon at The Goose Station. It boasts of a gastrocultural experience, partaking of food carefully created and curated with Filipino products, and connected to a time and place relating to Jose Rizal.
The Goose Station is open Monday through Saturday for dinner, doors open at 6pm and last orders are taken at 10pm. Call (+632) 556 9068 or (+63917) 854 6673 for reservations. Visit thegoosestation.ph for more information, follow on Instagram (@thegoosestation_mnl) and Twitter (@TheGooseStation), and Like their Facebook page (Facebook.com/pages/The-Goose-Station/119417471460290).