Restaurants come and go, and there are some that sadly, don’t even leave a mark. Fortunately, Tequila Joe’s is one of those that you’d always remember-practically everyone has memories of that place. Cyma opened in Boracay in the early 90s and was an instant hit. Charlie’s Grind & Grill is one of the reasons why Kapitolyo in Pasig is now a food haven. Even Achiote Taqueria, born out of a desire to cater to a former restaraunt's loyal patrons wanting a new place for Mexican food, is making raves. These are just but four of the many ways Chef Robby Goco stamped his way into your life. After all the best way not just to a man’s heart but practically to every person’s heart is through his stomach.
Chef Robby Goco
This is the journey of a man who believes that good food is a right, not a privilege.
How would you regard food and its relationship to mankind?
Number one, food gives life. It’s something that goes into our system and gives us life. Wars are fought over food. Philippines was discovered because of food. They were looking for spices because food was rotting in Europe and refrigeration wasn’t invented yet at that time. They looked for spices to mask the flavor of rotting food, so they went around the world to look for Spice Islands. There are a lot of types of taking in food. There’s what you call surviva, wherein you have to hunt to live. There’s what you call people who need to eat just to be able to live. And then there are gourmands, people who live to eat. And there are people who just taste. They eat food for the pleasure of it.
You seem so passionate about this relationship with food. Is this the reason why you wanted to become a Chef?
Being a Chef you really have to understand what you’re getting yourself into. You are serving food. You have to understand each and every aspect about food. You can get carried away with it. If you are going to do something, you have to be passionate about it; otherwise you will never go anywhere. That’s my advice to everyone, because without passion you will not succeed.
You have many restaurants right now. How did you come up with each concept?
My very first restaurant in Manila was the famous Tequila Joe’s. That one, I went up to about seven branches. It’s really about understanding your customers, the people whom you are going to serve. You cannot just open a restaurant without understanding whether the people are going to accept it or not.
Opening a new brand is a big risk. I opened Cyma back in 2006. There were no other Greek restaurants in the Philippines, so what I did was I opened it in Boracay where I knew there was a steady flow of foreigners. You just really have to understand what you have to offer, and to whom you are going to offer it to.
Cyma Greek Taverna: dive into the flavors of Greece and the Mediterranean.
Imagine, I opened a burger restaurant when there are a thousand other burger restaurants in town, and managed to make Charlie’s number one in a span of three years… We knew our product, and we knew how to offer it in a different way. To capture that special niche, you have to create that need for you. You cannot just copy. You have to be completely unique.
Charlie's Grind & Grill: bite into their luscious burgers.
These are different cuisines. Do you have a favorite cuisine? Is there any particular cuisine that influenced you more than the others?
Well, I’m Filipino. I still love Filipino food with a passion. I have really no favorites whatsoever, but there are cuisines that when I start tasting, I start working and critiquing it. It’s not anymore sitting down and enjoying it. Like in my restaurants I do enjoy my food, but I am always being hard on myself. I would always critique it. Even if I say I am served a perfect grilled lamb ribs in Cyma, I would still look for ways on how take it up to another level.
All my recipes are not final. It’s a constant change and improvement. If I discover new techniques on how to make my dishes taste better, definitely I’d do it. There is a constant updating of our dishes.
Again to really answer your question, not really, but I’m just in pursuit of the best way of creating or perfecting a certain dish. There are even dishes that are already very traditional to a certain country, but I already have versions of it which, if I let a citizen of that country try it, sometimes they’d say it’s better.
Different cuisines coming together as a result of food globalization–do you see that as a benefit or as hazard?
There’s what you call fusion cuisine. Fusion sometimes becomes an excuse for not doing proper research or study. Like we’re here in the Philippines and I’m gonna do, let’s say, Moroccan food. Since I can’t get Moroccan ingredients, I use local flavoring or seasoning, which is totally unfair to the cuisine of Morocco. You should bring in real herbs and spices. Now, if you can’t bring it in, try to find a way of planting it or growing it here in the Philippines. Like when I did Greek in the Philippines, there’s feta cheese, which is a fundamental ingredient in Greek cookery. I cannot substitute it with any other cheese. Greek olive oil for instance, another important pillar of Greek cookery. Even the oregano, which is different from the oregano here. To show respect, I have to use those ingredients.
Now with regards to this restaurant, Achiote. The ingredients in Mexico are different from the ingredients here in the Philippines. The tomatoes in Mexico are different. The limes in Mexico are different. Everything in Mexico is different from what we have here in this country. The only thing similar to each other is achiote. It’s the thing that binds. The only way you can call it authentic is if you bring all of the ingredients in from Mexico. That’s going to be hard–I can imagine already I’ll be selling my Queso Fundido for five hundred Pesos! That’s not going to be feasible. So what I do is, I respect Mexican techniques and cookery and I use it, but without compromising the integrity of the recipe. What I learned from that old woman in Mexico who taught me how to cook Mexican is to use the ingredients available locally, but to use the techniques that she taught me. If I do that, then I can be authentic. That’s how it is.
Achiote Taqueria, located at the Ground Level of Power Plant Mall
So it’s about technique and ingredients?
The ingredients is to use whatever freshest local ingredients you have, and process it the way they process it in Mexico. Then use the traditional techniques, and then according to her, it’s authentic, but without fusing other flavoring and procedures.
And also for Charlie’s, with respect to how hamburger was presented to people back in 1897, that’s the way I’m doing my hamburgers. Not the way they’re doing it now, wherein they turned the hamburger into something that’s processed. I don’t do that.
It seems to be a painstaking process, very particular. How do you manage doing the same thing for four different restaurants?
I have four hats. I have a day that I do Charlie’s, and a day that I do Cyma, and another day that I do Achiote. It’s difficult because Greek cookery is all about getting your food out there as fresh as you can. Achiote is about slow food served fast. The minimum cooking time for our meats in Achiote is five hours. This is slow food cook fast. Greek is like Chinese. Everything has to be fresh, fresh, fresh. Cyma relies on the ingredients for its flavoring. We seldom do long cooking procedures. Meats are cooked well done.
Imagine this, I’m also opening an organic restaurant called Green and Greener Pastures in Shangri-La. This is about organic food sourced locally but presented in a global manner. It’s the marriage of vegetable and meats.
It’s really hard when you focus on Greek food and then someone asks you something about a problem with a spice mix in Achiote. At first it was difficult, but when you go through it everyday you’ll learn how to segregate it. It is my Research and Development Chef who is having a hard time.
When I do steaks up in Baguio City, we use a lot of butter. In Cyma, you can’t use butter, you have to use olive oil. And when you get to Achiote, you have to use a lot of pork fat to flavor. You just have to remember not to mix it up.
You told us about a woman who taught you how to cook in Mexico. Can you share with us exactly how you learned how to cook?
And in Greece also. I come from a family with a father who is a prominent lawyer, and my mother an educator. Both of them ran a very busy schedule. Both of them don’t know how to cook at all, but they are very passionate at what they do. We were left under the care of our mayordoma who was an excellent cook. She ran a very efficient kitchen. I grew up with a family of five siblings. Dinner with my family is very important and something we all look forward to. My parents would always go home early to have dinner with us.
Now, why did I go into food? My father made law look very complicated–maybe not complicated, just religious. "You do not violate the law. You respect the law. Do not go into my library." What happened was that I was left to reading Time & Life Cuisines of the World. And it was during the time wherein tomatoes in the Philippines were yellow, ketchup was banana and there were no basil leaves because it comes in a bottle. Every time we would travel abroad we would have access to great food, and we come back to the Philippines with our mayordoma’s cooking. So we learned to imagine. We would try to gather ingredients and substitutions and let our mayordoma cook it and if she doesn’t do it right I end up trying to do it.
And then I started making money off it. I started baking. I had people who will buy at my mom’s office, so all I had to do was come up with products. For Christmas, I would bake. During summer, I would bake. I knew that if I would sacrifice my December baking stuff, come January, I’d have money to buy stuff. So if I wanted a better bike, a better skateboard, all I had to do was bake. That was how I saw food.
Now in regards to the old women who taught me, my mom is not a Chef, but my grandmother cooks well. When I went to Greece and Mexico, I had these old women who taught me. The way they cooked food was something with respect to their cuisine. I did not learn it from someone who just learned how to cook the cuisine. These are the people who will cook that food for the rest of their lives. This is my way of telling the customers that they are eating something that has been cooked in a household for the longest time.
Did you ever have formal culinary education?
I went to the California Culinary Academy in 1992. I’ve been trying to convince my parents to go to school. The first choice was Switzerland, but upon learning the curriculum it is more of a hotel school, of course my father didn’t agree. He said that I’m his junior, and that I should take up law, but it’s not my passion. It’s not what I like. My mom said, 'let’s just go for it.' Now, my biggest fan is my dad. Now, if you Google search, Raul Goco is now known as the chef and not anymore the lawyer. He’s very happy and proud of me.
What shaped you more, the formal education or cooking with these women in Mexico and Greece?
Education is very important because that’s where you learn your fundamentals. Living in Greece for four months and living in Mexico from time to time was also important, but what really left a mark was my parents’ passion about what they do. You cannot do something half-baked. You have to make sure that you’ve thought of everything.
Traveling is important, going to school is important, but it’s actually the passionate approach is what I think that’s important, because I know of other chefs who did not have any form of formal training and only did research, but can come up with something very, very close to the authentic. It’s because of their passion.
A lot of people enter the food industry as businessmen and maybe because they have nothing better to do. It can be something very hard for them. First and foremost, I serve great food and then make money out of it, and provide good employment. If we cannot serve you great food, we’d rather not open a restaurant. That should be any restaurateur’s objective. If they enter for the money, then that’s not good.
Why did you open Achiote?
I needed to come up with a restaurant where my loyal customers can also come. This is another version of that (referring to a restaurant in San Juan he used to be a part of), but completely different from what they serve. It’s an elevated version of it. The lesson to be learned there is, know your partners and know their objectives. I always look at what they can put on the table besides money.
Achiote's Matador Burrito
Enchilada with Pork Carnitas, Vegetarian Black Beans, Mexican Chorizo Bulgur Rice and Salsa Verde
Also, I really am against people who instead of doing their research, just copy what you have and selling it cheaper. Right now, as we speak, I have three copycat restaurants of Cyma. They copied my menu. One even pirated my chef and brought him to Taiwan. There’s one who thought of opening the exact restaurant that I have, selling it forty percent cheaper, and they’re packed. My take there is if you want to have knock offs and stay cheap forever, be my guest. I’m worried about the novelty of my cuisine because I don’t want it bastardized.
What’s your favorite food?
My favorite technique–something that’s braised for a long time, cooked for hours. If you’re going to ask me about Philippine cuisine, I’m not a Pampanga cuisine type of a person. I like anything that’s Bicolano and Ilocano. Not really the coconut part of the Bicol cuisine, but the fresh part of it. I don’t like anything sweet. I like the way the Ilocanos would do their vegetables.
In any cuisine of the world, right now I’m taking interest in Scandinavian cuisine.
Anything authentic. That’s about it.
Is there anything that you don’t eat?
I don’t eat frog’s legs.
Lastly, is there anything in the food industry that you would be eagerly expecting to see or taste?
In the Philippines, I want to see more organic. I also want to see people respect cuisines, because I always do. I want people to stop bastardizing other cuisines. I don’t like fusion. A lot of Filipinos don’t get to travel to these places. I brought Greek food here with much respect to their recipes. I can even be authenticated by the Greeks. If I want to invent something, then I have to write there that it is a progressive dish. In Cyma, eighty percent of the menu is progressive, but you will never find soy sauce, whipped cream, butter, or gravy in my kitchen or any dish that’s sweetened. In Greece, you only use lemon to bring out the flavor.
Visit Chef Robby's Mexican restarant, Achiote Taqueria, at the Ground Level of Power Plant Mall in Rockwell Center, Makati. Follow them on Twitter (@AchioteTaqueria) and Like them on Facebook (achiotemexicantaqueria).
Photos by Hermin Belo.