From slabwiches to chocolates, Chef Katrina Kuhn-Alcantara of Chuck's Deli and Paulene Chocolats Suisses fame has been offering Manila tasty eats and treats. In this interview, she talks about food and her new restaurant, Mesclun Restaurant and Cafe.
Chef Katrina Kuhn-Alcantara
Ever since when did you want to become a chef or open up your own restaurant?
I studied in 2000, right after college. I took International Business in college, I didn't go straight to HRM. I think I was a late bloomer. I'm not the type who would always cook at home -- my mom didn't cook, my grandmother didn't cook. There's no influence like that, although my family owns an ice cream business (Arce), so that part I guess is the most food-related. But I didn't grow up with a family of cooks. I was a late bloomer, and when I just started learning it, the more I learned, the more I got hooked.
Initially, I just wanted to study only pastry. But the course was designed that if you did pastry, or did cuisine and pastry, it would be the same amount of time. So I thought I might as well do both, do everything. Then when I graduated, when it was time to work, I chose cuisine. So it wasn't like from the beginning, it was a clear path.
And then when you opened your restaurants, did you already have a concept in mind, or were you playing around with what kind of food you wanted to serve?
When I had my French restaurant before, it was very defined. I came from France, I was very much in love with that thing at that time. And when you're creating stuff also, it's fluid. Your style kinda changes as you grow older. For this one, Mesclun, it wasn't that defined. But I think it still came out in the dishes that I chose to bring out. It's still everything being influenced by your travels and by your work, and in this case also, my collaborations with my chefs. It kind of fell into place that way. I'm very proud of this menu. It's very fun for me and I like that I can keep changing it.
What are the challenges in handling multiple restaurants that have completely different menus? You have Chuck's Deli, and then you have this, Mesclun.
It's really I think more about the time. It's just about the time. Because what's nice about having it different is that you have different creative outlets. I do the chocolates (Paulene Chocolats Suisses), completely different, then I do this. And then I do caterings also. It's different outlets in terms of creativity, different ways to express yourself.
About your chocolates, when did you decide to sell them?
That one, that was kind of on the spot. I was just like, "I want to do this," so I started doing it! You know, it's like the pizza dough, or the chocolates --- when I get interested, I get really interested. At this day and age, you don't really have to go to culinary schools anymore. There's so much information available -- so many books, so many sites -- you can really teach yourself. Although I had a chocolate background in school, but I didn't really pursue it. But then there are times when I get really interested about something that it gets obssessive, I have to do it. I just did it, I just could not stop thinking about it. I had to do it or my mind would explode; I always did it for the pleasure.
Ganache by Paulene Chocolats Suisses
Can you tell us about Mesclun and how it started?
It was really because of the hotel, Linden Suites. We also serve the breakfast for the hotel, the busiest time here is breakfast because we do the buffet. Then lunch and dinner, it's a la carte. So it started with that. Then I wanted to do a menu that wasn't cuisine specific, something that was not limiting in terms of what we can offer, just like the name 'mesclun' -- which means mixed or assorted, like in salads.
How about the food that you offer here?
Since it's mixed, we have items like Sourdough pizza. The style of that is that is has that same Italian spirit, with that sourdough culture that's not very typical; it's our own twist of it.
Flammekueche, a thin crust tart
The Flammekueche, that was one of my favorites in my travels. It's traditionally just bacon and onions; the other flavors that you'll see, we play with that. Traditionally, the flammekeuche is also with crème fraîche, but that is expensive here, so we make our own. We have the items here that are still in a way traditional, then we have the items that we play with a little bit more, like the Guava Pork Adobo (P345).
Guava Pork Adobo
For the Ulang Thermidor (P795), the risotto, it's more Italian. I wanted it to be a black one because it reminded me of a Paella Negra, and then I used Ulang, which is a local prawn. It's a local variety of freshwater prawns.
The different items, a lot of it came from my travels, and then some are what I work with my chefs. They have their ideas, they also give their inputs. Because right now, you see a lot of these cooking TV shows and all that, and the popularity now of all these cooking schools... I actually now have a team of chefs, who also want their dishes on the menu, so they present their stuff to me.
So there's collaboration?
There's also collaboration with my chefs, yeah. I mean, they're all talented also, so why not?
You mentioned travel as one of your inspirations when it comes to creating food. What other things inspire you?
Different things would spark. Sometimes you're reading something, sometimes you see something in a movie, or you see a photo... Some are more organic, some are when you see someone do something. Like the sourdough pizza, I forget how, but it just really stuck to me so I had to do it.
What dishes would you recommend for a first-timer at Mesclun?
I think the pizzas, I think they're different. But, I think in all of my menus I put things that I enjoy. I won't put things that I don't personally enjoy, so it's hard to pick. Sometimes it's hard when people ask you, "What can you recommend?" or "What's good here?" They're all good! [laughs] If it's not good, we won't serve it.
What advice can you give aspiring chefs, especially those who want to open their own restaurant?
I think when you want to open a restaurant, it's good if you train under someone first. Like don't do it straight from school; a lot of people I think are doing that right now. Train somewhere that will build your character. Get the experience first, and then when you're gaining experience, you have to follow the chef. You have to follow the recipe. You can't infuse your own. Because it's not your kitchen. You'll have your chance. It's like what they say--to be a good leader, you have to be a good follower also. When someone else is leading, that's how you learn. You don't change someone's dish even if you think you can do that.
Mesclun Restaurant and Cafe is at the second level of The Linden Suites, 37 San Miguel Avenue, Ortigas Center. Like them on Facebook (MesclunRestaurantCafe) and follow them on Twitter (@MesclunResto).