Filipino dishes have never tasted this good! Chef Fernan Punzalan of Serenade Hall tells his journey towards refining Filipino cuisine, putting in a new dimension and twist
One wouldn’t believe there was such a place like this within the Makati Central Business District area. “Home away from home” is how Chef Fernan Punzalan, executive chef of Serenade Hall describes it.
With varying displays and art décor from different cultures and its cozy, at-home atmosphere, it’s certainly one of the places you’d love to visit in between stressful hours in the office particularly during lunch time, to eat your favorite home-made dishes and relax while listening to a variety of songs with live accompaniment from an 8-foot grand piano (they call piano-oke) and request your song and/or sing it using the microphone just like in a videoke.
The restaurant is divided into several function rooms which serve as venues for corporate, social, cultural, and civic events where all function-related requirements such as technical riders, catering needs, and entertainment options are served in one-stop-shop convenience.
But what differentiates Serenade Hall with other restaurants is their cafeteria where they serve 16 affordable and varying dishes a day. One can also order from their menu where they serve their core dishes consisting of Filipino delicacies cooked differently.
Born and raised in Makati City, Chef Fernan remembers as a kid how he used to help his mom to prepare the ingredients in the kitchen without any idea that it’ll be his training ground as a chef.
Having a Kapampangan mother who’s a superb cook was of no help as it only gave Chef Fernan insecurities when it comes to cooking Filipino dishes. For four years, he admitted he was not confident enough to cook them because he’s afraid his mom would criticize them. Eventually, he got his confidence when his 79-year-old mom would let him have his way in the kitchen since she couldn’t handle cooking for big occasions anymore.
Chef Fernan’s training in a reputable culinary school in the United States could have made him a patron of American dishes but instead he found this as a reason to promote Filipino dishes all the more.
He was in Napa Valley, San Francisco in California that time when the event called “World of Flavors” happened. Chefs from different parts of the world were asked to showcase their cuisine for the entire week but upon seeing the list of countries invited, he noticed the Philippines was not on it while other countries from Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Singapore, India) were.
Out of curiosity, he asked his chef instructor and he answered, “Well, Philippine cuisine is still considered under the category of ‘cafeteria’. Your country is still young in the culinary world.”
Chef Fernan was hurt with the said comment, especially upon hearing how some foreigners describe Filipino food as more of “turo-turo” (small eateries in the Philippines) or “point-point.”
“I’ve been to a lot of countries and there’s no great difference between Filipino and Thailand or Vietnam dishes. They only have a lot of tourists,” he said in defense.
He added, “Probably the expats are not ready yet for the Filipino taste. Filipino dishes are amalgamated by different cultures. It’s evolving. Kare-kare originated from India. It was brought by Spanish but it’s supposed to be ‘curry’ but it became kare-kare.”
Because of that incident, he felt the need to promote Filipino dishes when he returned to the Philippines even while still employed in the American restaurant and tried incorporating Filipino dishes in the menu.
“Even in catering nowadays, a lot of caterers present highfalutin names of dishes. What I do in the food tasting (even when the customers do not request Filipino dishes), I put them on the side but I don’t tell them. They would say, ‘Ay, parang ang sarap nito’ (Oh, it’s delicious!) Then that’s the time I tell them, ‘actually, adobo lang po ‘yan (It’s actually adobo). Different process but same ingredients,” Chef Fernan revealed.
The reason behind that was Chef Fernan noticed that most Filipinos are fond of patronizing imported goods like in clothes. Some clients look down on Filipino dishes that they don’t want them included during special occasions or events. Some chefs also tweak the ingredients too much to make it more appealing to the eaters.
“The seafood marinara ratatouille that you’re eating, that’s a peasant food in other countries. They only used a different name,” Chef Fernan said.
“I don’t change the name of Filipino dishes. When I present them, for example Beef Roulade, I put (Beef Morcon) or Beef Stew in Peanut Sauce (Kare-kare), etc. In that way, I can already orient them,” he added.
And he noticed their customers loved the food. He recalled one comment of his customer who is a business executive, “Why would I bring my guests to some five-star hotel when you can eat five-star food here at this price with this ambiance?”
“Actually, people come here by word of mouth because they wouldn’t know that there was such a place like this.” Aside from its affordability, Chef Fernan prides on the quality of their food. They are also into healthy dishes – no iodized salt and MSG, no artificial flavorings or ingredients.
Refining Filipino dishes
In 2005, Chef Fernan had the opportunity to fulfill his goal of introducing his refined Filipino cuisine when he and his two other business partners put up a business called, the Creative Food Group, Inc. From there, they opened Serenade Hall where he is the corporate chef.
Chef Fernan is an advocate of simplicity, what you see is what you get – no sugar-coating. “My philosophy is what you see is what you taste. I prefer taste over presentation. Maganda nga yung plate presentation pero kapag kinain mo naman, parang nasira yung expectation ng kumain (The presentation is nice but when you eat it, it didn’t match your expectation).”
When cooking meals, Chef Fernan’s advice is to slow-cook (sankutsa) it first so the flavor would fully permeate. In a way, it’s not rushed. He’s also advocating the use of coconut soy sauce because he said it has lower alkalinity and it has more benefits.
“We are incorporating healthy meals in our menu. We have food packages that are good for five to 10 people. All you have to do is book in advance especially if you have dietary needs,” said Chef Fernan.
Last year when he was in New York to study whole wheat bread-making, he saw how Americans went crazy over coconut water after it was endorsed by Madonna. There was also a grocery store there that sells organic food that has a very long queue due to its popularity.
So he tried it here when he did the catering during the inauguration of President Benigno Aquino III, he incorporated coconut ingredients in his dishes such as Pansit Buko, Shrimp Okoy with shredded coconut, macaroons, Food for the Gods with shredded coconut, adding that the President requested for Filipino dishes.
Since Serenade Hall is home away from home and many of their customers are big bosses who often come there to de-stress and eat, Chef Fernan admitted that they still serve “comfort food” or the considered “sinful” – sweet, salty, sour, and oily.
“One cannot really avoid them but there are ways on how to lessen the fats and make them healthy,” said Chef Fernan. “For example, we only use the cooking oil once. For ground pork/beef, we sauté it first then if it’s cooked already, we drain it using a strainer to let the fats drip. You’ll be surprised how many fats you get from it. When you do this, you’ll lessen the fats in your food,” he added.
But that is of course through the help of his business partner who is a licensed dietician. Chef Fernan also does his own research to introduce new and variety of dishes. He sees no problem with Filipinos patronizing Western dishes because it’s already part of our culture; however, he considers them as fast food—unlike Filipino dishes wherein one really has to take time to prepare it like kare-kare. One has to mince peanuts, garlic, etc. So nowadays, some use peanut butter because it’s easier. He stresses that slow-cooking their meals is healthier and it lessens fats.
So what are you waiting for? Kainan na!
Serenade Hall is located at Golden Rock Bldg., 168 Salcedo St., Legaspi Village, Makati City. For more information, one may call 815-3719, 817-8937, and 216-0848/86 or visit their website at http://serenadehall.com.