Portraits of a Chef: Tatung Sarthou
In 2017, Chef Tatung Sarthou’s Cookbook, Philippine Cookery: From Heart to Platter was awarded at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. We catch him in the middle of research for a new one, Dishkarte sa Kusina, in one of his restaurants, Takaw Eatery—two of his ventures into making the joy of Filipino cooking more accessible.
“I want to be able to cook food, wherein more people will be able to eat. I think if you’re a Filipino chef, and you’re conscious of that, you should be able to cook food that other Filipinos can eat, or that other Filipinos can follow and cook at home. Why are people going hungry? Is it because talagang poor tayo? It’s also because we lack the knowledge. We don’t know how to utilize the resources that are available to us. If I’m able to teach something that helps a household eat better, I’ve done more than creating a signature dish.
“Even in the world of gastronomy, wala na ang molecular-molecular, [the] fancy-fancy stuff. It’s really breaking things down to the basic, going back to the basics. The world is changing.”
It’s really [about] innovation, re-educating. It’s [about] making sensible decisions. Is there a way that we can eat more efficiently? That’s the question. [A chef] is supposed to be managing resources. You’re supposed to be thinking about it. You’re supposed to be a conduit of life. Your work is enabling people to nurture and live more. If you cut yourself off from that part of your job, then you’re a machine.
A lot of chefs go to the province and teach people: ‘Ay, kailangan kong magdala ng ganito kasi wala kasi yan diyan’ or ‘Ay, wala akong mabiling truffle oil sa probinsiya.’ But it defeats the purpose from learning from people who have adapted to what is available and make their lives sustainable. That is what we should be more interested in.
How do you change the way that Filipinos cook? By offering access to more resources, and access to more knowledge. Kasi kung hindi naman marunong, kahit bigyan mo ng steak, kahit first class pa yan na wagyu, kung hindi naman marunong [magluto] yan, wala rin mangyayari. The thing you can do is use education, to provide them with the tools to be able to maximize what they have, pero hindi ko naman kayang ibigay.
Most Filipino dishes as we know it evolved from old kitchens, where mothers had to innovate based on what was available to them. They did not follow recipes. They had to make do with what was available. So, if a mother were to feed a family of five, and runs out of carrots—but we tell her: “mali ang caldereta mo,” kasi walang carrots, and lagyan ng hashtag na “preserve Filipino food,”—anong sinasabi mo, ‘di ba?
Cooking is a skill of the palate. If they don’t know what tastes good, how do they know what’s good? ‘Yun ang irony, kasi, ‘yun ang context nila. ‘Yun ang kinamulaan na nila. So you educate them? Hindi pwedeng lecture—papakainin mo.
Everybody has to eat better. For me, Filipino food is what people eat at home. Kung ang kinakain ng kapitbahay ko ay instant noodles with malunggay with matching inasal na sardinas— that is Filipino food. Let’s not deny it. So, we have to raise that level of eating, before we can claim that Filipino food is recently better.”