The Art and Science of Food Presentation
Text by: Anina Marie Tan | Photos by Bernard Kenneth Peña
It was nearly lunchtime when three enticing, beautifully plated dishes were ushered into the room needing to be photographed. First came in a portion of gorgeously browned adobo flakes amidst some greens and pretty edible flowers, followed by a glazed sea bass upon a bed of ravioli with cream sauce, and finally, a plate of perfectly cooked petite angus roast beef with rice wrapped in an omelet. All of these looked appetizing and they definitely started a tummy grumble within me. Chef Booj Supe, Chef de Cuisine of Gourmet Garage, and responsible for the tummy grumble, then walks into the room explaining each dish elaborately. But before Gourmet Garage delved into the catering scene, its humble beginnings can be traced back to the city of Olongapo.
What started out as a shop that offered rare gourmet products from abroad has evolved into a must-see restaurant in Olongapo City and has branched out into a catering service all at once. Gourmet Garage was the brainchild of Menchu T. Lopez along with her best friend, Chef Reggie, whose initial objective was to offer gourmet products that were rare and unavailable in existing epicurean venues back then. Their evolution into becoming a restaurant was primarily caused by their willingness to show customers how to prepare or how to cook certain ingredients found in their shop. It was then that Chef Booj entered the scene. He claims it was like being in a chef’s playground where he could easily prepare delectable dishes using special and rare ingredients within his reach. Gourmet Garage’s menu is very cosmopolitan and offers a little bit of everything, coupled with an ambiance that is undeniably cozy but sophisticated at the same time.
The catering side of Gourmet Garage was then brought to life by Lopez’s love for hosting dinner parties, alongside having Chef Booj, who was more than just promising. Today, Gourmet Garage has been in the catering business for almost three years. Chef Booj still recalls their first catering gig like it was just yesterday — a huge banquet for 2,000 people where he cooked everything from scratch in a tent that was set up at the location.
From that very first event until present-day, Gourmet Garage prides itself on its attention to detail and having a personalized approach in each catering gig they work on.
As we all know, every celebration requires a different set of menu, themes and décor. According to Chef Booj, there is no uniformity in each event that they have which is what keeps the job not only exciting, but also inspiring for him.
He finalizes the menu by discussing the food requirements and preferences of the client. He admits that being flexible and knowing a little bit about every cuisine is necessary to be able to serve and accommodate different clients in the catering industry. Aside from a sumptuous personalized spread, Gourmet Garage is just as detailed when it comes to the decor of any occasion. They ensure their clients that the theme is evident not only in the food prepared, but also in the décor that goes with it. Rustan’s Flower Shop, who is their official in-house stylist, along with the client’s direction, normally decides upon the look, theme, and motif of each event. Linens are carefully chosen to complement the centerpiece of the tables as well as the décor, all in all to satisfy their clients’ needs. Speaking for his entire team, Chef Booj claims that they never limit themselves tothe supplies that they already have, rather, go out of their way to find necessary ingredients to add, whether to the menu or to the décor, making each event special in its own way.
When asked about his secret when it comes to preparing and cooking dishes, food plating, and serving up a buffet spread, he instantaneously answers in one word: “passion”. In the entire process of coming up with a menu, putting the food on a plate, and serving it to customers, his passion for what he does is the ultimate reason behind everything. He professes that a chef was all he ever wanted to be as a child, and the desire never changed even when he grew older. To truly love what he does is a requirement for him to be able to come up with something new and different each time. Chef Booj is very classic when it comes to the taste and flavor of his dishes, but modern in terms of interpretation and with his, food plating style, just like a few that he draws inspiration from in the international scene like Chef René Redzepi of Noma, Chef Sean Brock of Husk, and David Chang of Momofuku.
At 35 years old, Chef Booj has undoubtedly accomplished much in the culinary scene, but his passion for what he does pushes him to want to learn even more. When asked about his greatest learning as a chef in the business, he pauses and explains, “Food business is just like cooking a perfect paella or seafood bouillabaisse. You may have the right combination of ingredients, but without the saffron, you won’t achieve its perfection. It’s not just about having enough resources to sustain the business, more than anything, your strongest passion for good food and cooking will define everything to make you stand out over the rest.”
Some people truly know what they want to become even at an early age, and that was the case for Chef Booj. His curiosity for cooking and baking was sparked at a very young age. Born in Baguio and the youngest among six, he was always the one keeping his mother company. She would cook for them everyday and take orders of cakes, thus making the kitchen his main hangout early on in life. At age five, Chef Booj and his family moved to Iloilo, where he claims his taste was greatly influenced. As a banker, his father’s job required them to move to different places depending on where he would get assigned.
Through the years, young Chef Booj’s fascination for cooking and baking only grew. He took up short bread courses in Manila during summers, and by the time he was in high school, his family had moved to Bohol where he made his first attempt at dipping his toe into the business. The Internet was beginning to get popular, he recalls, when they decided to put up an Internet café where he offered his baked goods. He took orders of pandesal and such from people around town as well. Though work indeed kept him busy, his studies were not put aside. He finished college with a degree in commerce and business management, and with an eagerness to pursue his heart’s true desire, Chef Booj studied at the Center for Asian Culinary Studies and Heny Sison Culinary School shortly after.
His first job was with the late chef extraordinaire, Ed Quimson. By and by, Chef Booj started consulting for different restaurants and resorts including Splendido in Tagaytay, Club Noah Isabelle in Palawan, and Eskaya Resort in Bohol, to name a few. The latter, he points out, was where he met the Tantocos, which led to this point of his life as Chef de Cuisine of Omnivores Inc. Gourmet Garage.
According to Chef Booj, it was Lopez’s father, Ambassador Bienvenido Tantoco Sr.’s birthday celebration, where he was asked to prepare a Moroccan feast in Eskaya Resort. He couldn’t help but smirk while reminiscing, explaining that it was his first time to cook Moroccan food at the time. Like any other professional chef in the industry, he researched and sampled the dishes he was about to prepare and made sure they were flavorful and friendly to the Filipino palate. He rose to the occasion and put on a Moroccan feast like it was his expertise and true enough, everyone loved it! Coincidentally, Ambassador Tantoco and Chef Booj share the same birthday and not long before the celebration had ended, the place was filled with satisfied bellies, an air of enjoyment, and a chorus of guests singing and greeting both the Ambassador and him a happy birthday.
Chef Booj can truly bring happiness to the people he serves, but as a husband and a father to three kids, he also does his best to bring joy to his family. He admits that balancing his career and loved ones is not an easy task, but he is truly thankful for having a very understanding and supportive wife, daughter and sons. Chef Booj states that even though the hours he gets to spend with his wife and kids are rare and few, he sees to it that every minute with them is made special and meaningful, just like how he ensures he uses only quality ingredients and gives 100 percent to every dish that he prepares.