Welcome to a new series of photographs and stories woven together, but with a new twist. This project is in collaboration with Chef Jessie Sincioco, who generously – and gamely - agreed to the idea. The setting is Chef Jessie’s Restaurant in the Rockwell Club Makati, the lead character, of course, Chef Jessie herself, and the dishes are those prepared by her and photographed by yours truly. Beyond that, the rest of the story is entirely fictional. The stories will appear on a monthly basis.
halo halo & jamon iberico
It was 6:30p.m. and only four other tables were occupied in Chef Jessie’s restaurant. The last of the High Tea crowd was getting ready to leave, and the early birds for the dinner service like her were already trickling in. Julia fiddled with her pearl bracelet, twisted her silver ring on the left hand, and checked that her matching earrings were dangling properly. Mama was late again, but that was nothing new. She was always late, and never apologized for it, something her social circle found endearing, but drove the entire family up the wall. She set back everyone’s schedules by hogging the car and driver, not taking into consideration who else was waiting for the transportation elsewhere in the city. But that was Christina on a normal day. When she was in a bad mood or depressed, she did not even bother to let anyone else know where she was or when she was coming home.
Chef Jessie went over the menus for the next day in her office, frowning at all the upcoming events for the rest of the week, and wondering whether it would be possible to clone herself and the entire kitchen staff thrice over. Restless and eager to release some energy into her pots and pans, she paced around until she found herself in the main dining room, still holding menus in both hands. Her ever efficient restaurant staff placed the finishing touches on the reserved tables, checking that all the silverware was in place, the flower arrangements fresh and without gaps, and the napkins positioned and styled properly. Smiling at the fact that some of these people were already the second generation working for her, Chef Jessie was about to turn back when she spotted Julia. Her body tensed visibly and she handed the papers to her assistant Wilfred, who had followed her out into the hallway.
“What’s wrong Chef?”
“I don’t know yet, but Julia is at the table, and that can only mean one thing.”
“Oh dear… “
“Exactly! I’m glad George placed her all the way back there, although I wish he had seated them upstairs instead, based on their last encounter.”
“Well Señora Christina is not here yet, we can still transfer them, I’m sure Señorita Julia will understand and maybe even welcome the change. She was mortified at the scandal last time.¨
“No that will not work out, remember that there is a birthday lunch up there in 30 minutes and an Fine Dining Etiquette Training in the conference room. George!”
The restaurant’s maître d’table appeared silently beside Chef Jessie. “Yyyyyes Ma’m?”
“Make sure Julia and her mother order something that doesn’t require knives to dine with.”
“Hhhhhhhow do I dddddo that? Do we have a special of the day that doesn’t need knives?
“Well, as of now we do, at least for their table, and if anyone else overhears you then offer it to them as well. Turn up the charm and whatever you do, don’t offer them any meat! I don´t need to remind you of what happened last time these two women were here. Push the soufflés or soups, they fight more than they eat anyway.”
“Yes Ma’m, oh and speaking of last time, ttttthe replacement cutlery and glasses have arrived, by the way. I ddddddidn’t expect mother and daughter to return so sssssoon though.”
Chef Jessie sighed, her shoulders drooping, “Me neither. Keep them away from the master carver of the jamon Iberico today! Miguel flew in all the way from Madrid and certainly doesn´t expect to be caught in the middle of a war. He will be visiting a selected few tables with the jamon cart tonight as a special treat and is laden with carving knives and other sharp utensils, I won’t want him near those two! They showed no mercy to the bread rolls or olives last time either.”
One hour and a creamy shrimp bisque later, Julia´s tension had not diminished and she was still waiting. The agreed time was 5:30pm, which she never expected her mother to respect. There were so many other things Christina disregarded, building an impenetrable barrier of remorse and discontent among her family. She never approved of any of the partners they brought home, did not actively participate in their social circles, and was highly critical of everything said or done. Conversations at the dinner table, when they did take place, were restricted to schedules and upcoming social events where their presence was required. Julia didn’t dare get up and leave though, fearing that the consequences would be far worse that whatever was in store for her tonight. Smiling up at the waiter who refilled her water glass, she checked her iPhone to see if Mama had even bothered to send a text message. There were 85 messages from a host of other people, but nothing from her mother. A small plate of sliced jamon iberico was placed before her and Julia decided she might as well order a glass of red wine to go with it as well, even though she has just asked for her third mojito. Looking down at the small strips of ham, Julia smiled sadly, thinking that this was exactly what her relationship with her mother was like. Bits and pieces that would never fit together again.
Finally at 7:00pm George ushered Señora Christina to the table.
“Good evening Mama.”
“Ay que horror hija! What are you wearing? It is dinner and you are wearing silver? and why are you in pants and not a dress or at least a skirt? And that foundation shade makes you look like a corpse.”
“Nice to see you mother.”
“Don’t get bitchy on me.”
“Mama, I rushed out from the office because you said 5:30, so I didn’t have time to go home and change into something more appropriate.”
“Well that is you problem not mine.”
Julia pressed her lips tightly together into a thin line. Taking a deep breath she asked “Why am I here at all Mama? Clearly it is not for the enjoyment of it all.”
“I want you to get rid of that ridiculous boy toy of yours that keeps escorting you to events. He is not presentable enough for our social circles. His family name is completely unknown.”
Julia’s fist clenched tightly around her mojito glass.
“My fiancé s a respectable lawyer, bar topnotcher one of the most considerate and affectionate men I have ever met. We have been friends since high school and I never would have survived college without him. This is the man I want to spend the rest of my life with.”
“Over my dead body! I had a background check done on him. The man who raised him is his stepfather, and his mother doesn’t even have a passport.”
“You did what? How dare you?”
“It’s for your own good. You cannot be seen with such lowlife.”
“Like hell I won’t. He is a self-made man who has overcome the most unbelievable obstacles in life. Joaquin understand the rich and serves the poor. He will defend the down-trodden and be there for any of friends in the middle of the night if needed.”
“Yes, but he has no noble heritage, and not even one millions in his bank account.”
“And you think I care about that?”
“No daughter of mine is going to be seen in public with a street rat.”
Julia knocked her wine glass over in fury, drowning the expensive ham slices in the process before it shattered unceremoniously onto the floor. “Don’t you dare call him that” she hissed at her mother.
“I will call him anything I please and I forbid you to ever see him again.”
“Mama, I am 24 years old, you have no say over me anymore.”
“I own you Julia, and you owe me. You will do as I say. Get rid of him immediately. I’ll pay him any amount to stay away from you and never be seen in public with you again. You will start dating this Colombian journalist who is coming to town next week. Julian Lopez has worldwide recognition and comes from one of the most prominent families in Bogota.”
“Nobody, absolutely nobody owns me! Least of all you!” Julia shouted. “I have the misfortune of being your daughter and will have to carry that shame the rest of my life. There, I said it, I am ashamed of being your daughter, always have been and always will be. It kills me every time I have to smile and admit that you are my mother, and regret the day I emerged from your vindictive and evil womb!”
Christina stretched out her left hand, reached for the small flower vase on the table, threw the flowers on the floor and splashed her daughter’s face with the water inside, slapping her squarely thereafter. The entire restaurant, which was full now, fell silent, all eyes on mother and daughter. Before her mother could deliver the second slap, Julia stood up and poured the remaining mojito over Christina’s impeccably coiffed hair, smearing the pesto bread dip on the older woman’s cheeks.
George and Chef Jessie came running out of the kitchen with towels and three other waiters flocked towards them from different points of the restaurant to contain any further escalation. Christina and Julia stared at each other, both contemplating how to hurt the other next.
Chef Jessie said a silent prayer, rubbed her rosary beads on her wristband imperceptibly, and spoke first. “Ladies, let’s all calm down, how about we move to the washroom first?”
George offered the towels but was ignored.
“I will stop if she does, she is not going to get away with it this time.” said Julia.
Christina was about to fire back when she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder, right before everything blacked out.
“Oh how convenient Mama, perfect timing for a fainting spell. Bravo! You deserve an Oscar for this performance.”
Bernie, the bartender of the day and former ambulance driver, knelt down beside Christina, feeling her pulse and checking her breathing. He looked up to his boss, frowning. “Is there a doctor in the house? She’s not faking it. I can barely feel a pulse and her heartbeat is very irregular.”
“What heart? That woman has no heart” spit Julia.
“I know when people are faking it Ma’m,” said Bernie, “and Señora definitely isn’t. Does this happen often?”
Julia sat back down, accepted a towel from George, and sighed. “I have no idea. Do I rush her to the hospital?”
“I’ll call an ambulance and find the in-house doctor.”
In the meantime, the other waiters had brought the portable wooden dividers to give the women some privacy. Julia asked for a bowl of cold water and six cloth napkins. When the items arrived, she began wiping her mother’s face gently.
“Why, Mama? Why? Why do you hate us all so much? We have tried to love you, reached out on more than one occasion but you can’t seem to bring yourself to return the favor. We don’t ask for much, just a little smile or kindness in return, something that will let us know what we mean something to you.”
Christina moaned but kept her eyes shut.
“I wish I could say I love you Mama, but I would burn in hell for that lie. For Papa’s sake I have tried to live with you, but I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I’m pregnant Mama, you are going to be a grandmother in six months time whether you like it or not. Joaquin wants me to be happy and he prays every day for you, that you find the peace that eludes you.”
Julia soaked another napkin and was about to wipe her mother’s neck when Christina opened her eyes.
“Say that part again about being pregnant.” she whispered.
“I’m nine weeks pregnant Mama, and not out of wedlock. We got married six months ago in Guam. I knew you would never give me your blessing, but Papa did. He escorted me down the aisle of the tiny chapel, with Kuya Andrew and Kuya Jake standing as witnesses. Remember that weekend you ran off to Tagaytay with your friends from Germany? You never noticed our absence because you were gone for four days. We tried to tell you but you never gave us the time of day, always barking orders and never stopping to listen to anyone, not even Papa anymore.”
Christina stared blankly at her daughter, not feeling the tears roll down her face. “Do you hate me that much that you would deprive me out of my only daughter’s wedding?”
“I don’t hate you Mama, but I don’t know how to love you. Joaquin has taught me how to love, and promised me that he would move heaven and earth so that I would never become you.”
Chef Jessie stood silently to the side as Christina attempted to sit up. Bernie had returned with the doctor and he examined her thoroughly.
“She’s stable, might be a bit wobbly for a few hours, but no need to confine her. Besides, there are very hospitals left that will take you in willingly Señora. Forgive my bluntness, but you seem to have sued just about every medical institution in the city already.”
“Don’t worry Doctor, I have a grandchild coming, so I need to be healthy so can pamper the child silly.”
The doctor stood up, bowed courteously, and hurried out before something else happened. The reputation of the mother and daughter public squabbles preceded them and he wanted no part of it.
“Chef Jessie, I’m hungry all of a sudden. I’m going to be an abuela!” (grandmother)
“I have just the thing, for you two. Would you like to freshen up first while I prepare it?”
Julia smiled at the chef grateful as she helped her mother up. The table had been re-set but without a bowl of flowers. A few minutes later Chef Jessie emerged from the kitchen and placed two glasses of halo halo in front of the women.
“You both know that this is something you cannot eat quickly. Savor the moment each spoonful and take time to get to know each other. Start with introducing yourselves. Maybe you find some answer at the bottom of the glass.”
Jessie ran a frustrated hand down her chef whites, slowly, deliberately, and consciously as she surveyed the mess on the stove, the splotches on her black pants, and the burnt glob in the pan that was supposed to be xyz, for lack of a better name. This was the third time she had attempted his grandmother’s recipe of Sapin-Sapin from scratch that day and overcooked it. She could feel the tension in her shoulders and the anger brewing as she tightened her grip on an onion, the images on her rosary bracelet seemed to come alive with the movement. The two sous chefs beside her stepped back and ducked surreptitiously behind the meat cooler and blast chiller respectively, well aware of what was coming next.
As the onion flew across the kitchen and knocked down three Swiss soup pans and the carefully arranged German knives with precision, Chef Jessie’s eyes fell on the potato container. She knew what the next weapon would be, but needed another target. Now where was that new set of copper tajines brought in from Morocco two days ago?
The door to the main dining room swung open and all thoughts of catapulting potatoes with silicon ladles vanished as four terrified waiters peered in and the maître d’table scurried in. Jessie squeezed her eyes shut, inhaled sharply and exhaled slowly as if blowing out a candle. Temper, temper! She could almost hear the ghost of her aunt chastising her behind the left shoulder.
“Speak slowly and enunciate your words my dear George. What is the order? Which table? And who is it?”
“Mmmmmam, it’s that elderly gggentleman who only wears blue Armani suits and silver cufflinks. The one who lost his wife llllllast month.”
“Oh. Yes. Señor Paolo. Again? He was just here last night for dinner. How long did it take him to choose something this time? Poor man, his wife always chose for him.”
“Tttthat’s the problem Mam… he can’t decide and doesn’t even know how hungry he is. Wants a chchchcef special: food for the soul to mourn and heal.”
Chef Jessie sighed as she walked towards the door. Standing at the glass window pane, she crossed her arms and scanned the tables in search of the mourning customer. Food for the soul to cure and heal? What could she possibly offer a man who had lost the anchor of his life, the very core of his being and raison d’etre? Demanding fussy customers who knew exactly what they wanted, and presumed to know better, were easier to deal with, but she was always at a loss with mourners and broken hearts. Their inability to focus, choose, or even find joy in food was a challenge and a frustration, because no matter what masterpiece she created, the aching heart would still beat sorrowfully after the meal, and even worse, the napkins would be damp with tears, hopelessly stained with lipstick and runny mascara.
“He was alone last night, is he dining alone again today?”
“No Mam, he said to take our ttttime because he was waiting for his ssssson.”
“Son? In all the years that I have known Señor Paolo and Señora Menchu, may she rest in peace, I never met their son. I am aware of six daughters but nobody ever mentioned a son. Are you sure?”
“Yes Mam, he was addddammmmant about waiting for David.”
“Go back to the table and ask where David is coming from and what time he is expected. Knowing this lunch rush hour in Makati, the poor man might be waiting a while, which means we need an appetizer as well.”
George threw back his shoulders, straightened his tie, and walked back to the table in question. Four minutes later he leaned against the sink with his head tilted sideways propped on his palm, lost in thought. Jessie put down the sauce pot, pulled it off the heat and faced George.
“You have a look on you that I have never seen before. Confusion. What do we know about David?”
“Nnnnnothing. Boss, I’m not ever sure there is a David to begin with. When I asked, Señor Paolo, he simply lllllllooked down at his hands and whispered ‘I don’t know when David is coming but I hope he arrives ssssoon so he can tttttake me to my Menchu.’ What do you make of that?”
“Ah, now I remember. We catered their Golden Wedding Anniversary, I have that menu filed away somewhere, and it was roughly a month before Señora fell ill. One of her sisters told me of a baby boy who had suffocated in his crib. He had rolled back and forth, and his face ended up in the pillow but couldn’t turn around again. He was the fourth child, and since they had finally been blessed with a boy, the couple thought it was time to stop having children.”
“Bbbbbut Chef, how do you want ttttto translate that into ffffood for the sssssoul?”
“Tinola. It is the ultimate comfort food for the Filipino soul. It’s simple, soothing, inviting, full of flavor but not pretentious, and the warmth of the soup is the embrace we yearn for when we are lost or afraid. It works just as well for those who mourn the loss of a loved one.”
Before Señor Paolo could finish chewing the last piece of bread with the liver spread dip, a bowl of soup with the most magical aroma was placed in front of him. The steam clouded his spectacles and for the briefest of moments, Señor Paolo could feel his wife’s hand reach out to caress his cheek. “Menchu? Menchu tesoro, look, it’s our favorite Tinola! Remember our first date when you spilled some over your blouse?”
The soup was getting lukewarm by the time Señor Paolo had his first spoonful of tinola, and George noticed the trembling right hand that held the spoon, the solitary left hand that reached across the table in search of his partner, and the two tears that dropped into soup. The old man looked up. “Please tell Chef Jessie Menchu says thank you, and that David won’t be coming for me today.”