The lonely, rough road of the artisan baker
Filipinos have yet to develop their latent appreciation for European-style breads. This baker isn't waiting for that to happen
Richard Manapat is a baker. A really, really good one.
After he finished his professional cooking course in First Gourmet Academy, he opened a tapas bar in Ortigas where he made his own breads to go with the Spanish bar chow. As fate would have it, the tapas bar burned down, but he continued catering until 2013. Coincidentally, his friend owned the just-folded Open Kitchen by 48 Concepts and Manapat happily joined the team. When the in-house baker was released, he took his sourdough recipe with him. Manapat had to learn how to make his own and, unwittingly, he made it better. Soon, he was supplying other restaurants with his beautiful, European-style artisanal breads.
“I wouldn’t call them traditional,” Manapat explains, as he temporarily squares his bony shoulders, which are perpetually hunched over, his brows furrowing over a thin, serious nose. He has a good relationship with many of his clients. He often takes the time to talk to them about their menus and how his bread plays its part. “I would tweak my recipes to suit their dishes, adjust the sourness of the dough, or use grains that will complement the flavors.” It’s an unselfish act borne out of his passion for bread making, a profession that has consumed every aspect of his life. However, despite a rather successful business supplying bread to some 20 restaurants, Manapat is ready to leave.
He has found a full-time job at Tivoli Road Bakery in Melbourne, Australia. “My wife’s family lives in Melbourne now,” he narrates. “So, we’ve been going back and forth. When I’m there, I would make it a point to apprentice under some really good bakers, those I really respect. I’ve learned so much from them.”
Still, one wonders why Manapat would even consider leaving a stable business in the Philippines to work in someone else’s kitchen abroad. To answer the question, he paints a rather bleak picture. “When restaurateurs try my sourdough breads for the first time, they’re all excited. They order different varieties of artisanal breads to serve their guests.” Soon enough, these restaurateurs revert to what he calls his “semi-commercial products,” such as the baguettes, burger buns, and brioche. “Aside from the demand of their customer base for the more standard fare, restaurants are also always looking to cut costs. Most of my ingredients are imported. How can I lower my prices?”
We talk about a café I frequent, one of those third-wave coffee places that serve grilled cheese sandwiches on wooden boards. “I supply to them,” Manapat says. No wonder, I exclaim. I love their brioche! Manapat is quick to correct me, though, that the café doesn’t buy their brioche from him. “We make ours with Elle & Vire butter. That’s why it’s P500 a loaf.” A price, apparently, many are not willing to pay.
What makes Richard Manapat’s products different from many commercially available breads is the amount of work and time put into his items. Some of his pieces take long hours—days even—to rest to get the flavor and texture he aims for.
Butter is not the only commodity this bread maker needs to import. “Did you know that we don’t even plant our own wheat in this country?” he smirks. Manapat explains how the Department of Agriculture encouraged farmers to grow the grain, pointing out wheat’s resilience in a dry and hot climate. But growing wheat never picked up steam. He slouches again, resigned, “Pinoys are just really set in their ways. These farmers have been planting rice for centuries. That’s what they were taught; that’s what they know.”
This lack of interest is cultural and just one of the many issues that frustrate Manapat. Local bakers do not share his connection with the product, perhaps because there is no emotional attachment to it the way there is with local dishes. “People here just don’t value bread,” he concludes. This is probably the reason why he would opt to leave and be in the company of those who enjoy the kinds of bread he makes and the little nuances he puts in to make each product unique and special. There are other reasons, but mainly, he seems tired. “There is just something about the system here that pushes away the good stuff—even people.”
However, his love for what he does is too great to darken his heart and leave embittered. He remains connected to the Philippines with the semi-commercial bread business his wife will continue to operate while he works full-time in Melbourne. He promises to still bake his artisanal breads when he’s in town, “and when the mood strikes,” he smiles coyly. But what must be his greatest show of love is his willingness to pass on his knowledge through collaboration with friends such as Raf of Habitual Coffee and his buyers, including Margarita Forés’ team in Alta at Ascott. This way, he says, “I am more relaxed because I’m not pushing my bread business.
Besides, bread making is such a personal thing; everyone makes a different product even with the same basic recipes. There really is no risk of imitations.” When asked if there is really nothing left to make him stay, Manapat just looks down; his lips curl up in a half-smile. His mind seems to be set and convinced that, for now, Melbourne is where he belongs. However, he has planted a seed in the local food industry that has great potential for growth. And, like the patient baker waiting for dough to rise, he will hopefully return someday to reap its benefits.