What makes a cook a chef? Does possessing a well-traveled palate a requirement to create good food? Does having a temperament give you an edge in the kitchen? Can perfect technique propel an aspiring chef into greatness?
In the middle of Bulacan’s rice fields lies a humble kubo where a family of 11 lives. The father is a truck driver while the mother works as a laundry woman. The four eldest children moved to Manila to find more opportunities while the fifth, a young woman, wants to fulfill her father’s dream to own a restaurant someday. She also appears to defy the traditional molds of what truly makes a chef.
Girlie Obias, a 21-year-old Gawad Kalinga scholar and aspiring chef, started from small beginnings but this year, she traveled to France to train under the meticulous eyes of some of the greatest chefs in the industry.
On the table
Her culinary journey was not a straight-cut path. Obias didn’t grow up with many food choices because of poverty. Restaurants, especially fine dining ones, were definitely out of her radar. “I’m used to sleeping on the floor without any electricity. Food on the table was always canned goods, sardines, or noodles. MSG was a staple because that’s the only way food can taste a little better,” she says, adding that her father used to worked at a carinderia and that was the closest exposure she had with food.
Obias was one of the first 100 applicants of Gawad Kalinga’s SEED Philippines or the School for Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development. It offers a two-year program on social entrepreneurship that aims to hone the next generation of agri-entrepreneurs. Before she applied, Obias signed up for an internship inside the farm in 2014. In September that year, she was able to get a slot in the first batch of social entrepreneur aspirants.
“I would never forget the first dish I ate inside the farm: pork steak,” she says. “I can’t believe that no vetsin or artificial seasoning was used to cook that dish.”
With high hopes to pursue higher studies for free, she entered The Enchanted Farm to forge a different path from her older siblings. “I didn’t want to study in Manila to become a saleslady or a cashier. I wanted to do more.”
Life on the farm
“I had no culinary background and the program didn’t offer professional courses on cooking as well,” Obias says. However, she spent most of the two years as an intern in GK’s Grassroots Kitchen where she worked with the mothers in the community and learned to cook Filipino food (without artificial seasonings).
She was one of the meek ones in the bunch, which is a little unusual if you really want to be a chef. She knew she wanted to discover the world of food but it wasn’t her dream to begin with anyway. “Whenever I was asked in group sessions what my dream was, I never knew what or how to answer because I didn’t have my own dream,” says Obias. “Dahil mahirap lang kami, parang di ko kaya mangarap kasi limited lang ‘yung capacity ko. Nasa isang box lang ako.”
But as she continued to be exposed inside the kitchen, she found that fire for the craft along the way. “She never ceases to take up new challenges,” says mentor and friend Louis Faure. When GK hosts big events, Obias heads the preparation of food for 500 people for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “When given the task, that’s when I realized how much confidence my mentors had in me and that motivates me to do my best every time,” she adds.
“It’s really not about cooking, it’s how you build yourself and handle the pressure,” she says of her greatest learnings inside the IASIS kitchen.
After the two-year program, she entered a paid internship at the more upmarket IASIS Health and Wellness Center where she was challenged to experiment dishes on her own using produce and products generated inside the farm. Some of her and her team of three’s creations were salted egg kamote chips and their bestselling duck kebabs.
“It’s really not about cooking, it’s how you build yourself and handle the pressure,” she says of her greatest learnings inside the IASIS kitchen. Many tears were shed inside and outside the kitchen. She never understood it at first until she was thrown into the fire and learned French cookery in France. Before she left, she underwent a month-long training in Enderun to provide her with basic techniques and informal training from two Institut Paul Bocuse interns.
There were two golden tickets to the Institut Paul Bocuse given but Obias wasn’t even one of them. “I already knew that I wouldn’t be able to go to France; still, I wanted to learn and hone my skills further,” she says. So, she asserted herself and attended every cooking session religiously. On the other hand, the two initial grantees weren’t too enthusiastic about it until they admitted that they wanted to focus on their growing social enterprise instead.
On May 8, she finally embarked on her first adventure away from home and her most difficult challenge thus far. The chefs from Institut Paul Bocuse did not hold anything back. “Doon napakaingay, napakabilis. Kung di ka alerto, maiiwan ka. Kung maiiwan ka, ma-bu-bully ka talaga,” recounts Obias.
No special treatment was given to the young Filipina who had no formal training on cookery, especially French cookery, and was instead given a flurry of French curses throughout the course.
She was one of 47 aspiring chefs, most if not all graduated from culinary school, in the three-month program. “Noong una ’di ako maka-relate kasi Filipino food lang ‘yung alam ko,” she says. There, she learned to endure the pain from the tremendously fast motions inside the kitchen and to do everything from inventory to plating.
The chefs from Institut Paul Bocuse did not hold anything back. “Doon napakaingay, napakabilis. Kung di ka alerto, maiiwan ka. Kung maiiwan ka, mabu-bully ka talaga,” recounts Obias.
Now, back at her home base inside Gawad Kalinga, she intends to apply everything she learned fast. “Sometimes I still find myself dreaming of what Berjaya—the restaurant she now heads in the farm—could become. I can finally create a system and cook food that would be of international standards,” Obias says.
“I am thankful that Gawad Kalinga makes us believe that we can dream, that there is hope, and that we are capable to see, feel, and taste the change in our lives,” a hopeful Obias says. “If you think you can inspire more people, do it.”
She is only one of the many stories of dedication and fervor inside the Gawad Kalinga community. She hopes not only to be the best chef she could be but to elevate the standard of cooking and hospitality in the establishment.
This is only the beginning for Obias. “My dream is to really turn my father’s dream into reality through me.”