On soft opening is highly revered Chef Fernando Aracama’s newest namesake Filipino restaurant Aracama, which is currently bringing much needed traffic back to a sleepy part of the Fort Strip that once housed the legendary super club, Embassy. The bi-level space that used to be the metro’s party capital was tastefully transformed into a modern yet, homey dining space with subtle Filipino elements. On its second level is an al fresco area called Terraza Lounge and where local liquors and spirits are proudly poured and served.It is open till late and is fast becoming a favorite hang-out of the metro’s fun-loving nocturnal crowd.
After dining at Aracama last weekend, Chow Buzz sat down with Chef Aracama to learn more about him and his newest venture.
CHOW BUZZ: When did you know you wanted to become a chef? And do you have formal chef training?
CHEF FERN: While studying HRA (Hotel and Restaurant Administration) in UP Diliman, I joined the Maggi Plan-A-Meal contest for students from all over the Philippines. We had to cook a two course meal (main course and dessert) for a family of four with a Php150 budget. The theme was regional Filipino Cuisine and I made a chicken dish from Western Visayas called Tinum-anan, and for dessert, flambéed mangoes in rum served over suman sa ibus with ice cream. The judges picked me as the National Champion for that year. This experience reinforced my growing interest in the fact that I could actually make a career from cooking and pushed me to the culinary side of my hotel studies. In 1991, I went to the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, USA where I finished with an AOS (Associate’s degree in Occupational Studies) for Culinary Arts.
CHOW BUZZ: What’s your philosophy when it comes to food, and your restaurant Aracama?
CHEF FERN: Food is one great reason why people get together. It is my wish that Aracama becomes a restaurant filled with family and friends. Where milestones will be celebrated. Where great memories will be made. Food is in the middle of all that. How wonderful.
CHOW BUZZ: What inspires you? How do you come up with ideas for the dishes in your restaurant?
CHEF FERN: Great food memories from my childhood growing up in Bacolod inspire me. We lived simply. Both of my parents cooked and seeing Papa make the Sunday bechuelas (fabada) or his asados affirmed that the kitchen is not only a place for women. Mama made delicious Bangus en Tocho, Calderetang Kambing and she candied everything—santol, kamias, coconut, kalabasa. We had our own livestock and we slaughtered a pig, goat, or lamb for every family occasion. Nose-to-tail eating was well practiced. We had a vegetable garden, grew our own kadyos bushes, bananas, cassava, and peanuts, to name a few, and picked from these for our family meals. My inspiration starts from this special place. I figured if I needed to put my best forward for the restaurant, it’s best to start here. It’s the food I know best. It’s the food I love most.
CHOW BUZZ: Do you have any vivid or memorable food experiences that impacted on you as a child or as a young chef?
CHEF FERN: I was six years old and together with my older brothers and Papa, we went to the “punong” or fish farm in Vito, Sagay in Negros Occidental. The folks there were harvesting prawns, bangs, and whatever was caught in the net. For lunch, Papa picked through the live seafood and sent them to the fire for cooking. But he grabbed a few small skittering crabs, snapped them in half, washed it in sea water and dipped it in tuba vinegar for a few seconds and told me to open my mouth. I did. And it was awesome. I tasted the salty sea water, the sweet crab meat lightly bathed in the sour vinegar. Good times.
CHOW BUZZ: Is Aracama your first Filipino Restaurant? If, yes, what do you think will make it different from the other Filipino restos?
CHEF FERN: Yes, Aracama is our first Filipino restaurant. But the heart of the menu is Negrense cuisine. This will be our specialty. This is where Aracama will be different from other Filipino restaurants. All time Pinoy favorites will complete the menu: kare kare, crispy pata, sinigang, adobo. All prepared with sincerity and respect for tradition but with a professional chef’s approach of improving these dishes starting with the right ingredients—seasonal if we have to—proper cooking techniques and making sure it is full of flavor and really delicious.
I will, though, remain true to myself and will have fun with the menu. I have reserved the sumsuman, the pica pica part of the menu to be campy, kitschy, silly, and fun to eat appetizers. Along the lines of the chocnut ice cream. As fun and as delicious as I can make it.
CHOW BUZZ: What’s your favourite dish on the menu and why?
CHEF FERN: The Lumpia Bangus. I remember Mama used to pick through leftover fish (bangus, galunggong, hasa hasa etc.) and toss in guisadong kamatis, sibuyas, a few raisins and green peas. Then roll them inside lumpia wrappers and pan fry them. Dipped in suka with a little salt. I could eat a bandehado of this. It’s a great memory.
CHOW BUZZ: How did you end up creating the Choc Nut ice cream? I heard it had a cult following from your UVA days.
CHEF FERN: I like to eat Choc Nut candy frozen. So I figured, wouldn’t it be the hilarious if I make it into ice cream? I had a feeling it was a good idea.
CHOW BUZZ: Last but not the least, do you have any tips for budding chefs or restaurateurs?
CHEF FERN: Love your work. Love what you do.
• Aracama Filipino Restaurant: Unit C, The Fort Entertainment Center, BGC, Taguig
Table Reservations number: (+63) 917-8612702
Landline number: (+632) 519-6815
Lunch : 11 am to 2 pm, daily; Dinner: 6 pm to 11 pm, daily
5pm to 12 am, Sunday to Thursday, 5 pm to 2 am, Fridays and Saturdays