Because they lived a few blocks from her older son’s office, Tess dispatched the family driver to deliver his fresh-cooked lunch from home. Daily. And when her younger son stayed home to fight an oncoming cold, his meal would arrive from the kitchen up the stairs on a lace-lined tray in the arms of uniformed household staff.
Food was the language of love at home, and Tess articulated her affection by hosting dinners showcasing her latest recipes. First bites were reserved for her sons and their father.
Younger son Enrique did more than tasting, evidently. When he announced that he was switching to culinary studies, no one flinched. Relatives and friends lauded the move, especially his mother, who could hardly hide her pride when pointing out that an evening’s menu was designed and prepared by her doppelganger. And now, after stints up the hot line in several restaurants in his hometown, Makati City, expeditions in Spain and San Francisco and experiments in the kitchen of the Palm Village home where he lives with his father, they can’t wait to see how the new chef-patron interprets lessons from and beyond the kitchen of his mother, her mother, and his mother-in-law, in his first restaurant.
“Mijo” will be a refuge for diners seeking food that delights rather than dazzles, a warm hug instead of a slap on the back served in surroundings that feel familial, says Enrique, 34. The name is a portmanteau for “mi hijo,” Spanish for “my son,” as the restaurateur calls his valentine to the women who spoiled him. Unsurprisingly, the menu reflects the chef’s Filipino-Chinese-Spanish heritage.
“The concept of Mijo is comfort food I grew up with, and then some. It is food I like to eat myself. It’s homage to my grandmothers, for always going the extra mile to keep everyone full and happy. My style of serving food is similar to our Sunday family lunches. I encourage ordering a mix of different dishes so people can taste more dishes, rather than ordering one dish for themselves,” Moreno defines his enterprise.
Sunday lunch alternated between his grandparents’ homes for de rigueur get-togethers. Both clans are large and loud, have grand appetites for food and discussion. Every milestone demands a feast. The routine post-lunch mahjong marathon was an excuse to sample a new dish, perhaps inspired by a recent trip or produce from a friend’s farm or ranch.
The thought of maternal grandmother “Mama Lita” or Dolores Buan Tan’s soy chicken stuffed with chestnuts, shiitakes, and chorizo or his paternal Lola Nena Zavala Moreno’s pigs in a blanket cabbage rolls makes Enrique’s mouth water. And now that he’s a professional, he can grasp his grandmothers’ investments in those weekly indulgences.
“How much time and effort it takes to feed people: To do what they did every Sunday for us shows me how much love they had for us,” he muses. “I think a lot of us should hug our Lolas more.”
Those memories imprinted in Enrique’s psyche come alive at Mijo, which he guarantees is a pleasant experience without breaking the bank.
“My business philosophy is really simple. I want my guests full but at the same time not feeling like they overspent. A lot of the comments I get (at test dinners) are, ‘your portions are too big for the price.’ I like that. I want them to come back for more. A lot of restaurants that open up now concentrate on being innovative and different. I want to make you feel at home. Like this is a place where you can entertain as you would do in your own home. Informal. Casual. At home.”
The restaurant fulfills a little bit of every dream harbored by the 2008 graduate of De La Salle – College of St. Benilde School of Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management.
“At a young age, I would help around in the kitchen. Just simple chores like chopping and tasting. I was doing more of tasting than cooking really. I was always drawn to cooking, though, as I‘d look forward to watching cooking shows like ‘Cooking with The Dazas’ on a Saturday morning or ‘Yan Can Cook,’” he says. “I did not want to be a chef actually. I wanted to put up a food business, manufacture meats and supply, packaging, distribution, possibly a restaurant one day. However, instead of taking up business in college, I decided to take up culinary arts to get a feel of the industry.”
Like most Filipinos, his palate is accustomed to intense flavors born of the extreme climate in the archipelago, where the scent of each meal lingers on the diner hours later.
His menu features standouts from his boyhood and gustatorial odysseys. His aunt and fellow gastronome Jackie Caballero breaks into song while recalling her favorites on the menu: the “sinfully rich” wagyu picanha (a cut of sirloin) with a side of bone marrow and sweet potato mash to cut the richness. He concocts her idea of perfection: the chorizo french fries topped with poached egg, and gindara (black cod) on risotto.
The inflection is distinct.
“I like Asian food. I like bold, in-your-face flavors,” Chef Enrique admits. “I also have a passion for smoking meats and making my own charcuterie like bacon, ham, chorizos and the sort. I would say my food is primarily Asian flavors with cooking techniques I’ve learned through the years. For example, the fresh noodles I use in my pasta dishes are similar in texture to a ramen (I use a drier dough and incorporate rye flour and some alkaline). My favorite food is Chinese roast duck, so I do a 5-spice duck confit in my menu, which people seem to enjoy.”
Notice the accent on guest satisfaction? Every business relies on public acceptance, yes. But how gratified would a classically trained, formally educated chef-owner be if diners flocked in for food he would not bother serving at home?
“I think the biggest challenge for chefs is serving the food they honestly like themselves in their own restaurants. We tend to put out food that people like, just because it sells. The challenge is being honest with what we actually like to cook and eat,” Enrique concurs, defining his restaurant as an extension of his persona.
“I chose Poblacion (district) because I feel like I fit here. Poblacion is an up and coming food and night life destination. I like the diversity here. You’ll see people of all walks of life in the same area. You have diners, clubbers, bar-goers, people of different ages and nationalities.” Makati City has been his stomping ground even as a high schooler at Colegio de San Agustin.
His ultimate celebration is a “full-on Chinese spread,” he says. Because “there is something about having everyone at a round table, sharing a crazy amount of dishes and conversation,” perhaps influenced by the annual New Year family holidays in Hong Kong and Singapore to which his grandfather, the late labor leader Johnny Tan, would take four generations of his brood.
Like most of his colleagues, however, Chef Enrique turns to the simplest pleasures when alone and in low spirits. “I eat Instant soup noodles and egg. I don’t know why exactly, maybe it’s a force of habit, but it comforts me,” he shares.
Nothing like a trip to Hong Kong or Japan to soothe any ache and fire up the belly for this bachelor, who names his father, retired international re-insurance executive and now Gawad Kalinga volunteer manager, Joey Moreno, as “favorite dining companion.”
“He’s open to trying everything, has a great appetite, doesn’t judge me when I over-order,” he pays a compliment topped with a verbal wink Americans may not comprehend: “Most importantly, he pays for the bill most of the time.”
Guests at Mijo will feel the presence of Enrique’s mom, Tess, source of his obvious qualities, who pampered him as much as she scolded him when he crossed a line.
“My mom was tough, strict, and bullish. I think I would have given up being a chef early on if I did not see how she was.” He describes Tess, who would not allow cancer to rule her final years, by traveling, attending weddings, and shopping around the world way past her doctor’s prognosis, as “a fighter.” “Being a chef is hard. We have long hours, poor cooking conditions, and we work in high pressure environments. I definitely learned to take each challenge head-on from my mom.”
To succeed in his business, he will have to count on the very same traits: “I’m hard headed, friend and family-centric, fun and outgoing, passionate but hot tempered,” he says, not the least of all, he is always “hungry.”
See Chef Enrique Moreno’s recipe for Oyster Kilaw in our Happy Home Cook section.
San Francisco Bay Area–based Cherie M. Querol Moreno, MC74 Communication Arts, earned a 2019 Homecoming Triple A award for advocating for Filipino American empowerment as a journalist and promoting safe environments as founder-executive director of ALLICE Alliance for Community Empowerment. She received her award in spirit.
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