“Ohmygosh,” I always seem to say as I watch him finish off a block of sapin sapin (layered rice cake) or a big bowl of dinuguan (pork blood stew) beside his guests, real people who cook real food in the show FootPrints, shown every week on cable TV.
“Ang sarap!” (“Delicious!”) he would say between bites and there he’d go again smiling, making us, his audience, get up and eat everything we have left in our refrigerator. Why is it then that we gain 10 pounds just by watching Chef Sandy Daza on TV while he loses 10 pounds being in it?
I quickly found out. “Caesar’s Salad, please,” he ordered in the restaurant where we sat, adding “no chicken or croutons and oh, dressing on the side.” Hmm. That pretty much left him with nothing but romaine lettuce. Another time at lunch in his restaurant, Wooden Spoon, I used my hands to cover the fat-laden lechon kawali on my plate as I watched him ingest his lunch of boiled kangkong (water spinach) with bagoong (fermented shrimp paste) on the side. Oh yum.
“I go on a diet two weeks before taping,” he said, and I thought to myself, plus maybe two weeks after. Moreover, he plays badminton nearly every day.
Wow, what balance and discipline this guy has, I had to admire. I wonder if he’s that way with other aspects of his life?
Chef Sandy was born Alejandro Daza, second of five children of the legendary doyenne of the cooking scene, Nora Daza and her first husband Boy Daza Jr. He was supposed to be called Andy, but he already had an uncle by that name, or Jawo for he so loved the basketball player Jaworski, but thank goodness sanity prevailed and he ended up being called Sandy.
He was born a year after his big brother Bong, the social phenomenon who made a name as the best friend of Bongbong, the son of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, then as the debonnaire husband of former Miss Universe Gloria Diaz, then as Councilor of the city of Makati and finally, father of the beautiful movie star Isabelle Daza.
That Bong had a reputation akin to, let’s say, Warren Beatty, made him a somewhat hard act to follow, and although Sandy had a healthy following of his own, he had a bad feeling he could not shrug off -- that he felt his mom favored Bong.
Maybe that brought about his crazy school performance. He flunked three times from grade school to high school, switching from Ateneo to the University of the Philippines before finally graduating at the St. Martin Technical Institute where sections, he joked, were based on student height. He returned to UP for college, but Martial Law struck and off he went or was sent to France where he continued his studies at the American College in Paris. Eventually he completed his education with a Bachelor of Science degree in Hotel Management at the prestigious Cornell University in New York.
Having been accepted at Cornell, and graduating, Sandy concluded that he was neither dumb nor stupid after all. He was just too lazy to study. We can’t fault him. Not only was there too much excitement going on outside the classrooms in the ‘60s and ‘70s when the world was in political, cultural and musical upheavals, his parents’ marriage was also falling apart. His mom left home, moved to Paris and established Aux Illes Philippines, a restaurant that served fine Philippine cuisine.
The breakup led to two decisions Sandy made later in his life: 1) that he would never open a full-serve restaurant; and 2) that he would never get married.
First, the restaurant. The analogy was simple. As children, their family could never have meals together at home because their mom was always away taking care of business and clients. It sabotaged their family life and caused their parents’ breakup. Not wanting a similar fate, he swore he would only engage in a fast food business that could stand on its own at lunch and dinnertime.
He kept his promise for the most part. Before finally reneging on his word by opening the highly successful full-service Wooden Spoon, he had opened and closed nine fast food restaurants—yes, nine! – an experience that could drive any man on edge. As a graduate of the best restaurant management course in the world, why did his businesses fail?
There were lots of reasons – right market, wrong market, right food, wrong food, so on and so forth. So much dissecting followed every loss and closure, but when his business succumbed in Vancouver, BC where he had moved his family, the stakes ran high emotionally.
In Canada, he was not known as the chef with a royal pedigree in culinary arts. In fact he was not known at all! He put himself in a playing field not different from his experiences as all-around help in his mom’s restaurants in Paris and New York, but this time he owned the business and had to compete with every restaurant operation in and around the block and beyond.
“It was definitely a humbling experience,” he sighed.
But wait, did I mention “his family?” What happened to his never-going-to-get-married decision #2?
He was the world-class bachelor and darling of Philippine society -- gorgeous, wealthy, educated and had a very likeable personality. He liked the girls as much as they loved him but alas, he had sworn off marriage because he thought it would only break up like his parents’ did. The pain never went away until he saw a woman named Tessa Mendoza in a Close Up commercial and he was totally bowled over. She was so beautiful she left him breathless. Fortunately, he came across someone who knew her and arranged an introduction. One date led to another and at age 35, Sandy, finally, took a chance at marriage.
Life was good. It was the ‘90s and they were in love, together and having children. This was the happiest he had ever been.
Family is the most important thing in Sandy’s life.
But a few years into their return to Manila, his wife asked if he had even been untrue to her. Well, they were born-again Christians and their pastor had said they needed to have open communications. “Don’t hold back, tell the truth!” they were advised. So rather than keeping his secrets to his grave, Sandy said yes, he had been untrue.
They tried long and hard to stay together, but the torment was too much to bear. Eventually, the woman Sandy was madly in love with walked away from him.
He had been right; marrying would only mean breaking up.
He owns up to his faults and now lives with the consequences of his errors. But life goes on.
He is undyingly proud of his four children: Arturo, a MYX VJ; Ali, who works for an Australian company; Franco, a former actor now in sales; and Danielle who is a student at Ateneo.
His restaurant in the Rockwell Power Plant, Wooden Spoon, is a renowned success. He now has two television shows—Casa Daza, followed by FoodPrints, and both have great following. His newspaper blogs are well-read. Everyone loves Sandy.
These days he also leads groups of foodies on tour of Japan. What fun it is to spend a week eating one’s way through Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Hokkaido or Okinawa with a guy who has a palate that could be insured for a million bucks.
One of my favorite quotes about him, stated by his own mother, goes: “My son, Sandy, is undoubtedly the one who inherited the gastronomic savvy people associate most with the Dazas. He has an uncanny ability of appreciating food’s nuances and subtleties. If food were music, he must have perfect pitch.”
Another restaurant is in the making, this time in the popular UP Town Center along Katipunan Avenue.
On his show, FootPrints, I asked why he always says “Ang sarap!” (“Delicious!”), wondering if he has ever come across food he did not like.
“Of course,” he said, explaining that they cut out all segments that have food not to his liking. After all, it’s not nice to embarrass anyone on national TV. But Sandy, who never says no to trying any food that has ever been eaten by man, had to squirm when, in Ilocos Norte one time, he was fed a dish called papaitan which was raw carabao meat with onions, ginger and bile.
He recoiled with disgust. “Whoever came up with that dish must’ve been drunk! It tasted like poo, smelled like poo. Ang baho!” Ha ha! He is human after all.
One thing for sure, if he ever has to decide on his last meal on earth, it would not be papaitan. What it will be, he says, is tostadong adobo with garlic rice, adding “with green mango and spicy bagoong alamang.”
Plus ice-cold Coke.
Bella Bonner, UP Mass Comm graduate, moved back to Manila after 30 years in Texas and is trying life as an urban farmer. Between growing arugula in her neighbor’s yard and making artisan cheeses, she contemplates on raising goats in her own yard. Would her neighbors agree?
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