Le Happy Chef

Chef Rex de Guzman (Photo by Christopher Lambert)

Chef Rex de Guzman (Photo by Christopher Lambert)

Young enough to be my son but determined enough to be the father of contemporary Filipino cuisine in Britain is 23-year-old Rex de Guzman a.k.a. Le Happy Chef. When it comes to the subject of a new Filipino food wave in Britain, his name is impossible to miss.

Filipinos constitute the biggest population in the Southeast Asian Diaspora in the UK. Ironically, the UK food scene paints a different picture. To say that Filipino food is one of the least visible in the country, wouldn’t be an exaggeration.

Intent on lifting Filipino cuisine out of obscurity, Rex rebrands Filipino food on the UK market. He has showcased the X factor of the cuisine through various projects, such as a series of sold-out pop-up restaurants, a fine dining fund-raising event for Bantay Bata 163, catering for the World Travel Market 2015 in London and launching Luzon, a contemporary Filipino restaurant.

Filipino Roots

Rex is a second-generation immigrant. His mother, Praxedes, is an Ilocano, originally from Cagayan Valley, and his dad, Ruel, is Tagalog, from San Miguel, Bulacan. His parents moved to the UK for work.

At first, his dad didn’t plan to stay too long in the UK, but when his parents had his sister and him, things changed.

Rex and his mom (Source; PH Culinary Diamond)

Rex and his mom (Source; PH Culinary Diamond)

Rex has always had a great passion for food, which came from his love of eating. Watching Gordon Ramsay on the telly as a kid encouraged it even more.

“As a career choice, actually, I had to decide between music and food. I chose food because I thought it would be easier to build a career in food than in music,” Rex says.

How did he come up with his Le Happy Chef brand? Le Happy Chef, stems from his personality. Rex describes himself as a happy and positive chap by nature. He likes the idea of tying his personality with his profession as a chef.  

“Le Happy Chef breaks away from the stereotype of a chef. The job we do and the pressure we have to take on have earned chefs a reputation for being grumpy and angry. I want to change that,” he says.

When asked if he ever loses his cool in the kitchen, Rex admits he does sometimes during service. “I think it is natural for us chefs to feel very emotional and attached to the food we create and expect others to care for it as much as we do,” he explains. “I voice out my frustrations to keep my team focused and to make them feel the heat we’re in.”

But he claims he hasn’t gone as far as smashing plates like Gordon Ramsay, though there were occasions when he felt like doing so.

What does he do, instead? When he boils to plate-smashing point, Rex takes a step back and a minute out to control himself before the situation takes control over him.

Filipino Cuisine in the UK

Le Happy Chef at work (Source: LeHappyChef)

Le Happy Chef at work (Source: LeHappyChef)

Rex thinks that our cuisine is slowly beginning to emerge on the UK scene. In comparison to other Southeast Asian cuisines, however, it still has a way to go.

In his opinion, not enough Filipinos have set up their own businesses and pushed Filipino cuisine. There are a few Filipino restaurants in London and they have been around for the past 20 years or so. They have done their part in showing off Filipino cuisine and still do today.

“However, to be honest, I think that some of them are somewhat dated. They need some refurbishing or re-branding and need to market more towards the British,” Rex adds.

Rex believes that Filipinos are “very, very, very” hard workers, but not enough of them aspire to be more entrepreneurial.

He mentions a few other pioneers like him who have emerged and are doing a great job in creating supper clubs or pop-ups to showcase their interpretation of Filipino cuisine, such as Pepe’s Kitchen, Adobros and Maynila.

Contemporary Filipino Cuisine

Filipino canapés (Source: LeHappyChef)

Filipino canapés (Source: LeHappyChef)

For Rex, contemporary Filipino cuisine is an interpretation of authentic, traditional Filipino flavors with a modern twist. It does its best to capture real Filipino taste but also offers more interesting textures and presentation suited for higher-end restaurants.

“I started this concept two years ago, testing very simple dishes such as adobo, sisig, and tocino but tweaking the presentation or adding a few ideas of my own,” says Rex.

One example is his take on sisig (sizzling diced pork head cheese), which is cooked and set in a terrine mould so it holds its shape when crisp fried. It’s then served with pickled ginger, sriracha mayonnaise and a boiled quail egg.

“Traditional Filipino food is ultimately family food. I’m simply elevating it to fit the restaurant scene here in London,” Rex says.

Based on feedback he has received, he thinks contemporary Filipino cuisine is going down well with the UK market. Londoners love new experiences and one of the main things he noticed is that they simply do not know what to expect when they order Filipino dishes. Rex believes this is a good thing because it allows Filipinos to create their own view of Filipino cuisine and make their own impression.  

On Being a Pioneer

One of the biggest challenges Rex faces as a pioneer in contemporary Filipino cuisine abroad is how to utilize ingredients that are available in the UK.

There are some amazing, fresh, native ingredients in the Philippines that are simply unavailable in the UK, or come tinned or frozen, which reduces the quality of the product. It’s a simple fact that the demand for these Filipino ingredients is not high enough for supply to be exported.

“For me as a chef, it means I must be creative in recreating some Filipino dishes by substituting certain ingredients,” Rex explains.

His Greatest Achievement

Rex considers catering for the World Travel Market in November 2015 in London Excel for up to 500 guests for over three days one of his greatest achievements. The Philippines’ Department of Tourism asked Rex to create a canapé menu for this event. It was a big achievement for him because his interpretation of Filipino cuisine was finally recognized not just by the UK market, but also by Filipinos.

“I also had the honor of meeting Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr., who thoroughly enjoyed my canapés and invited me personally to Madrid Fusion Manila [last April 2016],” says Rex.

Culinary Tour in the Philippines

Rex is in the middle of a two-and-a-half-month culinary tour in the Philippines.

“I’m having an amazing time. It’s an experience I will never forget,” Rex says.

He was on tour in Ilocos and the Cordillera region days before I spoke to him. Every province he visited presented a different experience and an interesting highlight. “I’m learning every day,” he tells me.

The food tour is personal for Rex. It is a culinary research expedition and his way of reconnecting with his roots and heritage.

It’s important to him because he wants to be able to promote not just easily recognizable Filipino food, but also the regional dishes in the Philippines, so that diners will see how much the Philippines has to offer.

The bigger picture is also to explore ways to promote tourism in the Philippines with a focal point on food. “Ultimately it’s for me to become the chef that I need to be in order to be a better ambassador for Filipino cuisine in the UK,” he explains.

Cooking with the Ifugao

Rex found the Ifugaos “very friendly, very quiet and very old,” but they were welcoming, as are all Filipinos.

In Banaue, seeing the rice terraces and seeing how rice is planted, harvested and milled gave him a deeper respect for the Filipino staple. He says that the Ifugaos respect food for what it is – life-giving. They waste nothing.

“I had been dreaming about such a moment since I began planning for this research expedition,” he says.

“The arroz caldo (rice porridge) I cooked for them used their native chicken and native rice harvested from the famous rice terraces,” he adds. His version of arroz caldo is different. It is not soupy like traditional arroz caldo, but more like a risotto – creamier and richer.

Arroz Caldo Memories

Heartwarming food, that’s what arroz caldo is for Rex.

“My mother often cooked it when I was ill with a cold, during winters in the UK. She’d serve it for dinner for the family. It was something we shared as a meal,” says Rex.

Rex recalls his mom’s arroz caldo: flavored with lots of ginger chopped in large matchstick pieces so that he could pick them out and not bite on them unpleasantly, soupy, peppery and with a generous dose of garlic. His mom often used chicken thighs and legs, cooked in the rice until tender enough for the meat to fall off the bone. He remembers eating arroz caldo with fish sauce as sawsawan (dip) and definitely, lemon.

Rex, who admits being a mama’s boy, describes her as the happiest person he knows. He has nothing but praise for her. “She is the one who knows how to keep spirits high in the family. She is very positive, bright and bubbly. Even when there are occasional arguments in the family, she is the one who knows how to diffuse them and keep things on the bright side,” he says.

“I definitely inherited that from her, keeping positive and keeping happy,” Rex adds.

Rex swears his mom is an incredible woman: sweet, with a pure heart, and very hardworking. At the moment, she still works two jobs doing part-time cleaning, which she has been doing for a long time. Rex emphasizes that his mother got that typical Filipino hard-work ethic.

Rex plans to set up a Filipino food stall. He wants to conduct research into the import and export of Filipino food and beverage. He aims to bridge the gap between demand and supply for Filipino products in the UK. He is also currently working on setting up a establishment for Luzon Filipino Restaurant.

Advice to Aspiring Filipino Chefs

“Be creative, be ambitious and believe in your own ability, but find a balance between what is truly Filipino in flavor, what your market wants and how you want to present it,” Rex advises would-be Filipino chefs.

He reckons that Filipino cuisine is about to storm the world. “But it needs to be done step by step. It does not need to be over-complicated just yet, but it does need to be elevated so that it can be recognized and appreciated by others for what it truly is,” he says.

“When the world starts to learn about the flavors of Filipino food, then a new generation of chefs may step in and take it to where no man or woman has ever taken it before,” he concludes.

*based on an interview featured on My Food Beginnings Blog

Jacqueline Lauri

Jacqueline Lauri

Jacqueline Lauri is the founder of My Food Beginnings, a project endorsed by the Philippine Embassy in the US, to fire up an appetite for Filipino cuisine globally. Jacqueline is soliciting real-life stories with reinvented recipes for the forthcoming Filipino food anthology.