“My parents wouldn’t hear of it,” Erwin said. “At that time, in the early ‘90s, there were no culinary programs like there are today.”
Being a chef as a profession was not yet as popular at the time when he chose it. “Chef ka na bago pa na-uso” (You were a chef before it was a trend), he was told by younger students at a talk.
Erwin doesn’t see being a chef as a trend. To him it is a commitment he made to himself.
Born in Manila, Erwin’s culinary path took many turns. During childhood, his family lived in Sydney, Australia, exposing him to new cultures. They returned to the Philippines where he continued school. After college, he worked at the Mandarin Oriental Manila. Soon after, he went to the States to work for the Coronado Marriott in San Diego, California. His mother passed away after that, so he went back to Manila briefly.
He returned to the US and enrolled at the first ACAP (Accelerated Culinary Arts Certificate Program) Culinary Institute of America (at Greystone). “Going to school in the US is a big investment. Going through it all, not knowing what will happen is daunting.” Erwin finished with an Award of Excellence.
“Kids see all these culinary shows on TV and think it’s glamorous. Then they see how much hard work there is, it’s an eye opener.”
After the US, he was off to the Caribbean to be executive chef of Cotton House in Mustique, an island where famous celebrities vacation.
“Cooking for celebrities is not complicated. They do not have weird requests. But they sometimes want specific items not on the menu, say broiling a fish caught that day. The challenge is to make it happen.”
One of his memorable moments was to cook for the famous chef-to-the-stars, Wolfgang Puck. He prepared an oven-roasted enormous fish, which Puck himself caught. Erwin expertly seasoned and stuffed the large grouper with olives, lemons, potatoes, seasonings. It must have been quite a dish -- other guests requested the same, too.
“When there are celebrities in the house, I try not to know who’s out there. I just try to do a good job.”
Erwin’s resiliency is the Filipino in him. Wherever his kitchen is, he takes stock of the ingredients on hand and gets to work.
“Resources are limited even for a luxury island in the Caribbean, so we made things from scratch. You’d have found me in the kitchen trying out new things with what is available.”
In his blog posts, Erwin mentioned he used the region’s indigenous ingredients. “I love simple flavors and using fresh, local produce. I love putting Caribbean and Asian elements into classic dishes.
At Mustique, he concocted recipes with a Caribbean flair. “I cook what the travelers want. If they’re into local exploration in the country, I adapt to what they want to eat. For example a local spiny lobster, made into a bisque with coconut milk and rum. Or simply grilled the lobster in pesto.”
Chef Erwin likes to add Filipino touches to the menu. “I want our cuisine to shine. I added lechon kawali (crisp pork belly slices) to a Caribbean dish. It was well-received.”
After a six-year stint in the Caribbean, Erwin recently went back to the Philippines for a brief sabbatical and to regroup with family. At the time of this interview, he was getting ready to pack his kitchen knives and move to Fiji for the next job.
What else is on the menu for this chef? “I plan to come back to Manila someday. Today, there are a lot of things happening, lots of opportunities in the culinary field.” Topping his list is to have his own restaurant.
“I’d like to serve dishes that stand the test of time,” said this young chef who possesses the finest five-star culinary skills.
“The past years have taken me to places I've never been to before, allowed me to reconnect with friends and family, and opened doors to meeting new people and building new relationships. Through all of these, food and cuisine played an important role—I love my profession even more now. I look forward to the next challenge in Fiji. Every day there is something new to create.”
Life is indeed a feast for this well-traveled chef!
Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey, is a journalist, food writer and member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). She blogs about Filipino home cooking and culinary travels to the Philippines on her site AsianInAmericamag.com.
This is my basic recipe for any fruit salsa. Simply substitute the pineapple with any fruit (kiwi, mango, melon) and follow the recipe. Replace the fruit with just ripe, diced tomatoes or cherry tomatoes and this is the classic Mexican pico de gallo. –Chef Erwin Joven
1 small pineapple, cut into small dice (about 2 cups)
2 ripe tomatoes, cut into small dice (about ½ cup)
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
1 small bunch scallions (green onion), chopped (about ½ cup)
1 small red onion, cut into small dice
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped (about ½ cup)
¼ cup lime juice
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 jalapeno chili, chopped (add more for spicier salsa)
salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients together.
Chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour before serving.
Soy Lime Butter
2 cups (4 sticks) cup butter, room temperature
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 small red onion, minced
1 cup dark soy sauce (I used Kikkoman)
1 cup fresh squeezed lime juice, strained
Zest of 2 limes
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chives, finely chopped
- Place softened butter in a bowl and beat until smooth. Set aside.
- In a small sauce pan combine the garlic, red onion, dark soy sauce, lime juice, lime zest and pepper. Simmer over medium heat until most of the liquid has evaporated and the onion mixture has absorbed the soy sauce. The mixture should be fairly dry … but be careful that it does not burn! Allow mixture to cool.
- Fold the soy sauce and onion mixture into the butter. Add the cilantro and chives and mix well.
- Form the butter into logs using a piece of parchment paper. Or store in airtight plastic containers or ramekins. Chill until ready to use.
- To use, melt the butter over low heat. Drizzle over grilled fish or seafood.