Though she’s living in the UK, Roni Bandong was born in the Philippines, graduated from the University of the Philippines Los Banos with a bachelor’s degree in zoology and an MSc in marketing management. She moved to the UK in 2002 to brave it on her own. Currently, she and husband, James Mc Sorley, reside in the city of Walton on Thames.
Roni sharpened her culinary skills in her youth when she spent summers baking and cooking. Her “Aha” moment to launch a food business came at the time Business Britain was encouraging start-ups. She partnered with a friend and took advantage of the booming supper club culture in the UK. A supper club is the counterpart of the American pop-up dinner. Roni named the endeavor “Maynila Supper Club.” Maynila serves classic Filipino dishes made modern but with familiar flavors like the sweet-citrus dalandan or calamansi. Like pop-ups, Maynila’s venue varies depending on availability. Menu offerings are traditional dishes like adobo, kare-kare, lechon with contemporary variations. “It’s a viable way of drawing people in,” said Roni.
Maynila appeals to a mix of nationalities living in London and to a broad age range. “You must keep the flavors and taste the same even if it looks different,” Roni said.
Roni’s focus on Filipino cuisine goes beyond her supper club. Last December, she pitted her culinary skills against other cooks on the UK prime time television cooking show “Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas Broadcast” and her Rellenong Manok was judged “Best Alternative Christmas Dish.” The participants were given two and a half hours to cook an alternative to the traditional British holiday fare. One of the judges was Jimmy Lee, renowned Chinese-Scottish chef from “The Great British Cook-Off.”
Kirstie Allsopp, the show’s celebrity host described the Filipino dish as a “knock-out.”
Though adobo is Roni’s favorite, she chose to cook the stuffed chicken entree on the TV show because she knew that “only a few Brits have heard of chicken relleno.”
“Brits are not familiar with all those flavors combined together, “explained Roni.
“Cooking on British television for a national audience can be nerve-wracking, but everyone involved in the production did their best to make us relax. Yet the nerves will kick in no matter what.”
She attributes her win to the growing popularity of Filipino food. “People are beginning to appreciate the tastes and flavors of Philippine cuisine. The profile of Filipino food is on the rise.”
The UK has a Filipino population of about 100,000 and is the gateway to Europe for many kababayans. “Anybody who tastes Filipino food likes it. I want to elevate our cuisine in the UK, make it modern, more appealing to the British” Roni stressed.
“Coming here on our own is hard. Back home, Pinoys tend to be shy and not outspoken. But once in a foreign land, it takes a lot of courage to put ourselves out there – “ayaw mapahiya” (they don’t want to lose face).”
Roni’s proudest moment was her win on the TV cooking show. But she wants to achieve more.
“I am an only child. I have no kids. I want to leave a legacy, a contribution people will remember – getting Filipino cuisine more recognition in the UK.”
For Roni, recognition starts at home. Husband Scott McSorley’s support is evident in his involvement and collaboration with the supper club. His favorite Filipino dishes are Roni’s Bicol Express and Pork Sisig.
To younger chefs she says, “Do what you love. Learn continuously. Don’t be afraid to innovate just because it’s already been done.”
What is it that finally pushes a Filipina into doing something about a situation that needs fixing? Roni stepped up to the challenge. Setting up her supper club, winning first prize on a primetime TV cooking show, the realization that Filipino food needed to fill a vacuum in the London culinary scene…these were her milestone moments.
Roni has made choices based on what she believes in and she knows she’ll have no regrets.
At the end of the day, Roni is determined to fulfill a dream: “To get all Brits to cook adobo.”
For Chef Roni Bandong's Rellenong Manok, check out this week's Happy Home Cook.
Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey is a journalist and author of the “How to Cook Philippine Desserts: Cakes and Snacks” Cookbook. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and blogs about Filipino home cooking on her site AsianInAmericaMag.com.
More articles from Elizabeth Ann Quirino