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Filipino chef dazzles British public in TV competition

Chef Rex De Guzman (right) with Jamie Oliver and finalists on The Great Cookbook Challenge. INSTAGRAM

LONDON, UK – The connection is choppy when London-born Filipino chef Rex De Guzman logs onto our video call and flashes a cheeky grin. Dressed smart casual, he’s sitting in a ramen restaurant with the sounds of cutlery clinking and people conversing in the background.

“I’m in Tonkotsu in Stratford,” he tells me in his upbeat Southeast London accent. “Just meeting a friend here for lunch after this interview.”

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Chatting to a grainy, portrait-mode De Guzman over Zoom feels strange after watching him in HD on British television for the past few months. The ambitious Filipino chef and founder of the award-winning street food stall ‘Turo Turo’ has just come away from the emotional grand finale of the brand new food competition, The Great Cookbook Challenge,hosted by British culinary giant Jamie Oliver and broadcast on public-service network Channel 4.

The televised competition is a seven-part series in which budding cookbook authors compete to win a deal with Jamie Oliver’s publisher, Penguin Michael Joseph, who has worked with some of the world’s biggest writers, including Marianne Keys, Eckhart Tolle, along with chefs including The Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain.

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I never thought I’d witness celebrity chef Jamie Oliver utter the word ginataan, marvel at the taste of bagoong, jump in excitement at atsuete or dip his spoon into a pot of kare-kare bubbling on a stove – but it’s happened, on UK national TV, and it’s all down to De Guzman.

Stepping into the culinary spotlight

Since the competition aired, week after week, De Guzman has become known to millions around the UK for bringing Filipino food and culture into mainstream recognition with a passion, vision and finesse previously unseen by the nation – something that this author, as a fellow British-born Filipino in London, feels is especially exciting to see.

During the competition’s finale, the panel of media judges – including newspaper critics, supermarket buyers and social media food connoisseurs – unanimously agreed that De Guzman served the best table, with an explosive sense of flavor, complexity, and uniqueness in his approach to Philippine cuisine that they’d never experienced before.

Chef Rex De Guzman's take on Ensaladang Talong during The Great Cookbook Challenge. INSTAGRAM

Chef Rex De Guzman’s take on Ensaladang Talong during The Great Cookbook Challenge. INSTAGRAM

Feedback from the judges was that De Guzman’s cookbook – working title Curiously Filipino – would fare better in online sales and marketing than traditional food publishing routes in British supermarkets. As such, the final book deal went to another chef, one with a more general pan-Asian focus in her cookbook. But not winning the competition seems only to have opened even more doors for De Guzman and his culinary career.

 

With so many opportunities blossoming ahead of him, I talk to De Guzman about his journey into becoming a chef, what it means to represent his country, and his plans for the future.

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Reconnecting with roots, one dish at a time

 

De Guzman was born in Southwark, South London, to an Ilocano mother and a father from Bulacan. He doesn’t speak Tagalog – something that ignited his drive and desire to connect with his heritage through a language he does speak: food.

Professionally trained, De Guzman holds over 10 years of experience in the culinary industry, ranging from fine dining restaurants like Gordon Ramsay’s ‘MAZE’ (now ‘Lucky Cat’) to working as a private chalet chef at the world-famous French ski report Val D’isere, to establishing his own award-winning Filipino street food stall Turo Turo in 2018.

At Turo Turo (turoturo.co.uk), De Guzman specialises in infusing traditional Philippine dishes and flavors with modern clarity and innovation in a mission to popularize the cuisine for UK audiences and beyond. Turo Turo has since catered for global commercial brands like Amazon and Adidas and won Best Vegan Dish at the 2019 British Street Food Awards.

De Guzman went to catering college for three years before putting in back-breaking hours at restaurants around the city. His entrepreneurial mindset saw the benefits of pursuing and setting up his own eatery early on: “Working in the industry, it’s really tiring work. I realized that if I was going to be putting in these kinds of hours, creating amazing food and developing recipes, then why not start my own thing? I was quite young and ambitious. The desire to reconnect to my own roots was strong, and it naturally led towards Filipino food.”

Before starting Turo Turo, his journey into redefining Filipino food began with a 3-month culinary tour of the Philippines, accompanied by his tita, who traveled everywhere with him and helped translate his food mission across the regions.

At one point, he ended up cooking arroz caldo risotto for a local Ifugao tribe during their trip to Banaue – a moment he recalls with fondness: “We went to go buy rice from the local shop, one with all the different grains. The Ifugao family ate two portions of my risotto, which meant a lot to me.”

Following the trip, De Guzman ran multiple pop-ups and served a multicourse tasting menu at his catering college for the charity Bantay Bata 163, with dishes inspired by places visited on his trip, like Pampanga-inspired adobo, Banaue-inspired risotto, and Bacolod-inspired inasal.

De Guzman also catered the stand for the Department of Tourism Philippines at the World Travel Market (WTM), an annual travel exhibition that sees over 51,000 attendees across media, tourism and travel pass through its doors over a 3-day period.

He says: “Representing Philippine cuisine for the tourism board was awesome, definitely a defining achievement in my journey. Then a more recent highlight has been The Great Cookbook Challenge.”

 

Bringing boodle fights to the UK culinary zeitgeist

During the competition, the British public watched the Filipino chef serve his fresh takes on classic dishes like adobo, leche flan and ensaladang talong. Along with viewers, globally renowned chef Jamie Oliver was just as riveted by the foreign ingredients on De Guzman’s table.

“I was nervous to meet Jamie Oliver at first because he’s such a legend, you know, his brand, his name, he’s so famous. But he immediately just wants to connect with you and make you feel at ease, which helped massively, so you can focus on the food. When we started filming he was so easy going and approachable that by the second episode, I felt more comfortable, and I was more able to explain what I was creating.”

De Guzman expounds: “The experience was interesting because [Jamie Oliver] was basically learning, it was awesome to show him something he’s never seen before, like bagoong. That was exciting. He was receptive and he always wants to learn something new, so that allowed me to just do what I do and convey the message I wanted to convey about Filipino food.”

Considering which dishes he felt were most important during the competition, the chef says: “Probably the arroz caldo risotto and the boodle fight. The boodle fight was such a great way to showcase the essence of Filipino cuisine and what we’re all about. But the rice dish was so, so personal to me. It means everything, it represents how I connect with my culture.”

The rice dish formed a critical and tense moment of television during the competition, when moments before the dish was shot by a famous food photographer, De Guzman decided last minute to remove all props and simply scatter grains of uncooked white rice across the table – a decision that paid off, as the judges found the grains genius in their simplicity.

Reflecting on the episode, De Guzman says: “Because that dish was so personal, I was trying to give so much of that meal to that photo. But then I realized it’s about the ingredients and you can tell a story without too many props. Luckily the decision worked in my favor.”

Educating foodies on Philippine cuisine is something that De Guzman is no stranger to. He was recently approached to co-host a food course, “The Filipino Kitchen,” with Rassa (joinrassa.com) – a food education platform that teaches students how to become a more creative chef by diving deep into the foundations and building blocks of a culture’s cuisine.

“I loved working with Rassa because they really let each chef co-design the course and seek out the best way to teach people about their cuisine. I was featured alongside Filipino chefs Budgie Montoya, fellow Londoner Mark Corbyn, and Gene Gonzales.”

“The three modules in the course really help form the building blocks of Filipino cuisine, so module one covers key flavours and ingredients, module two covers cooking techniques, and module three covers culinary influences.”

Paying respect to what has come before

Since De Guzman’s culinary career started with a journey back to the motherland, it seems that his professional training and personal attitude towards innovation is that, to build upon or adapt something, you must first pay homage to what came before. I ask him what advice he would give to a budding young chef looking to put their own spin on their cuisine.

De Guzman responds: “You really need to understand the origins of your dishes and respect the traditions before you can put your own spin on something. Often people want to skip straight to the experimental part, or on the other side of that, get a bit too ‘cheffy’ and technical about the cooking, like ‘how can I improve this?’ But in my opinion, you need to learn and respect traditional flavors first. Then you can bring your own experience and ideas to it, learn through trial and error.”

“When you’re developing a new dish or take on something, for me, less is more. Test the boundaries and be honest with yourself, get honest feedback, then find that middle ground. Obviously, if you’re trying to win a Michelin star, then breaking boundaries in your artistry is important. For me, personally, with more and more experience I’ve learned how to restrain myself – especially during the cookbook competition – with the intention of making the food as simple and accessible as possible for others to make.”

“For me, I was skeptical about how Filipinos would receive the dishes I’ve prepared, but they’ve actually been so supportive. I genuinely thought a lot of Filipinos would think my food might look dry or be too edgy. The community response has been overwhelming.”

The responsibility of representing a nation

 

With a sudden influx of opportunities coming his way, De Guzman is evolving into an approachable personality with whom British foodies can take the leap into Filipino culture. I ask how it feels to represent the Philippines on such a huge level, with all eyes on him.

“I honestly don’t even know how to put it into words,” De Guzman says, shaking his head and chuckling. “It’s a massive responsibility, I realize, and one that has now become much bigger than myself. Being part of that, I’m just proud, as far as I’m aware, to be doing it on the right level. It’s an absolute honour and everyone’s so supportive. It means everything.”

 “The work is just beginning. I need to keep consistent, to what else I can to promote our food. Now that I’ve had the exposure, it’s interesting to be going along this journey. I’ve always done this, but now that offers like book deals and TV segments are popping up, it feels new for everyone. It’s unchartered territory. I just have to own it.”

Between possible book deals, TV opportunities, and his long-term business goal of evolving his street food business Turo Turo into a brick-and-mortar restaurant, De Guzman has a lot on his plate. But the chef seems grounded and realistic about his next move.

“I’m taking things as they come. Whether it’s this year or next, I’d love to have Turo Turo become a restaurant. Then there are new deals to be made.”

He takes a sip of water and grins, adding: “The most exciting thing is that it all comes down to what I do, which is making great Filipino food.”

Find Chef Rex De Guzman at http://chefrexdeguzman.co.uk or @chefrexdeguzman. – Melissa Legarda @illumelation

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