In my next restaurant, dogs will be allowed,” says chef Fernando “Fern” Aracama, owner of Aracama restaurant in BGC and one of the master chefs of PAL inflight service. “Although we do allow dogs into Aracama, in my (near) future resto, there will be a small menu for dogs who come with their humans.”
He adds that his four-year-old English Bulldog Kojak, who celebrated his birthday last March 5, will have a portrait in that new solo venture.
“I have already chosen one.”
Chef Fern’s curiosity at a young age and his love for good food fueled his passion for his chosen career.
“When I was in high school, I wanted to be a marine biologist,” he shares. “In 1988, and in my freshman year in college at UP, I learned that the college of fisheries was moved to Iloilo — there was no way of going back to the Visayas.”
He took a non-quota course for his first two years in UP and one of the subjects he took in his second semester as a freshman was FN 11, a fundamental and introduction to cookery course.
“When I got into the F11 class, it felt so normal — I didn’t think of it as a career… yet. I did well, cooked well,” he adds. “Also, since I was living in an apartment with my three brothers, I was the one assigned to cook for them.” His first brush with cooking wasn’t at Kitchen class — it’s been part of his life since he was a little kid.
“I grew up seeing my parents cooking in the kitchen,” shares chef Fern. “So, if there is one thing I figured out in the kitchen at a very young age, it is that the kitchen was not just for women — even men spent time there. I grew up in Bacolod and that set the foundation for me.”
But for Fern, it is the food of his mama that he remembers most, because he says she was always in the kitchen — and so was he. “If I stayed near the kitchen, I ate the best food.”
Chef Fern, who grew up in Bacolod, lived a very bucolic provincial life with fruit trees, vegetables and farm animals all around their house.
“Much of the ingredients for our meals would be taken from what we could gather in the morning,” recalls Fern. “There would be days when for lunch we would have laswa (vegetable soup) made from vegetables that we grew in the garden. The vegetables would be boiled with kamatis and sibuyas. Pritong isda from the night before was made himay and used as flavoring.”
These types of homegrown meals Fern ate as a young boy piqued his curiosity about cooking. There were no fast-food meals in the Aracama home, only slow-cooked meals that everyone in the house — Fern, his six siblings, his parents, two lolas and two titas — partook of at a table for 12.
“Eating for my family was a coming together,” he says. “Whether we would be eating tuyo or sinigang versus having paella or lobsters in gata, we would always have cubiertos and servilletas — walang kamiseta, walang sombrero at sabay-sabay lahat kakain.”
It was there that his love affair with food started: he loved good food and he loved eating. He admits that his family only went out to restaurants when guests from Manila came to visit.
“Bacolod in the ’60s and ’70s only had Bob’s Big Boy and a Chinese restaurant called Apollo,” he recalls. “Other than that, everything I ate was home-cooked, from basic kinilaw to the most elaborate baka they could prepare.”
A celebration was always a feast. It was during this time that the best pigs would be prepared for a meal, which began at 4 a.m.
“The concept of nose-to-tail eating, which is all the rage now, was something that I grew up with,” he says. “It was totally inherent for our family then and when meals were cooked, not a single part of the animal was put to waste.”
Fern adds that he did not know at the time that these close encounters with the kitchen would be the stepping stones to his career today as a chef.
What is your first memory of working in the kitchen? I ask.
“My appreciation for the kitchen came when I was about seven years old and a box of pancake mix was set in front of me,” he replies. “I was allowed to do whatever I wanted with it. The moment I cooked that pancake ready mix was the time I realized that cooking was magical. Something that was at first dry as a powder turned into liquid and then when I cooked it, it turned into something so delicious.”
At the same time, his next-door neighbors were some of Bacolod’s most prolific puto and kutsinta suppliers. They had a little factory in the back of their house. Being the curious little boy that he was, he learned the recipes just by watching. And then he would go home and experiment, making them there.
“It was never about who was I impressing. It was about my wanting to chow down on what I cooked, “ he adds. “The growing principle for me was the sincere desire to transform things into something edible.”
Chef Fern shares that unlike his classmates who had slam books, he kept notebooks of recipes, which he copied from his titas’ small cookbooks or from the back of cream cornstarch boxes — notebooks he still keeps today.
Chef Fern eventually joined a contest called Maggi-Plan-a-Meal by Nestle in 1988. It required cooking a two-course meal for a family of four at P150.
“The theme of the contest was regional Filipino cooking,” he recalls. “Being from Western Visayas, I prepared a regional dish called tinum anan. It is chopped-up chicken with aromatics wrapped up in banana leaves and cooked over coal. Like steamed chicken inside banana leaves. I baked it in an oven and with the resulting juice that came out, I added Nestlé cream, seasoned it with Knorr, and put it in a nice rice-ring mold.”
His dessert was based on a cutout recipe, called mango wasiwas, that his mother kept. It was a flambé with mango, much like mango jubilee served with ice cream and barquillos.
“What I did was to fry suman to a crisp, made mango wasiwas, flambéed it, set it on top of the suman, and then I put ice cream.”
Chef Fern went on to win the national competition in 1989. It was at this point that he was sure a career in the kitchen was in store for him.
“I say that because it was very natural for me,” he says. “I wasn’t forcing myself to cook. I enjoyed what I was doing and creating.”
Chef Fern finished HRA in UP and went on to complete his second degree in Culinary Arts at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, USA.
Did you always like dogs? I ask.
“We always had livestock at home and we had pet dogs,” says chef Fern. “But I became urbanized and studied in Manila and lived in an apartment. After this house was built in 2010, I moved in and finally got the dog I always wanted — an English Bulldog.”
Chef Fern loves the way Kojak is “funny-looking,” and even with his surly-looking demeanor, he says Kojak is a sweetheart all over.
On June 12, 2013, chef Fern made his way to the kennel to check on six English Bulldogs. He says that Kojak was not his first choice and he had already agreed with the breeder on another dog, until he saw something special in Kojak’s behavior.
“The whole time I was there, Kojak was sitting and looking at me,” relates Fern. “He would run around me and wag his tail and we would put him back in the cage and I would get his brother, but Kojak would still be sitting and waiting.”
Before Fern left, he had a change of heart and that very day, he took Kojak home.
Yes, English Bulldogs are among the most expensive breeds of dogs — but Kojak is worth every centavo the chef spends on him.
“As soon as I brought him home, I knew I had just signed up for someone who I would have many years to take care of,” chef Fern laughs. “With every health issue, I would be angry and frustrated. But I think the hallmark of a dog dad is the acceptance that comes with a special breed like Kojak’s.”
Kojak has already been operated on for a tumor the size of a tomato that was growing out of his ear. But before the tumor could be removed, it had to be shrunk. The treatment? Cold laser therapy, which people do to make themselves younger.
Chef Fern, or “Pops,” as he refers to himself when dealing with Kojak, says, “I would be with him every week of the treatment. I would hold him. The tumor actually started shrinking — the treatment worked.”
The treatment took almost six months to complete.
Chef Fern says that he has grown as the Pops of Kojak. He no longer worries as much as he used to.
“In the beginning, any little thing wrong would worry me,” he laughs. “Now, it’s like, ah, whatever. Because I think Kojak has become resilient as well. When it is just the two of us, I always tell him to live a little longer, that’s all I ask of you. We have fun naman, ‘di ba?”
Being the dog of a chef, what is Kojak’s favorite food?
He eats fruits and his favorite is durian, says the chef.
“He goes nuts when he smells the durian,” he adds. “I think it is like cheese for him. He will lick the buto until it is clean.”
A rare cooked steak is his birthday treat and whenever chef Fern travels — like when he came back from Spain recently — Kojak gets little treats. From Spain, he had his share of jamon and chorizo.
Kojak also gets a special party on his birthday, complete with a doggy cake specially made for him. It is also the only time that Kojak gets to eat donuts.
What is your favorite thing to do together? I ask.
“We like to hang out. When I am home and I sit somewhere, he will quickly be under my seat or under the table for sure because he knows that he will get some food from me.”
The chef laughs when he shares that every day that he is out on a trip, his driver has to Viber him a photo of Kojak.
One of the most relaxing things for the chef is to watch fish swim in an aquarium — his next pet project.
“If I could have jellyfish in an aquarium, I would,” he says. “As a kid, I had a 10-gallon tank and would spend hours watching the fish swim.”
But for now, the chef is content to be Pops to Kojak.
“Kojak didn’t sign up for this, I did,” quips chef Fern. “So his life is totally in my hands and my hands and all 10 fingers are holding onto him.”