Meet chef Bertrand Charles, the new chef at Old Manila

FEAST WITH ME - Stephanie Zubiri-Crespi (The Philippine Star) - January 13, 2016 - 9:00am

It was the beginning of summer in Paris when a young, naïve 17-year-old walked through the front doors of the famous Hotel de Crillon. Marching straight through to the reception, his meager resume clutched in one hand, he asked to see the chef.

“Do you have an appointment?” the receptionist replied, rather surprised.

“No.”

“Well, what do you want?”

“I’m looking for a job.”

Shocked at the boldness of this young gentleman, she proceeded to politely make some calls, after which she finally stated that the chef was not available.

“Can I at least leave my resume?” He handed it over, turned around and made his way out the door thinking that this was a total lost cause.

Everything was riding on finding a job. He had lied to his parents about getting bad grades on his finals because he was certain he wasn’t going to end up pushing papers in some office. His heart was set on a life in the kitchen and he would do whatever it took. His mind was racing with these hopeless thoughts as he crossed the grandiose expanse of Place de la Concorde, leading to an existential stroll down the Champs-Elysees.

Suddenly, out of the blue, his phone rang. “Hello?”

A commanding voice came through the line, demanding, “Who are you?”

The young man answered matter-of-factly, “I’m Bertrand.”

The voice on the other line replied, “Turn around now and go straight to my office.”

Turns out it was Jean François Piège, chef of the legendary, two Michelin-star restaurant of the Hotel de Crillon, Les Ambassadeurs.

As fate would have had it, the audacity or perhaps, well-placed naiveté of this young culinary aspirant had left an impression on the famous chef, who offered him a job on the spot, pending one condition: that he graduate from high school.

He passed his baccalaureate and immediately went to work.

The life of an aspiring chef in Paris is not at all glitz and glamour; in fact, it’s downright gritty and grimy. I know this to be true because one of my dearest friends had to move into my place for a few months because his deliriously low pay didn’t allow him to find a place of his own.

Fueled solely by passion, chef Bertrand worked his way up the kitchen ladder, starting as the third commis at Les Ambassadeurs at 17 years old, sharing a 22-square-meter apartment with three people and working 20-hour days.

“During winter I would go to work and it was still nighttime and I would leave work and it was night again,” he shares. “It was tough but very formative.”

And apparently, very rewarding, because in one year he managed to make it to chef de partie and at 19 years old he was given the unique opportunity to be sous chef at the hotel’s brasserie.

Chef Bertrand, however, is no stranger to hard work in the kitchen because even as a teen, he would spend all his spare time — including weekends, after his homework was completed — helping out in a nearby restaurant, with no pay.

The truth is, this passion is something that cannot be transmitted through any form of culinary school.  I wish young culinary school graduates here would realize that you don’t automatically become a chef because you have a diploma; you have to earn the title. That life in the real kitchen is tough, it’s long, unforgiving hours in high-pressure conditions and you have to clean up after service.  You do it because you love it. You do it because creating amazing food is your life’s purpose.  I’m the first to admit that I couldn’t do it and I have great admiration for those who can. The classic hard-work, twist-of-fate apprentice story of chef Bertrand Charles is one of the last of its kind in this generation of culinary schools, formal internships and entitlement.

Flash forward to today, passing through other, rather impressive experiences, such as working closely with Jean-Pierre Vigato of Michelin-starred Apicius, taking him to the Four Seasons’ Anahita Resort in Mauritius, then the Four Seasons George V in Paris, where he worked with chef Eric Briffard in the two-Michelin starred Le Cinq, followed by a stint at chef Jean Pierre Vigato’s Le Francais at La Mamounia in Marrakesh, Morocco, and then the Sandylane Hotel’s L’Acajou in Barbados.

Chef Bertrand Charles, now at the helm of Old Manila in the iconic Peninsula Manila, is definitely in much better living conditions compared to when he started, but with even more passion for his work.

“I really wanted to move to a city and make my way to Asia and when chef Mike (executive chef of The Peninsula Manila) explained to me that I wouldn’t have any hurdles getting the ingredients I wanted, I really jumped on the opportunity. Posts like this, there aren’t too many in the world, plus I have a very strong team here. I think it’s even the best team I have worked with since I was sous chef. They are well-trained and it’s very easy. Everyone speaks English — one of the best things about the Philippines. Many people ask me if I want to open my own restaurant and I always say, ‘Why? I don’t need to.’ Right now I’ve been given a restaurant. This is the first time I have absolute full control. It’s very exciting.”

Very exciting indeed as, since its beautiful renovation, Old Manila is anything but old. The contemporary black and white, simple yet elegant interiors make the perfect backdrop for chef Bertrand’s produce-driven cuisine.

“I work on the produce but in fact I don’t really work on it all,” he says. “Meaning, when I have a good product, I don’t really like to transform it too much, because if it is good you don’t really have to, you just need to respect it.”

As much as I love exploring avant-garde cuisine, personally this is one of my favorite kinds of cooking. When you have a stunning piece of fish must you really hide it with pearls and foams and all sorts of other accouterments?

For my birthday dinner we had a spectacular meal, the highlights of which were so many that every dish was dazzling. From the cloudlike Dover sole meunière to the melt-in-your-mouth, forget-your-name French veal rib eye, served generously, cooked and seasoned to perfection.

This is a key new aspect of Old Manila: beautiful dishes meant for sharing.

“I realized that people here are very keen on sharing food and family-style meals, so we wanted to explore this,” chef Bertrand says.

One can order a delicious roasted Bresse hen for four and partake of a rustic French meal with all the delightful trappings of fine-dining service. This shared gathering around the table is a concept very dear to chef Bertrand, as his father was very firm about sitting down at the dinner table together.

“If you weren’t hungry you didn’t eat, but you had to be there. It was the moment we shared together as a family.”

Speaking of family, he misses his own. When asked what he would cook and who he would cook for given the magic opportunity of having every ingredient in the world possible and access to any personality living or dead, after some thought he said, “Definitely my family. They never really get to try my food because I’m always away. And even if my parents were to come there’s still, of course, my uncles and aunts, my grandmother, all of them. I would love to just get them all together and cook them something amazing. What, I don’t know. It would depend on that particular day, but it would definitely be my family.”

For the time being he’s happy to make you feel like family at Old Manila. I know that for us, faced with that bountiful spread of communally served beautiful food, we felt right at home.

 

 

 

 

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For inquiries and reservations, call Old Manila at The Peninsula Manila at 887-2888 or visit http://manila.peninsula.com/en/fine-dining/old-manila.

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Please visit www.stephaniezubiri.com for more interesting facts about chef Bertrand, including what he likes to eat on his days off.

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