Food from a real girl and her toy kitchen
CRAZY QUILT - Tanya T. Lara (The Philippine Star) - June 30, 2013 - 12:00am

In this “toy kitchen,” former corporate executive Johanna Garcia started her new life last April.

She was, of course, exaggerating when she described it as a Barbie doll’s kitchen (it’s not pink). As for the size, it’s amazing how much is being done in this miniaturized version of a commissary in a one-bedroom apartment in The Fort.

Or how big dreams can get (think Marks & Spencer’s bottled sauces and dips as peg) laid out in less than four feet of granite counter space.

Even the freezer chest, wedged between the dining table on one side and a console full of travel curios on the other side, is half a size.  

And so when you step inside the flat on any given day, you are swept into the crisp scent of fresh, organic veggies like sweet basil being washed and dried.

Johanna is the woman behind the homemade foods brand called Real Girl Toy Kitchen, after the eponymous blog she started last year as a creative outlet for her adventures in the kitchen.

 â€œSubconsciously, I think I knew I was gearing up for a change, but didn’t really know what that change would be. But I figured, I would focus on the things I loved the most — cooking and writing — and then let the universe chart my course.”

The universe hastened that course when Johanna felt a restlessness in her job as head of corporate communications at HSBC where she spent six years. It was never a question of whether she should leave a high-paying job to do her own business; it was only a question of when.

“I loved my job at HSBC. Until I didn’t. I had a great run at the bank and am very proud of everything I accomplished there. I’m also really grateful for  all the invaluable experience, insights and knowledge I gained, and the great friendships forged with so many truly wonderful people. But somewhere along the line, my passion had shifted. And I firmly believe that once your passion fades, it’s only a matter of time before it starts to show in your work.”

Real Girl Toy Kitchen has real delicious foods that  Johanna was “hell bent on creating,” the kind of food she would serve to her own family members. Oh, yes, she grew up in a family that loves to eat and she swears she can forgo shopping “but when you tell me to make kuripot on what I eat, that’s when I really feel sorry for myself. That’s the last thing I would cut down.”

Let’s start with the soups: Roasted Pumpkin Soup and Tomato Soup are made with organic vegetables and herbs, homemade organic stock and extra-virgin olive oil.   

“The tomato soup sells more than pumpkin soup, but for some reason, the tomato soup people are much more passionate about it. They’re the ones posting on Facebook that they have found what they have been looking for in tomato soup!” 

Real Girl also has spicy chili con carne made from organic grass-fed ground beef, kidney beans, Italian tomatoes, jalapeños and a blend of spices simmered for hours.

The sauces include basil pesto, made with organic basil, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, Parmesan and pine nuts. Chimichurri, which Johanna recommends to go with meats like steak and chicken and even liempo, is a tart and fragrant Argentine herb sauce. Puttanesca is made of Italian tomatoes, black olives, fresh mushrooms and capers.

The spreads are hummus, made with organic chickpeas, sesame seed paste, lemon and spices; and black olive tapenade, which is great on melba toast or crackers.

The bottled foods range in price from P300 to P650, depending on the size.

Johanna also makes what she calls the Sunday Dinners. “Too often, people think they just don’t have the time, space or energy to cook a good meal. Working people like me who live in small spaces and live extremely busy lives generally think it’s easier and cheaper to keep eating out. But as you get more comfortable in the kitchen, you’ll find that preparing meals for yourself, your family and friends is not only cheaper, healthier and more delicious, it’s also more meaningful. With that said, it’s pretty difficult to cook every single day even if you like cooking as much as I do. As such, my business concept focused on making life easier for people in similar situations by providing healthy, high-quality options to regular takeout and restaurant food without sacrificing ease.”

The mains should be ordered three days in advance. One is Moroccan chicken with lemon and olives served with couscous (P1,800); and the second is lamb with rosemary and mashed potato (P2,400).

It’s been only this summer that Real Girl Toy Kitchen has been fully operational and Johanna says it’s doing real well, mostly through word of mouth.

In the beginning there was one incident that sent her into a major panic attack. Three days before her last day at HSBC, Johanna sent her 800-plus contacts on her iPhone a message about a promo. She was giving away several bottles of sauces and dips. 

No one responded.

“I almost had a heart attack. I was, like, oh my God, I am going to be jobless in three days and I cannot even give my food away? I was just nervous, I was jumpy.”

Weeks later, another text blast. “Again, no one responded. I was nervous and jumpy.”

 It turned out her iPhone wasn’t distinguishing between cell phone numbers, Facebook contacts and e-mail addresses. What should have been a simple text message entailed having to download an attachment or message online.

“So then I started sending simple text messages and people started to order. Some were friends who had tasted my food before, others were ordering just because they wanted to be supportive. And then friends of friends who had tasted them at one dinner or another started ordering.”

As fast as the bottles were rolling out of the toy kitchen, Johanna was gaining new insights into the art of cooking and running a business.

One was that she did miss “the steady paycheck and the security that comes with it! I also miss having the resources of a large organization, of course. At Real Girl Toy Kitchen, I may be the founder and boss, but I’m also cook, scullery maid, salesgirl, delivery girl and messenger. You name it, I’m it.  I have help, of course, but I’m very hands-on, literally. Some people knit or crochet at night while watching TV. Me, I prep parsley and basil. Despite slightly more-than-occasional panic attack though and all my bitching, I’m loving every minute of my new life. Oh, one last thing I miss. While I love being able to live my life in shorts, yoga pants, flip-flops and pajamas, I confess to sometimes looking at my entire corporate wardrobe and then sighing.”

She also realized that the market had changed from when she first started selling homemade food in bazaars 10 years ago, right after she left her life in New York for Manila.

“People are willing to pay for quality. I was afraid at first that I would price myself out of the running because I refused to compromise on my commitment to quality and using organic ingredients whenever possible. It’s good to know that people are more knowledgeable, aware and willing to pay a little more to eat good food that’s good for them. Also, building and preserving your reputation is far more important than the instant gratification of the quick buck. I’ve always tried to live my personal and professional life that way and now, that’s how I run my business. I think the key to sustained and long-term profitability is making sure your customer is satisfied with the experience you provided, trusts you and will come back for more.”

Johanna has also learned to trust herself and the universe. “Just pay attention because the universe always guides you in the right direction, nudges you even, when you try to take a wrong turn. Maybe it’s the PR girl in me, but I’m constantly imagining all sorts of scenarios, both good and bad, and how to deal with them. It can get a little overwhelming and next thing I know, I’m all stressed out about a situation that pretty much happened only in my head. That’s when I have to stop and remind myself that I’ve been guided and protected every step of the way so far, with every problem or dilemma that’s come up somehow resolving itself.”

Johanna Garcia grew up in a family that made the kitchen and dining room the center of the house. “We always preferred to eat at home, especially when my mom was cooking, because the food was always better at home than out. You know how most people save the good stuff for company? At home, my folks saved the good or expensive stuff for when it was just us. We were always required to sit down to dinner and no one was allowed to get up until everyone was done. This can be torture when you’re a kid or a teenager and your mom eats really slow, but these days, we all hang around the dinner table for hours just chatting, mostly about food! There really is nothing like sitting down with people you love to a great meal that you know someone lovingly prepared for you.”

As for her own kitchen tales, some are comedic but never catastrophic. “One time, I had an old friend over for dinner that I hadn’t seen in years. He kept saying over and over how he couldn’t believe I could actually cook. Finally, I asked why it was so hard to believe. He says, ‘Well, I remember taking you home one night and asking to come in for a glass of water. We got to your kitchen and you stopped, looked around and said, ‘Hmmm. Water...water... If I were a water glass, where would I be?’ Personally, I don’t remember that ever happening, but it’s true that you don’t really have much incentive to learn to cook when you live at home and your mom’s a great cook.”

Another story was when she was living in New York and her brother and his friends visited her from Boston. “I was really excited to have an audience so I decided to make lamb stew. Unfortunately, I went a little crazy with the mushrooms. All night, the guys were playing ‘find the lamb in the lamb stew and get a prize.’ And every other sentence coming out of their mouths was ‘I found one, oh, wait, nope, just another mushroom.’”

Those early disasters aside, it is mostly friends and former colleagues of Johanna that have tasted her food at dinners she hosted at home that have become loyal customers — and their friends of friends.

That’s how something big usually starts. Even one that begins in a toy kitchen.

* * *

Real Girl Toy Kitchen homemade foods may be ordered through 0917-8085302 and 7999-120. Log on to realgirltoykitchen.com, e-mail johanna@realgirltoykitchen.com. Real Girl delivers for a minimum order of P650; a fee may apply depending on your location. Orders may be picked up at Fairways Tower in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig.

FOOD GIRL JOHANNA JOHANNA GARCIA KITCHEN ONE PEOPLE REAL GIRL TOY KITCHEN
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