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Pobre: Five Filipinos cook up Adobo in Helsinki

Pobre: Five Filipinos cook up Adobo in Helsinki

Edu Jarque (The Philippine Star) - June 30, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — In faraway Finland, five enterprising Filipinos, all inspired by their respective mothers and grandmothers, banded together to establish a Filipino restaurant – Pobre, a unique first in the capital city of Helsinki.

By the end of 2018, Pobre found itself in the coveted roster as one of the city’s restaurants to watch out for, by We Love Helsinki, an organization led by founder, esteemed journalist and photographer Timo Santala, who is the brains behind Restaurant Day, the world’s largest food event.

Pobre, a Spanish word for poor, is a cheeky tribute – by their own admission – to roots of poverty and continuous struggle, which truly reflect their origins and backgrounds, as each one started from rather humble beginnings.

They individually searched for their own place under the sun, like most of our countrymen, who not only have the talent to seek out fellow Filipinos but a tendency to meet up regularly.

With a lucky twist of fate or perhaps just sheer luck, all five decided to work together more as members of an extended family rather than fellow workers.

Situated within Helsinki’s Kamppi Shopping Center, the largest singular construction project in the nation, Pobre is a casual bistro which focuses on traditional Filipino food – however, infused with their own innovative takes – as they push forth a new wave of our local cuisine.

The explosion of overwhelmingly positive reviews encouraged and inspired the quintet composed of general manager Justine Caoibes, chef de cuisine Paul Tello, executive chef Ralph Medina and line cooks Michael Fernandez and Rob Desalisa.

Rob Desalisa works his magic in the kitchen of Pobre.

As a backgrounder, several members discovered their love for cooking early on. Fernandez and Desalisa started to help their moms and grandmas with voluntary chopping and peeling duties, which led them to enroll in culinary school. Tello, on the other hand, was a late bloomer – he became instantly hooked once he started to work as a kitchen aid.

Though a cohesive team, their opinions on their essential ingredient is divisive. For Medina and Desalisa, salt is king. They cannot imagine the world without salt. Soy sauce is Tello’s special pick, as he marvels at the miracles he can do with it. Fernandez opted for eggs: “It’s the most versatile!” he argues.

However, most of them agree that the knife is their go-to kitchen tool – save for Caoibes, who prefers the spatula.

Casual bistro Pobre is located in Helsinki’s Kamppi Shopping Center.

Plating considerably enhances the dining experience is their common consensus. “Appealing presentation is crucial, for the appearance sets the tone for the meal,” Fernandez opines.

“The eyes eat first!” Tello interjects.

Their preferred garnishes are fresh herbs, with a “less is more” mantra, for the delicate and deliberate minimal add-ons are what initially accentuates the look, then followed by the taste of each masterpiece.

Innovative takes on traditional Filipino food include beef kansi.

Though they possess kitchen expertise – with a grand total of 74 years of combined culinary experience – certain recipes still draw out the intrinsic Pinoy mannerism of scratching their heads when dumbfounded. Anybody can fry an egg, they say, while all Filipinos can supposedly cook adobo. But Tello admits that it is his Achilles’ heel – try as he might, he can never find the right ratio, correct combination and the ideal blend for the perfect adobo.

They likewise admit that they are inspired by their clans’ matriarchs. “I have always dreamt of duplicating my mom’s cooking. But til now, I must admit, I cannot,” Tello acknowledges.

Their unanimous weaknesses are desserts – pastries in particular, for it requires utmost precision and patience, which they sheepishly admit they don’t possess.

Bistek Ilustrado

Desalisa cites a specific dessert – the Vietnamese crepe called banh xeo – for the perfect fluffy yet crispy batter is almost impossible to achieve.

Regardless of their exposure to a variety of spreads from several continents, their favorites remain the basics, each enveloped with heartwarming stories.

Fernandez loves his grandma’s pork adobo, his initiation to the world of the happy kitchen. Desalisa remembers his mother’s particular version of pancit molo. Tello claims it is their humba. “Believe it or not – I have it tattooed on my leg,” he playfully shares with a sly smile.

The company of five have their own choices of their preferred international cuisine. Tello prefers anything and everything Italian – from the aperitivo and antipasti to the dolci and the digestivo con caffè. Desalisa’s pick is Vietnamese, characterized by pure, complex flavors. Fernandez’s bet is Spanish, as it has made a lasting mark since his childhood days. “It has definitely influenced our cooking,” he says. Caoibes adores Filipino cuisine with an international twist.

Whenever they are at leisure together, comfort food with ingredients from home is what they yearn for. Top of the list is the all-time-favorite sisig.

Fernandez and Desalisa, who are both Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management degree holders from the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, respect the late Anthony Bourdain – who fought for social justice hand-in-hand while sharing with his million TV viewers the not-so-popular and maybe so-called strange dishes available around the world. His voice seriously motivated the duo a lot during their early days, and his philosophy continues to inspire.

Ralph Medina, Paul Tello, Justine Caoibes, Michael Fernandez and Rob Desalisa are bringing the best of Filipino cuisine to Helsinki.

Fernandez likewise believes that education is the great leveler, as he praises his contemporary restaurateurs Kalel Chan and Louj Jurilla as his guiding lights. Tello concurs, as he looks up to chef Menoy Gimenez, a culinary education pioneer and a mentor of mentors.

Though a graduate of Culinary Arts at the American Hospitality Academy in Makati, Caoibes leans towards the management side of the business. He cites his father as his biggest influence. “Through him, I have learned how to communicate clearly and deliver my message effectively, either written or verbal. I have also adopted from him how to be organized in my thinking process. He likewise honed me as a sociable individual.”

On breaks from the busy kitchen, they unwind through their independent hobbies. Tello relieves stress through fishing, while Fernandez pursues photography. “I just love capturing images that portray a story and there is just something about looking through the lens that is so soothing,” he explains.

Sizzling Sisig

Desalisa, meanwhile, pores over books and examines documentaries “There’s so much to discover outside the culinary world.”

As former apprentices with grit and dreams as their prime motivators, the Pobre chefs share some practical advice for those who wish to have a career in the kitchen.

“Give ear to everyone as you might absorb some useful lessons along the way,” says Fernandez.

“Always ask questions. Don’t assume you know everything,” Desalisa adds.

“You need to be strong – physically, mentally and emotionally,” Caoibes warns.

Taking advantage of Helsinki’s produce, salmon is prepared for sinigang.

“You cannot train a boxer overnight – be patient,” Tello advises.

But they all agree on this one: “Stay on your lane. Be humble.”

They share their personal mottos: “You are as good as your last meal,” volunteers Tello.

For Desalisa, it would be: “Suck it up. People in the kitchen can be terrible – loud, rude and obnoxious. Just keep your head low and follow instructions. Don’t forget to be observant.”

As a final word, we probed into the list of VIP clients. All five had knowing smiles and unanimously voted that it is the other way around: all their regular patrons become their VIPs.

Despite their success, it would be an entertaining thought to imagine what their occupations would have been had they not become a part of Pobre. Here are their alternatives: Caoibes would have opted to be lawyer, Medina an engineer, Tello an architect and Desalisa a pilot.

But thank goodness they have banded together at this place called Pobre, making the world all the richer – with hopes of making sinigang as popular as ramen – in far flung Finland. And the gang of five is busy on their second project, Paisano Filipino, currently only described as tongue-in-cheek Filipino food.

Wait for it!

POBRE IN HELSINKI
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