The wooden tables at the café are crafted by Chef Waya’s father and brother. Her brother also carved the main door.
Open hands, open heart
Chit U. Juan (The Philippine Star) - December 15, 2019 - 12:00am

Waya Araos-Wijangco never thought she would be cooking for the rest of her life. After all, it was her father who cooked mechado (beef stew) and she would just be an assistant peeling tomatoes for the family recipe. She was not the cook-in-waiting, or so she thought. She was also a Psychology graduate from the University of the Philippines and knew Psych was far from Culinary.

Circumstances led to her coming back from NGO work and cooking for a very good friend of her father’s after the latter passed. They all thought she could do it. “That started it all,” she says. “A good friend of my father, Charlie Rufino, asked me to handle the catering for his party, and I could not say no.”

Imbued with the UP spirit of never-say-die, she did the catering for 20, then 60, people, another catering job soon followed, then 20 more.

“And suddenly I had a business!” she exclaims.

She then became serious and took up culinary classes to learn terms for processes she knew but did not know the names for. The course also made her more confident to make the business side more sustainable and professional.

Then another friend approached her to have her son with special needs taught some culinary skills for the summer. As SPED (Special Education) is part of the discipline in the study of Psychology, Waya thought she may as well put her academic background to good use. After the summer class, the mother said, “Why don’t you teach him all year round?”

And that started her foray into educating the special youth she would meet by “word of mouth,” as parents of special children would share resources in their networks.

The children needing SPED became her calling. She then put up a formal school called OPEN HANDS in UP Village as more parents heard about Ibarra, her first student, who now can beat any baking graduate from a similar tec-voc school.

“He can now do sourdough breads, pastries and more,” she proudly says. She now has over 50 students at any one time – baking, cooking, making jams, ketchup and more.

She recently was blessed with a new facility in nearby Maginhawa Street – Quezon City’s foodie avenue – to house the school, commissary and a restaurant. 

“Now, the kids can practice in my restaurant which is beside the school,” she says. This is her second location after having stayed in the original A. Roces house since 2007, called Gourmet Gypsy Art Café.

Why art café? It also functions as a gallery for up and coming artists. It also is a venue for small intimate weddings where she talks to “the bride and groom, not event planners” she says. That makes it more personal and meaningful.

Her recipes are varied and diverse – from ketogenic to plant-based, sugar free and gluten free. But the menu looks pretty normal, with icons representing vegan and vegetarian and keto choices. It carried many Southeast Asian dishes like laksa and a Mexican elote (my favorite). How varied, I thought.

It turns out Waya has had stints in her past life as an NGO staff to travel across Asia Pacific and all over the world. The Malacca affinity can be felt in her menu. As well as her South American experience. But, brace youselves for more – she is a Slow Food advocate (Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.. She uses adlai, heirloom rice and many hard-to-find ingredients because she has a close relationship with the Cordillera, Abra and Benguet in particular.

She is known in SPED circles as the chef who gave these special children a new hope to be useful members of society. She has scholars among her 58 students – one of them the son of a tricycle driver – who pay minimal fees but get to learn what a regular student learns. She proudly talks about her wins – arming students with new pride and the parents with new hope.

To be a sustainable business, however, she has to be careful about expenses in putting up as well as maintaining a restaurant. “I’m a ‘budgetarian’,” she says. She uses old wood as her father was and a brother is a wood sculptor, making her doors and tables at the A. Roces location. She also shops at vintage stores for her wares, adding to the artsy and eclectic feel of the café. For a psych major, she impressively knows her numbers like a good entrepreneur. “I grow organically,” she says, not believing in high rents and high finance.

Her food is made with love and the thought of preserving local ingredients as Slow Food’s Ark of Taste believes. Her plant-based food are exactly that – plant-based. She does not use meat substitutes and does not believe in a kare-kare that’s made with “meat look alikes.” All are vegetable or plant-based. I had her vegetarian adlai paella and a falafel salad and her father’s famous mechado, lovingly called Ama’s Mechado. I fell in love with her version of the Elote, a street food – corn on the cob with fixins – sold in Mexico City.My friends who were not familiar with plant-based food actually enjoyed the adlai as well as the falafel (chickpea cakes) salad. They learned what quinoa was, what adlai was – so it became a learning as well as a gustatory experience.  Waya explains the ingredients of every dish so you get to appreciate the natural way she cooks. No additives or chemical ingredients. Just good, honest food ingredients. 

Many people have asked her to open in the south, Makati or Alabang. “I am a North person,” she says.  

More than the good food, there are so many good stories to hear, gathered from her over ten years of restaurant and “social mission” experience. Definitely worth another visit, for food that is not just for the tummy but for the soul as well.

 Gourmet Gypsy Art Café is open seven days a week. It’s on Facebook and Instagram. The original location is at 25 A. Roces Ave., Quezon City.



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