Freeman Cebu Lifestyle

Deconstructing Plantation Bay's flavors with Chef Mario

Ritche T. Salgado - The Freeman

CEBU, Philippines - Two restaurants, totally different from each other, with its own unique flavors, its own character, and unique ambience. But the two has something in common – Plantation Bay Resorts and Spa and the resort's executive chef, Chef Mario Bonello.

September of this year we were introduced to Plantation Bay's newest addition to its culinary arsenal, Chef Mario.

With this we were also given a taste of the Chef Mario's favorites in two of the resort's restaurants – Fiji and Palermo.

Fiji is Plantation Bay's Asian restaurant, featuring the best traditional Asian flavors, of which Chef Mario recommends: the Japanese Tempura, jumbo prawns coated in a special batter and deep fried to a blissful crisp; Balinese Chicken, a dish native to Bali, Indonesia and cooked by slowly steaming or roasting chicken in a variety of spices; and homemade ice cream, a special recipe of food connoisseur and the resort's creator, Manny Gonzalez.

For Palermo, the resort's Mediterranean-inspired restaurant, Chef Mario recommends the selection of cold cuts that includes "the best salamis from all over the world" and the best Bellota ham imported from Spain and which Chef Mario claims to melt in the mouth like butter; spaghettini al nero, which is pasta made with black squid ink and generously mixed with a variety of the freshest seafood; pesto pasta, a personal recipe of Chef Mario that explores the simple yet elegant flavor and aroma of basil; and gambas with garlic.

"The best food is simply prepared, not too much complication," Chef Mario shares, adding that this is the secret behind Plantation Bay's delectable dishes.

Aside from Fiji and Palermo, Chef Mario also oversees Kilimanjaro Kafe, the resort's 24-hour outlet that features the best Filipino dishes like Plantation Bay's famed kare kare, oxtail stew slow cooked until the peanut sauce becomes thick and savory, and Savannah Grill with its mouthwatering melt-in-your mouth steaks and the most indulgent fastfood fares - hotdogs and burgers.

Chef Mario shares that handling all the four restaurants can be a challenge but his experience in the catering industry has allowed him to effectively manage the resort's six kitchens, including the canteen that serves the resort's staffs.

"I was handling about 100 staffs," he said recounting his experience with the catering service of Qantas Air, adding that this helped him gain knowledge of organization and in ensuring that standards are being followed, like the internationally recognized food-handling safety system the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP).

Chef Mario worked for Qantas for 24 years, overseeing the preparation of at least 25,000 meals a day for Qantas Air's daily flights, both in and outside of Australia.

Chef Mario also shared that working for Qantas exposed him to the different styles and techniques of cooking from some of the best chefs in the world.

"The kitchen that I was in was a classic kitchen," he said, "we had 180 chefs there and we do everything there."

He said that this gave him the opportunity to cook with the classic taste.

"What is a classic taste? Like Indians for example, we had Indians cooking for Indians, Chinese cooking for Chinese, so people were learning from each other, it's not like me cooking Chinese," he said.

"It's very hard to cook something if you don't know the taste, because it's no longer the taste of the shrimp paste, for example," he said, adding that to have worked side by side with chefs cooking their classic dishes allowed him to study the different classic tastes.

Chef Mario said that at Plantation Bay this is one of the philosophies that he shares with Gonzalez. He said that Plantation Bay also strictly abides by tradition, and that means traditional heritage recipes replicated by its team of 80 kitchen staffs and perfected over a span of several years.

This is true to one of Kilimanjaro Kafe's breakfast favorites, the classic croissant.

"Our croissants, they are the best," he boasted.

During breakfast, I had a chance to taste the croissant and get an introduction on croissants from Mr. Gonzalez, himself.

Gonzalez revealed that although the cost of importing the ingredients for their croissants can be hefty, but for him, taste should not be compromised. Aside from imported ingredients, especially for the butter, the recipe itself is one that is very traditional with only minor modifications, like the time of day when its cooked, putting into consideration Cebu's climate.

True enough, Plantation Bay's croissant is none like any other in Cebu - flaky and airy but satisfyingly substantial, buttery to the point that it melts in your mouth, yet not greasy as to leaving one's fingers oily.

"My philosophy is not to mix and match recipes," said Chef Mario.

"In Plantation Bay, here, most of the dishes are classic dishes, we do not have Frankenstein cuisine," he jokingly said, adding, "We do have some, but we are more believers of traditional recipes."

Chef Mario is from Malta, a Southern European country composed of seven islands and located in the center of the Mediterranean. A region hailed for its culinary treasures that are both simple and traditional.

He shares that someday he hopes to introduce Malta's cuisines to the Cebuanos, but for the meantime his role at Plantation Bay is more on ensuring the smooth operation of the resort's very busy kitchens.

Another secret of Plantation Bay's success when it comes to food is, as Chef Mario puts it, "to have a happy place so that people would cook from their heart, morale is very important."

This is where Chef Mario's experience as an educator and a mentor would come in.

For him, he handles his people more like his students, as he willingly and excitingly shares his experience and tidbits of information to his staffs.

"I love to teach my skills to others," he said.

Chef Mario taught adult education for 25 years, teaching courses on commercial cooking, catering, hospitality, HACCP, and dealing with colleagues.

"I do basically the same thing here. Instead of teaching students, I coach staffs," he said.

"I have to say that here, it is very important for me for people to cook with their hearts, it's very important to have passion," he said.

"People who don't have passion and motivation, they're not going anywhere, because you are just doing your job," he added. (FREEMAN)

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