The UK is home to many of the most popular cooking shows such as MasterChef, Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, Million Pound Menu, and The Great British Bake Off. Its capital, London, is a well-known melting pot of cultures and cuisines. For professional chefs, it is the ultimate arena.
Chef Rex De Guzman, a 29-year-old chef born in the UK but raised by Filipino immigrants, got his opportunity to spotlight Filipino cuisine on Jamie Oliver's newest TV show, The Great Cookbook Challenge. The six-episode competition consisted of 18 aspiring cookbook authors fighting for a one-of-a-kind publishing deal with Penguin Books.
I spoke to chef Rex on his experience working alongside British chef Jamie Oliver, the other contestants, and the judges: Jimi Famurewa (chief restaurant critic of the Evening Standard), Georgina Hayden (food stylist, cook, and writer), and Louise Moore (managing director of Penguin Books.)
To even qualify for the competition, he emailed a two-minute pitch on his dream cookbook project called Simply Filipino Food. Although he confessed, "You know, I wasn't initially accepted. I was a backup at first. They had their initial set of people. But in the end, I got asked to go on. So, fortunately, it all worked out.”
Chef Rex was the only professional chef among the contestants. For him, it was a level playing field. For the very first episode, he knew he had one shot to leave an impression. So he prepared Ensaladang Talong with Smoked Mackerel. He shared, “I'd already done that dish a hundred times. So I knew it worked. But I wanted to add something with a bit more character by adding the smoked mackerel. It just added that extra dimension of flavor.”
Judge Famurewa praised his first dish: "There's so much cleverness going on here." The judges were, of course, curious to know how chef Rex would explain Filipino cooking to an average British home cook. He replied, "Filipino food by its nature is very resourceful." He explained further that we use most parts of an animal, and there's a lot of vinegar and garlic in Filipino dishes.
It wasn't just a case of let's put some recipes together and do your best stuff. But you really have to understand that it's about the consumer or the reader at the end of the day.
His first dish and his ability to communicate landed him in the top six. And so, for the next couple of episodes, chef Rex used his classical training to execute dishes he saw in a three-month expedition trip to the Philippines he took in 2016. He said, "I don't want to be another guy doing some French cuisine or British cuisine. And that's when I started to look more towards my heritage. And it took off from there."
Throughout the competition, he cooked familiar and vibrantly presented dishes like Brussel Sprouts and Prawn Ginataan inspired by the use of coconut milk in Bicol. He cooked Arroz Caldo using annatto seeds as an ode to the Banaue Rice Terraces. He also served Pork Adobo using Sherry Vinegar and a Spicy Spatchcock Inasal.
The judges enjoyed his cooking of familiar Filipino dishes. However, they would sometimes say that the recipes were too "cheffy." He never shied away from the criticism, however, as he knew that it was all about refining the perfect pitch for Filipino food in the UK.
Outside The Great Cookbook Challenge, chef Rex owns a startup food business, Turo Turo, which won in the British Street Food Awards in 2019. However, his real-life dream is to build a scalable Filipino restaurant in the UK.
The experience working alongside Jamie Oliver and the judges helped chef Rex tweak his ideas and recipes. When I asked him what he learned, he said, "When I first met Jamie Oliver, it was intimidating because he's a massive name. But then, very quickly, when we started cooking and filming the first few episodes, he was just easygoing. He was genuinely there to look after you and make you better, empower you to do what you do best." In addition, Oliver refused to be a judge and instead was a mentor, bringing strength to the contestants' ideas.
Chef Rex also learned the perfect marriage for a sellable cookbook from the three judges: the concept, communication, and culinary skills. He said, "It wasn't just a case of let's put some recipes together and do your best stuff. But you really have to understand that it's about the consumer or the reader at the end of the day. It's about making something that one can comprehend, that's simple and accessible."
Last Monday, March 14, was the grand finale. Chef Rex was in the company of Ian Bursnall, whose recipes revolve around cheap meals, and Dominique Woolf, whose recipes are about Asian food done simply. The winner turned out to be Dominique Woolf.
Chef Rex humbly admitted, "Her idea of Asian food done simply was more commercially acceptable. You see, there's still a gap with Filipino food." But he added that there are no hard feelings: "Beyond the edited version of the episodes, we all bonded with each other. So I wasn't down about it all. The amount of exposure I had from the show has already opened so many doors. I'm just getting started."
What was the most valuable takeaway for him? He replied, "At the end of the day, a chef needs to learn how to sell his cuisine. If you don't know how to sell the cuisine within 30 seconds to a minute, it's a 'yes' or 'no' from the customer. I feel like, after this experience, I'm now ready to have a restaurant. It's now taking the small steps to make it happen."
And just like that, chef Rex perfected his pitch.
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