Dishing out the details
From the pop-up kitchen of Gilbert Pangilinan.
IMAGES CHIPPY RIVERA
In between slicing slabs of marbled Kobe beef and dusting plates with saffron, chef Gilbert Pangilinan is also keeping an eye on the dining area, where a subtle pantomime takes place. A slight nod or brief glance, he knows, must bring a waiter to a guest’s side. Without a single uttered word, glasses get filled and plates get taken away.
Mr. Pangilinan, who co-owns the Neo-Japanese restaurant Kai in Greenbelt 5, is a trusted caterer among the country’s crème de la crème. The catering business is an offshoot of the restaurant—an opportunity Mr. Pangilinan and his partners stumbled upon while the establishment was being built. To make noise about their soon-to-open dining space, they held private dinners for their friends. As word-of-mouth about the restaurant spread, so did news of their private catering service.
Every event is an elaborate choreography that may involve carrying food in restored English bone china over Makassar ebony floors that should neither be scratched nor dirtied. The Kai team can cater up to three events a day, ranging from a 1,000-person buffet to 400-person sit-down meal to an intimate two-person dinner inside a bedroom.
At first blush, the process seems like simple science: “They call the office, tell me the details and then we create a menu around their requirements,” said Mr. Pangilinan. He usually deals with wives, whom he classifies into two groups. There are detail-oriented women who dissect everything, including the color of the lightbulbs (yellow is better than white for looking at food). “They want what they want, which is, usually, actually really good,” he said. “We’re very attentive. We listen.” And, at the other of the spectrum, are professionals who leave the decisions to Mr. Pangilinan since they cannot be bothered with the minutiae.
The chef visits a client’s home and suggests what plates, silverware, and stemware to use, and what flowers should adorn the tables. Sometimes, the staff is requested to prepare meals in the private kitchen but Mr. Pangilinan hesitates since he doesn’t want to get the equipment dirty or risk damaging a stove worth millions. He prefers erecting a pop-up kitchen in the garage or laundry area.
Setting up a day before the event gives leeway for changing decor, such as flowers. If many of the guests are ladies, every nook and cranny of the house—bathroom included—is filled with rare blossoms worth a pretty penny each. There have been instances where flowers cost as much as the food, which can run up to Php15,000 per lobster-laden plate.
The menu, of course, is the most important part of the feast. Mr. Pangilinan emphasizes making food as personal as possible. There are thematic book club get-togethers, which he bases on the title of the month. Recently, a magic-themed bestseller was brought to life in a room covered in black with clowns, magicians, and rat-shaped bread.
"Making food personal" also extends to doing research on individuals. A banker who hired Mr. Pangilinan for a weeklong series of meetings was pleased when guests came up to him to ask how he knew what their favorite food was. It was Mr. Pangilinan’s doing—he insisted on knowing who was attending even if he encountered initial resistance from the banker.
Catering means accepting the idiosyncrasies of clients, who may have differing opinions about when a wine glass should be filled. Some say glasses should be emptied first, while others prefer to have their glasses perennially topped up without having to ask a waiter. Mr. Pangilinan takes note of these preferences and remembers—no small task given that the vintages are often auction rarities. The Kai team has a dedicated waiter keeping watch, ready to pour at the appropriate moment. “That’s service. You don’t need to talk,” said Mr. Pangilinan.
In case of disagreements, he has learned to use finesse, or as he puts it: “Even if you don’t agree, you agree—unless you know it will ruin the dinner.” When a downpour threatened to ruin an outdoor event that was weeks in the making, Mr. Pangilinan requested that a tent be erected over the venue. His iPhone weather app was insufficient evidence to persuade a client that, yes, there were rainclouds daring to ruin the party. He asked the boat captain to intercede. Mr. Pangilinan was smart enough to know that a boat captain’s opinion on all things meteorological had more weight than a chef’s. He got his tent with minimal fuss.
The New York-schooled, Nobu-trained chef loves the dichotomy of his business. Running Kai restaurant is more or less the same every day while catering private dinners comes with many surprises. “It’s more exciting,” he said. PED