Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Abe, Larry Cruz and my begukan

By Robbie Tantingco

My friends often told me that my begukan (pork pieces sautéed in shrimp paste) was the best in the world. They told it so often that I had started to believe it. Until Larry Cruz walked into my life and tasted my begukan.

I first met Larry Cruz two years ago when a common acquaintance, Vic Torres of the Intramuros Administration, linked us up for a book project. Before I made that trip to Makati to meet him, I Googled his name to make sure I had my facts right about the man I was going to do business with.

I learned that Larry Cruz headed the LJC Restaurant Group which owned a chain of restaurants that included Café Adriatico, Café Havana, Bistro Remedios, Larry’s Bar, Abe Restaurant and Bollywood. I also learned that Larry Cruz was credited for popularizing the so-called bistro lifestyle in Manila, i.e., the subculture that thrived in the Ermita-Malate area, specifically around the Remedios Circle, where the culturati and the literati mingled with tourists and transvestites in coffee shops, bars, antique shops and restaurants, dining, drinking and who knows what else until the wee hours.

Larry Cruz, being a native of Magalang town, was a Kapampangan who, like Ricco Ocampo of San Fernando, was one of the country’s best-known restaurateurs and, like Claude Tayag of Angeles, was one of the country’s most sought-after culinary consultants. Like Claude, he had an art-house filled with antiques and paintings, where he loved to entertain friends and visitors with the best that Kapampangan cuisine had to offer, but unlike Claude, he didn’t cook.

We met in his Bollywood Restaurant, located on the third level of Greenbelt 3 in Makati. I sat facing him, a little intimidated by the combined gravitas of his personality and reputation, and as I pretended to know exactly what to do with the exotic Indian food on my plate, he pretended not to notice my clumsiness. But there I was, a probinsyano being asked by Larry Cruz to be the publisher of the biography of his father—writer, painter and diplomat E. Aguilar Cruz—written by no less than the greatest Filipino writer in the English language, Nick Joaquin. It was Nick Joaquin’s certified last book before he died (I emphasize certified, because there are other books claiming to be the National Artist’s last works), and it was to be Larry’s tribute to his father.

To cut the long story short, the book was launched on the same day Larry’s Abe Restaurant opened. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that it was probably the cultural and social event of the year, because it had everything in it: Larry Cruz, E. Aguilar Cruz, Nick Joaquin, the hottest restaurant at The Serendra, the most upscale spot in the upscale Bonifacio Global City, performers that included Ballet Philippines and the country’s top soprano Rachelle Gerodias, the emcee a Binibing Pilipinas title-holder, and the guest list with such names as Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, Bencab, Gilda Cordero Fernando, Armando Doronilla, Ambeth Ocampo, Claude Tayag, Adrian Cristobal, Kit Tatad, Gemma Cruz, Krip Yuson, Patis Tesoro, Serafin Quiason, Manolo Gatbonton, Italian Ambassador Rubens Fedele, Rep. Cynthia Villar, the Mayors of Taguig and Magalang and the family of Nick Joaquin. I was grateful to Larry Cruz for the honor of being a part of such an important book, and Larry was equally grateful to me for convincing Holy Angel University to publish it.

Larry Cruz and I became text mates after that. He never failed to invite me to parties and meetings, sometimes at Café Havana where Carmen Guerrero Nakpil’s group regularly met, and other times at his art-house in Magalang, at the foothills of Mount Arayat, which has now been converted into a spa and events village called Abe’s Farm. Sometimes I went, but often I didn’t.

But one time I brought along a friend to Abe’s Restaurant; I think we came unannounced but still, Larry sat with us and told us we should order his green salad which came from his farm’s produce in Magalang, and his begukan. When he heard ‘begukan,” my companion’s face lit up.

“Oh, you don’t serve begukan to Robby,” he told Larry. “Why?” Larry asked, and my companion replied, “You can’t beat Robby’s begukan. Wanna bet?”

I don’t know if Larry took it as an insult or as a challenge, but he left and came back with his chef. My hand instinctively crept towards the knife on the table as I expected the worst, but Larry smiled and said, “Robby, I want you to teach my chef your recipe!” My companion clapped and said, “Go, Robby! This is your chance to have a recipe named after you! At Abe Restaurant no less!”

If you saw the movie “Ratatouille,” the scene where the rat was discovered and everyone in the kitchen stopped for one second and stared at the rat in disbelief and in disgust—that’s how I felt when I entered the kitchen and everyone turned to face me. From the corner of my eye I saw one cook with a chopping knife exchange glances with another cook holding a slicing knife, and I honestly feared for my life. I only relaxed a bit after the chef’s assistant smiled at me and told me he knew me because he’d graduated from HAU and lived just across my parents’ house in Mabalacat.

The chef tried to maintain a straight face as I lectured him on how to cook begukan—my way, or rather, the way my mother had taught me. First parboil (sinkotya) the pork pieces (really tiny pieces), then sautee in baguk until brown, before adding the leftover stock from the parboil. Add a dash of sugar to slightly caramelize.

Larry walked in to tell me to cook, not lecture, it. So I did. You could hear a pin drop as I peeled the garlic and cut the onions; the chef shook his head when I sautéed longer than I should, and when I sprinkled sugar on it, I swear someone gasped.

So, did Larry like it? You can measure the compassion a man has in his heart by his willingness to tell a white lie to save you from getting hurt. That begukan I cooked in Abe’s kitchen was the worst, because when I cook my begukan, I want to take my time and I don’t like people watching and waiting. And I have to cook it in my own kitchen using my own pots and pans.

Yet Larry said it was good, and I knew it was a lie because when I came back to eat at Abe Restaurant months later, the menu still didn’t say Robby’s Begukan.

(Larry died last week in the United States while being treated for cancer. I join his family and friends in praying for his eternal rest.)

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