Chef Francis talks about his journey to the top of Pinoy cuisine in the UK.
For those hearing the name for the first time, remember it- Chef Francis Puyat, Executive Head Chef of Rapsa, one of the front runners bringing Filipino cuisine and culture to the capital.
It has been a couple of years in the making, where Filipino cuisine has been waiting in the side wings for its spotlight on stage. ‘Let’s grab Filipino for dinner tonight’ is becoming as understood as Chinese, Italian and Vietnamese and amongst others, Chef Francis Puyat is responsible for that shift of defining what Filipino Cuisine is to a new audience in the UK.
The beautiful thing about Filipino Cuisine is that it is so versatile. Pulutan like Tapas, Boodle Fights like a never ending Buffet, Sinigang like other popular noodle soups and Filipino Classic dishes that fit into English culture of brunching with ease. Add sharing plates and fresh kinilaw, which resembles a funkier take on ceviche and Filipino quickly becomes one your top 3 styles of cooking.
Francis has been our leading influence in what Rapsa has evolved into. Two permanent sites, with different personalities that embrace the joy of sharing Filipino Culture with London. Fresh, bold flavours from sea, land and farm. Karaoke, Boodle Fight parties, great music and the best of drinks.
What was your first ever recipe you invented?
While I was at Nopi working with Chef Scully I would spend some time making different recipes for future projects. I took some inspiration from classic dishes at home to create a Burnt eggplant salad with coconut, cashews, apples, radish and tomatoes. I took the tiger’s milk from kilawin for the coconut dressing. It is a light, refreshing salad full of colour and flavour.
What is your proudest recipe?
Tough one. It is pretty hard for me to look past my sisig. It is the only dish I do all the prep myself. I won’t even let Sous Chef Peter help me. When done properly the traditional way using the pig’s head it is such a special dish. Because we use all the parts of the head, including the cheeks and ears we get so many different textures and flavour. I have also added chicharron to give an added crackle to the crunchy chew from the ear cartilage, the meaty softness from the cheek and the creamy richness from the brain. The fried egg makes it richer and binds the different flavours together. Then a touch of chili cuts through the richness.
How do you keep authentic yet modern?
You have to use the same natural ingredients and the same techniques. This is the base. Like an artist I think you have to really learn the basics and principles well and apply them before you add your own touch. So the sisig is all authentic but with an added touch, namely the chicharon. You can be clever with a garnish but only if the dish itself is true to its roots.
Another example is our Torta Talong. We keep the base of torta traditional but then add an extra salad to make it more exciting. Peanuts give an extra crunch and mango balances the saltiness from the shrimp paste. Radishes and cherry tomatoes add colour and freshness.
What would you say to aspiring pinoy chefs?
Don’t be scared to do what you want. Keep the base as authentic as possible. Make sure it is still recognisable as Filipino but at the same time embrace the fusion elements of our culinary history. We have so many influences. Embrace and take advantage of how adaptable our cuisine is to create new and exciting dishes.
What are your top tips for cooking pinoy at home?
You have to have your staples like palm vinegar, kalamansi (normally extract), soy sauce, chicharon is nice if you can get it. Kinilaw is a great way of preserving food as well. Some palm vinegar and kalamansi adds great flavour to any ingredient as well as making it last a little longer.
Otherwise keep it simple and tasty and above all, Rapsa!
How is Pinoy food sustainable?
We use the whole of the animal. For chickens we use every part from feet, which we call adidas because it looks like the logo, intestine – isaw, gizzards and we even collect blood in the rice, let it set and put in arroz caldo or tinola. Our tinola soup is a great way to use up everything we have, including vegetables.
What for you is the culture of pinoy eating?
We eat with our hands in rural settings, always kanin – rice and ulam – meat together. In fiesta we must cook everything and have red horse beer, maybe some Don Papa rum shots too. Actually definitely Don Papa.
What is your most unusual chef experience?
I got burnt at nopi. A chef I was training poured hot butter on my arm. The whole arm swelled up to the size of a club. I had to still work the whole shift!
I also worked next to Gordan Ramsey at the Hampton Court Palace festival. I met the queen and shook her hand. I also did a party at David Beckham’s house and cooked for One Direction in Hoxton.
Tell us about your team?
Chef Kamal has been with me since our Nopi days. Chef Peter from Slovakia is all hard working and a great second in command. Chef Kelvin is a constant pain in my ass but he gets the job done.
I have to lead by example. If i don’t do the dirty jobs as well as them they won’t follow me.
Tell us about some of the original fusion influences for Pinoy cuisine?
Chinese food has one of the biggest cultural impacts on pinoy food. There are all the noodle dishes. There are different parts of Pancit in different parts of the Philippines. Lumpia spring rolls just have meat on its own or veg on its own. I add baby gem, atchara and herbs to make a wrap around spring roll to give it freshness, more flavour and added texture.
America gave us ketchup. When we ran out of tomatoes in the Second World War we made our own with bananas. I add a touch of chili to ours which we serve with halloumi fingers – a dish I made when we were asked to do a halloumi pop up for the Cyprus Tourism Organization. You can also find our banana ketchup on Delli – all natural ingredients and no preservatives. Don’t worry you will have licked the jar clean way before it gets close to going off.
Spain/Mexico is another big contributor but our kinilaw, which is similar to ceviche, was invented independently, we use it for pork and everything. Cooked meats as well as raw fish and vegetables. Our kalamansi, palm vinegar and even coconut milk gives it extra punch.
What is your favourite dish from home?
It has to be sinigang soup. My father and I would catch river fish together and gather fern heads and banana blossoms near the river. We would catch the fish by hand just like a bear or at night we would use a lamp and a little spear.
What is the future of pinoy cooking?
It is bright, yellow, blue and red.