*Welcome to a new series of photographs and stories woven together, but with a new twist. This project is in collaboration with Chef Jessie Sincioco, who generously – and gamely – agreed to the idea. The setting is Chef Jessie’s Restaurant in the Rockwell Club Makati, the lead character, of course, Chef Jessie herself, and the dishes are those prepared by her and photographed by yours truly. Beyond that, the rest of the story is entirely fictional. The stories will appear on a monthly basis. Click HERE for the full set of photographs 

Jessie ran a frustrated hand down her chef whites, slowly, deliberately, and consciously as she surveyed the mess on the stove, the splotches on her black pants, and the burnt glob in the pan that was supposed to be xyz, for lack of a better name. This was the third time she had attempted his grandmother’s recipe of Sapin-Sapin from scratch that day and overcooked it. She could feel the tension in her shoulders and the anger brewing as she tightened her grip on an onion, the images on her rosary bracelet seemed to come alive with the movement. The two sous chefs beside her stepped back and ducked surreptitiously behind the meat cooler and blast chiller respectively, well aware of what was coming next.

As the onion flew across the kitchen and knocked down three Swiss soup pans and the carefully arranged German knives with precision, Chef Jessie’s eyes fell on the potato container. She knew what the next weapon would be, but needed another target. Now where was that new set of copper tajines brought in from Morocco two days ago?

The door to the main dining room swung open and all thoughts of catapulting potatoes with silicon ladles vanished as four terrified waiters peered in and the maître d’table scurried in. Jessie squeezed her eyes shut, inhaled sharply and exhaled slowly as if blowing out a candle. Temper, temper! She could almost hear the ghost of her aunt chastising her behind the left shoulder.

“Speak slowly and enunciate your words my dear George. What is the order? Which table? And who is it?”

“Mmmmmam, it’s that elderly gggentleman who only wears blue Armani suits and silver cufflinks. The one who lost his wife llllllast month.” 

“Oh. Yes. Señor Paolo. Again? He was just here last night for dinner. How long did it take him to choose something this time? Poor man, his wife always chose for him.”

“Tttthat’s the problem Mam… he can’t decide and doesn’t even know how hungry he is. Wants a chchchcef special: food for the soul to mourn and heal.”

tinola4Chef Jessie sighed as she walked towards the door. Standing at the glass window pane, she crossed her arms and scanned the tables in search of the mourning customer. Food for the soul to cure and heal? What could she possibly offer a man who had lost the anchor of his life, the very core of his being and raison d’etre? Demanding fussy customers who knew exactly what they wanted, and presumed to know better, were easier to deal with, but she was always at a loss with mourners and broken hearts. Their inability to focus, choose, or even find joy in food was a challenge and a frustration, because no matter what masterpiece she created, the aching heart would still beat sorrowfully after the meal, and even worse, the napkins would be damp with tears, hopelessly stained with lipstick and runny mascara.

“He was alone last night, is he dining alone again today?”

“No Mam, he said to take our ttttime because he was waiting for his ssssson.”

“Son? In all the years that I have known Señor Paolo and Señora Menchu, may she rest in peace, I never met their son. I am aware of six daughters but nobody ever mentioned a son. Are you sure?”

“Yes Mam, he was addddammmmant about waiting for David.”

“Go back to the table and ask where David is coming from and what time he is expected. Knowing this lunch rush hour in Makati, the poor man might be waiting a while, which means we need an appetizer as well.”

George threw back his shoulders, straightened his tie, and walked back to the table in question. Four minutes later he leaned against the sink with his head tilted sideways propped on his palm, lost in thought. Jessie put down the sauce pot, pulled it off the heat and faced George.

“You have a look on you that I have never seen before. Confusion. What do we know about David?”

“Nnnnnothing. Boss, I’m not ever sure there is a David to begin with. When I asked, Señor Paolo, he simply lllllllooked down at his hands and whispered ‘I don’t know when David is coming but I hope he arrives ssssoon so he can tttttake me to my Menchu.’ What do you make of that?”

“Ah, now I remember. We catered their Golden Wedding Anniversary, I have that menu filed away somewhere, and it was roughly a month before Señora fell ill. One of her sisters told me of a baby boy who had suffocated in his crib. He had rolled back and forth, and his face ended up in the pillow but couldn’t turn around again. He was the fourth child, and since they had finally been blessed with a boy, the couple thought it was time to stop having children.”

“Bbbbbut Chef, how do you want ttttto translate that into ffffood for the sssssoul?”  

Tinola. It is the ultimate comfort food for the Filipino soul. It’s simple, soothing, inviting, full of flavor but not pretentious, and the warmth of the soup is the embrace we yearn for when we are lost or afraid. It works just as well for those who mourn the loss of a loved one.”

Before Señor Paolo could finish chewing the last piece of bread with the liver spread dip, a bowl of soup with the most magical aroma was placed in front of him. The steam clouded his spectacles and for the briefest of moments, Señor Paolo could feel his wife’s hand reach out to caress his cheek. “Menchu? Mench,u tesoro, look, it’s our favorite Tinola! Remember our first date when you spilled some over your blouse?”

The soup was getting lukewarm by the time Señor Paolo had his first spoonful of tinola, and George noticed the trembling right hand that held the spoon, the solitary left hand that reached across the table in search of his partner, and the two tears that dropped into soup. The old man looked up. “Please tell Chef Jessie Menchu says thank you, and that David won’t be coming for me today.”

Click HERE for the full set of photographs

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