Do you know how Chef Sandy Daza‘s restaurant, Wooden Spoon, got its name? Straight from this Cornell graduate (in Hotel and Restaurant Administration)/ tv host / over-two-decade-long PDI food columnist/ restaurateur/ cookbook author/ food consultant whom you might consider as having Philippine royal culinary pedigree, he explained, “When I had my cooking show, everytime I talked to the audience, I would be holding my favorite kitchen gadget na pang-gisa— a wooden spoon— so that became like my security blanket.”
The unexpected self-deprecating revelation from the veteran chef was quite amusing as I thought he would be high-nosed. His mom, renowned Philippine pioneer culinary legend, the late Nora Daza, was undeniably proud of her son. Here is an excerpt of her introduction of him for his book, Cooking with Sandy Daza:
“My son, Sandy, is undoubtedly the one who inherited the gastronomic savvy people associate most with the Dazas. He has an uncanny ability of appreciating food’s nuances and subtleties. If food were music, he must have perfect pitch. It’s talent.”
“I don’t like attention. I don’t mind if they don’t pay any attention to me,” quips Chef Sandy. Unfortunately, how can he help it? His work record is worthy of attention.
In his food column and tv show, he’s the one asking the questions so it was a treat to be able to ask him the questions for this chat that he is willing to share with Butterflyinthespring readers. If you like food and cooking, you will want to read his tips!
SD: My first job was as cashier at our French restaurant, Au Bon Vivant. I was fired by the manager. She made my mom choose between her and me. So, out I went. [Laughter from me] Had an argument with her… Then, I also became a waiter in our Philippine Restaurant in Paris, Aux Iles Philippines. I watched our cook until he finished the dish. I didn’t notice that I was learning. One day, the cook left so I had to take over. The customers didn’t notice the difference in taste so that boosted my confidence. Because of that, the kitchen philosophy I use in my cooking show is that “A good simple confidence-building recipe is key for a new cook.” A recipe that’s too complicated or doesn’t taste good can make or break a person’s morale. If it’s good and they tell you they like it, gaganahan ka and then you will cook more. My assumption is that everyone watching is an amateur cook so my recipes are very simple, ingredients easy to find, but most of all, masarap.
BUTTERFLYINTHESPRING (BITS): How much of what you do now was impacted by your mom?
SD: I didn’t realize it then but my mom exposed us to good food. When we had that French restaurant, it was everyday fare for me. We had Michelin-star French chefs at that time—This is 1965—I didn’t realize that my standard was up na pala so everytime I’d go to other restaurants… it was not very easy to please my palate because what I was exposed to became the standard. Some people try some food and say it’s so masarap but when you try it, you’re [like]… hmmm? …because of your exposure.
BITS: Nakakatakot ka pala pakainin.
SD: Hindi, not at all. Madali akong pakainin. Baka naman yung kinakainan ko hindi mo kayang kainan. Mandidiri ka. I can eat at the remote areas… I’ll try anything.
BITS: Did everyone in your family get the “cooking gene”?
SD: My older brother, Bong, didn’t but the rest of us—my three sisters after me and I, yes. My brother just passed away about month ago.
BITS: I’m so sorry. My condolences…
SD: Thank you. My sister, Stella, from Vancouver and I were praying. She asked God for a sign that my brother would be okay [that he would go to heaven]. My sister-in-law, Gloria, prayed and then the doctor said, “Can I also pray?” The doctor prayed with Bong and said “I know that the last sense to go is the hearing so I know you’re hearing me… so I’d like you to pray with me, ‘In the name of Jesus, I open my heart…'”— the usual acceptance prayer. After that prayer, Stella found out the doctor was from CCF. Stella said this was the sign she asked for…that my brother accepted [God’s free gift of salvation through Jesus].
BITS: Oh that is so comforting! How providential that the doctor was there and shared just before time was up. Praise God for His mercy. Photofinish…
SD: Photofinish talaga.
BITS: It would seem like you were destined to be in the restaurant business.
SD: When I was young, my parents put up a restaurant called, Au Bon Vivant. It was the first French restaurant in Manila at that time. I think it was because of that business that my parents separated and I didn’t want that to happen to me so I when I got into the food business, I chose fast food. That did quite well but now that my kids are bigger, I could already do sit-down restaurants.
BITS: Oh, so sorry to hear that. Do you mind if I ask why you think the restaurant business caused your parents’ separation ?
SD: …because it’s quality time away from the family. Restaurant operations peak during family quality time—lunch and dinner. It’s just my own analysis.
Your mom is like a legend and everyone in your family has … their own sort of dominion, where do you get your identity from?
SD: Growing up, I felt my mom favoured my older brother so I guess in that way I had some insecurity about that but when I became a Christian, that totally changed. I am no longer here to please my mom or the people around me but I’m here to please God.
BITS: I see. You’ve been a Christian for a while… but when you are talked about that doesn’t seem to come across. Is that deliberate? I was actually surprised to run into you at CCF yesterday.
SD: I don’t want to force the issue of, “Praaaise the Lawrd!!!” and all that. To me, if there’s an opportunity, I share but if they’re not open, I’d rather back off because to me, instead of attracting more people, you turn them off.
But I know that everything I do is from God. I’ll tell you why. I just love to eat. I started out as a swimmer and a basketball player. Because of these athletics, I ate a lot. How can you think you’re not blessed when your job is writing for a newspaper getting invited to different restaurants. If there’s a new dish, they send it to the house for me to try. If I like it, I write about it. If not, I don’t say anything. Number 2, I’m in the restaurant business; all I do is eat everywhere, pick up new ideas, and create the dishes. I’m not working. I’m playing. I have a food show, the concept of the show started when I was working at a Philippine restaurant in Paris. Everytime the French enjoyed our Filipino food, I was so proud. So that started my passion for Philippine food. Now my show is called Foodprints, we go to provinces and tell you, when you’re in Bulacan this is where you go… because if you eat just anywhere, you might say, “Pangit ng food sa Bulacan… or Pampanga.” But if we tell you where the good food is, you will say, “Sarap ng food sa Bulacan a… Iloilo, Davao…” Once we cover the whole country, we want the viewers to say, “Ang sarap ng food in the Philippines!” How else can something like that not be a gift from God? You’re eating and just sharing. To me, that’s not work. It’s play. It’s a game.
BITS: You’re right about your work being so suitably fit for you like a gift from God. How did you come to know the Lord better?
SD: I’ve been a Christian since 1986 but sometimes success makes you focus somewhere else. God has always been in my life but sometimes you hope to do things and end up with different results. I know that God has different plans for me. Before 1986, I was President of a tomato paste plant doing very well but when The Revolution happened, that was sequestered from us. I was associated with the son of Marcos; Bong is a good friend of mine. To relax from all the stress, I went to Paris. We had a Philippine restaurant in Paris that a friend bought so I worked there. Someone invited me to a bible study there so I went. The very first verse I learned was “Cast all your worries on Me and I will give you rest.” At that time, I was short on cash so I prayed. Out of the blue, the next day, one of the tenants of my mom in her apartments, called and said, “Hey, your mom called me and told me to give you the rent.”
BITS: Wow how immediate!
SD: Yes, so to me, ang galing nitong bible study so when I went back to Manila, I looked for a bible study and found CCF at AIM.
BITS: When did you feel like you were kind of set on God?
SD: It’s hard to pinpoint a particular time but I remember always looking forward every Wednesday evening to bible studies in AIM. I brought my own bible. I remember thinking that no matter how good the speaker is, if he can’t point out to me in the bible what he’s saying, I will not believe. Part of the story is when my wife and our four kids and I moved to (Vancouver ) Canada for ten years up to 2010. I intended to put up a cooking show to make a name first and then put up a restaurant. That’s what I did but the restaurant failed. I lost confidence. There I was, having a difficult time whereas in Manila, boss tayo… It was a very humbling experience. God was teaching me something.
BITS: What do you think God was teaching you?
- SD: 1- If I fall into sin, there’s something wrong with my relationship with God.
- 2- You can plan and have an ambition, but most of the time, His plans are better than yours. Sometimes, He gives you results that are way beyond your imagination, parang, “Wow, that’s possible pala!”
- 3- I know God sees everything.
BITS: Your relationship with God deepened……..
Is promoting Philippine food on your show related to Nina [Puyat, Sandy’s sister]’s work at the Philipine Culinary Heritage Movement?
SD: No, that’s different. Personally, I find that there’s so much that even we, Filipinos, don’t know exist in our country. My philosophy always in feeding people is to surprise the diner. Everybody likes a surprise… Familiar flavors, unusual dishes. Unusual is surprise, like Dinakdak from Ilocos. Sarap, You’re not familiar with it but the flavor is Filipino pa rin from another region done their way depending on what ingredients surround them.
BITS: Sustainable food using local ingredients, promoting Filipino food producers, and revving up local economy. Win-win!
SD: Another thing is like yesterday, the people at the concession food stands let me try their dishes, nakakatuwa naman. But the drawback there is you gain weight.
BITS: Oh that’s why you have to play [badminton]… When you came back to Manila from Canada, that’s when you opened Wooden Spoon?
SD: Yes, we started off with Wooden Spoon in Katipunan to test the market and Boom! It did very well. We were named Filipino Restaurant of the Year at that time. Then we branched out to Rockwell and all that.
BITS: What a sweet homecoming! Congratulations! As far as business is concerned, did you specifically try to do things God’s way?
SD: Oh yes, at Wooden Spoon, we stick to paying the proper taxes. We don’t cheat. Straight business. The BIR can come and I have no problems with that.
BITS: When you travel, you’re still continuously learning?
SD: For sure. I’m picking up ideas. When someone tells me there’s a good restaurant in Banaue, I’ll drive there alone just to eat because I want to surprise myself and if I like it, then I write about it.
BITS: Can you give a tip or two for budding restaurateurs?
SD: You have to please a lot of people. Because you’re giving a standard when you give them food that’s good, you’re trying to improve the standard of the palate of whoever is eating it. We chefs say that our weapon or talent is our palate so we have to keep on improving this so that when you make your own food, you will make one either as good as, if not better than the best one you’ve tasted. Like if you want to create pesto, try pesto from many places and when you find the best one, try to create as good as, if not better than that. Your palate doesn’t stop improving. So try everything, eat everywhere.
There you have it! Food imprints from Chef Sandy Daza, the inspirational kind my favorite!
Thank You Lord for Your work in Chef Sandy’s work as well as in his entire life. May You protect and prosper, him, his wife, and children, his work, and all their endeavors. May You continue to go before him, give him Your wisdom and discernment. May You give Him Your joy and strength to share his multiple talents to the world as You continue to let him be salt and a sharer of bread in the marketplace in Jesus’s name and for His glory amen.