I don’t go to Alabang just because but Jane Go’s consistent itsamusttry praise for one of her favorite restaurants was convincing! So that day, Rica de Jesus, Jane, and I met up for merienda at Neil’s Kitchen, Westgate.
I was planning to just be courteous and take sample bites but when the food came out, I couldn’t help getting seconds…. repeatedly!
Later, I ended up using this corn dish as my own plate until I finished the last morsel.
The familiar Filipino food with surprise twists had me eating more than I intended. Not only did I enjoy the puzzle-solving satisfaction of recognizing familiar but interestingly recreated components of each dessert, I also appreciated the back stories behind the teamwork of Neil and Mich Ramos…
NEIL’S FOOD BACKGROUND
NEIL RAMOS( NR): Most, if not all, of the food here is how I myself like to eat the food or how it was prepared for me by my mom or Lola. My Lola had a full time chef so when I was young, I used to stay in the kitchen and cook with the chef. I grew up in a restaurant environment because my uncle and aunt had one. My family was already into catering. One of my aunts operated an office canteen chain in Makati so it wasn’t new to me. I would hang out everyday in my cousin’s Leo’s Restaurant on Roxas Blvd.
CATERING AND THE NAME “NEIL’S KITCHEN”
MICH RAMOS (MR): You know why it’s “Neil’s Kitchen?”… A friend of ours, Ann Puno, ordered turkey and other dishes for the birthday, I think, of her father-in- law. She wanted us to cater for her event. I said, “Cater (with full service)? No way! I’ve never catered or done anything like that. Just order the food, I’ll give it to you. Tapos na.” But she inspired us, she’s our angel who really told us, “You can do it!!!”… That day after Ondoy, it was our first catering job but my girlfriends and I were stuck in Makati and couldn’t get back to Alabang. Finally, we flew to Alabang and we did it! From then on, with no marketing, all by word-of-mouth, we were getting regular clients. Ann goes, “When you cater, you have to have a calling card.” So I ran to Town Center. Sabi ko, “Miss, pagawa ng calling card.”
She said, “Ano’ng pangalan, Mam?”
“Pangalan?…….[I was at a loss and then I asked]……. Neil’s Kitchen?” It was just random. We wanted to operate just from the house because we wanted to be with the kids. It was more important that we were with them. [As the home catering grew,] I ran to Divisoria to buy tablecloth and supplies but my things, the copper chafing dishes upstairs [for events] are just from our house lang but since we started using that, people requested, “the copperware please!” so those have been mainstays at our third floor events room.
TRANSITIONING TO RESTAURANT
NR: I was catering years back. But I never wanted to open a restaurant; I didn’t want the stress….We used to showcase to our catering clients the food for their weddings and events through tasting sessions that we had to organize. We invite at least ten couples but when they would come at different times, we would have to start all over again for the latecomers. That started becoming a challenge.
At first, we thought if we opened the restaurant, the guests would be our potential catering clients who wanted to try our food in order to decide if they would like us to cater for their events. If we opened the restaurant, we wouldn’t have to schedule food tastings anymore; everyone could just come at their own preferred schedule.
MR: We didn’t know if people would really come, that’s why we opened this and made the space good for twenty-five because in my family, we are twenty five.
Interior designer, Cheri Roberto, helped Neil and Mich create the warm, comfortable, cozy interiors of the restaurant.
NR: The signs on the walls are influenced by our own experiences since we travel a lot.
The third floor serves as additional space for guests during busy days and Sundays or a special occasion Function Room when needed.
MR: We didn’t know anything about running a restaurant. Neil had a different lineup of dishes in the beginning. It was American comfort food.
COMFORT FOOD DEFINED
NR: Previously, comfort food used to be stereotyped as adobo, sisig, lumpia, pancit. We forget about Paella. Our food is very diverse. We were influenced by the Spaniards, Americans, Japanese; Chinese presence has been here for a long time. As a creator of the dishes, during the testing stage prior to opening Neil’s Kitchen, the term “comfort food,” made me ask myself, “What does ‘comfort food’ mean to me? … I thought it has to mean the food that we ate growing up. Are we Americans or are we Pinoys? I decided to create Pinoy comfort food. That’s how we started, presenting Pinoy food in the world stage…so let it be known.
We don’t need to redo Pinoy food in terms of taste because we probably have one of the best cuisines in the world. All we need to do is present it in a better way… [IOW,] in an Instagrammable way.
I break down the dish and I think of related dishes that I can jam into it and present it in a new manner… I call it “deconstructed/ reconstructed.” For this dessert:
the inspiration is from a normal Filipino merienda: mangga at suman. We have neighbors in Asia that have the same concept. So when I did research in some parts of Visayas… they sip hot chocolate while eating mangga and suman. Our original hot Tsokolate is Spanish which is… partially… ground roasted peanut and cacao. So, peanut and chocolate so choc-nut… We are the mango capital of the world but our mango here goes through different seasons. The gel is pureed mango (pure mango) that I gelatinized… I adjusted for consistency because I have to present this dessert all year round even when the mango is out of season and tends to be sour. The coconut is a natural partner for it. The Suman, we don’t have to make it because we also support local food producers (Puto Binan, local suman…). We try to highlight the local dishes. The special effect we did is we fried it with butter.
I myself don’t eat innards but this is Jane’s comment about the Papaitan Pie: Normally, I shy away from papaitan ‘coz I I have little tolerance for exotic food hehe. I find the bile too bitter and goat is malansa. But since Neil used cow innards and the bile is kept to a minimum, I super loved this Papaitan Pie.
Rica’s: First time for me to try it and I actually like the taste! Especially the sauce which I dip with the bread! or you can put on garlic rice. YUM!
Other food we tried:
If I had worn a muumuu instead of jeans, I would have eaten the rest of the Crab Cake with Aligue Pasta and the mangga and suman.
MR: This smaller room is a bookstore in partnership with Ardy and Miriam [Quiambao] Roberto. My sister and I used to love going to OMF Literature. Personally, I’m not a reader. What have I finished reading? Power of a Praying Wife, Power of a Praying Husband, Power of a Praying Parent. That’s all [all distributed by OMF]. We used to sit at OMF. So I said, can we have a Christian bookstore here? When people are sitting down, I wanted them to be able to bring a book to their table and read (whether they buy it or not) as our way of sharing. It’s an honesty bookstore. You don’t pay us. There’s no cashier. You put the money [in the envelope] and drop it in the box.
I think people are honest and if they choose not to be, God is watching them. They will be stealing from Him, not from us. My vision for this was like a place where the neighborhood housewives could just drop by, grab something to eat, sit with a book or a magazine and really relax, have a place to… even like us, eat alone.
TEAMWORK AND SUPPORT
KAREN YOUNG (KY): It’s called Neil’s Kitchen but I feel like a lot of this is also you.
MR: I’m the inspiration (joking)… I’m the support.
KY: So it’s a teamwork between you and your husband?
MR: Yes, I used to be the delivery man. Neil would cook and when he’s done, he’d put the food in the car and I deliver. If it was catering, I set up.
KY: What do you think is the secret to the success to your teamwork?
JANE GO (JG): Because they don’t need it [laughter] so; there’s no pressure to make money. It’s something they enjoy.
MR: We enjoy it and we enjoy doing it together.
KY: But in the daily tasks, sometimes when you need to get things done, there’s probably going to be tension
MR: He’s very patient.
KY: And you are patient too?
MR: No [laughter from all]
JG: Michelle is very kind and supportive.
MR: I learned that in the Bible study. First, how to be the wife of a happy husband.
JG: How to submit
MR: You have to take a step back, let your husband shine. Boom! Nag shine nga. I have to say it was really that study. Kasi siempre before, I was a monster.
JG: No naman. She was never a monster.
MR: Monster. Then I learned.
KY: You recommend the bible study for wives?
JG: Not just for wives!!! Husbands and wives… couples.
MR: I do. I really do. I learned so much… specially for strong women like me.
RICA DE JESUS (RDJ): What was your business before this?
MR: Andy and Karen (sister company of Calvin Klein)… brought it in from the States. I had nine stores in the mall. When I had that bible study, they said, “You know you should let your husband shine and take a step back.” My sister owned Oink, the pig stuffed toys. Both of us dropped everything.
RDJ: You gave up your business??? Nine stores? Why?
MR: I believed…
JG: Support Neil’s dream
MR: … If you support your husband’s dream… for women talaga like us [looking to Jane], strong women, that’s hard to take a step back and say “I’m gonna let my husband shine.”
JG: Na-bless ka naman nag shine talaga. Super shining star.
RDJ: But he was in the catering business na before while you were having Andy and Karen?
MR: When I had Andy and Karen, Neil was still in transition. When we got married, he would feed our family and my mom (and family) would always tell him, “Neil, you could do something with this! Your food is so good, you can do it.” That inspired him to pursue it.
KY: Because your family is business-minded?
MR: Yes, my grandparents owned Crispa T-shirts. My mom took over the business when my grandfather passed away. So we were involved. Crispa Supermarket, Cement. When she saw what Neil was doing, she encouraged him… you can feel the love in his food. Neil was scared. So me, I stepped back and supported.
KY: But when you decided to step back, that would have been an uncertain point, right ?…because your husband hadn’t started yet (Mich nods) but you were willing to step back even so?
MR: Because diba [the Bible] says, “have faith.” God will provide naman e. So we really let go, my Ate Anna and I.
JG: But you were stable already before so it wasn’t so scary.
KY: What was that like, that path of faith?
MR: My sister and I…what I learned from the studies, I really do it, I obey… even if it doesn’t make sense… Neil was working for Channel 13 Marketing but it wasn’t something he loved to do. You can see naman if a person is doing something they super love. So my mom was telling him, “Do it.” Like you guys… you love what you’re doing.
My daughter, Kaela, asked me what I took in college to be a professional food taster. I said, “Sweetheart, I’m not.” She said, “No, Mom. You’re Daddy’s professional food taster.”
KY: You’re the one ba screening the food on which one is in or out?
KY: The way you describe yourself, you seem like you are in control, Type A
MR: Super! Ask Jane!
JG: Triple A yata sya, Sobrang A.
MR: Leader. I’m Batman.
JG: She would make a way talaga for everything.
KY: You can make things happen.
JG: Yes, sya yon.
KY: So to step back and give up your business to support your husband in his… it’s really like dying to yourself.
MR: Actually, none of the people that knew me can believe that I did this.
JG: Yes, kasi ngayon she’s so behind-the-scenes.
MR: Let him shine talaga.
KY: I noticed that you said, “We’re praying for a Makati branch.” You didn’t use “considering or “evaluating” or “studying.”
MR: No, we’re really praying for a Makati branch.
KY: What do you mean by that?
MR: If it’s part of God’s plan, then we’ll have one.
KY: Are you doing anything now towards a Makati branch?
MR: No. Just praying, “Lord, kasi if it’s gonna come, it’s gonna come.” Like this building… I think everything just falls into place when God is the one paving the way… the timing, everything… even funds for it will just come. That’s how I know that it’s part of God’s plan.
KY: He provides.
KY: Do you have a message for those who want to go into business?
MR: Pray about it. And you will know…
KY: Unusual details that only He can orchestrate… A big part or the whole part of you deciding to open this was a result of prayer?
MR: Just asking God and of course Ate Anna, my sister. She’s the one who brought us to Christ because she became a Christian on her own when she was twelve. But she passed away two years ago. That’s why wala na akong adviser.
KY: If Jesus were in front of you today, what would you tell Him?
MR: I always thank Him for every single person who goes up those stairs. I tell Him, Lord, thank You so much. Where did they come from really?
JG: And masarap din naman kasi magluto si Neil.
KY: Mich’s “Blessings That Came with Intentionally Letting Your Husband Shine”, can you name some?
- Made me so happy to see my husband doing what he loves and using the gifts and talents God gave him
- Saw my husband in a different (more positive) light
- Learned to be a submissive wife just how God designed us to be
- Got to spend lots of quality time with my little girls
- Enjoyed a higher kind of fulfillment rendering happiness to other people
- Made me feel a different kind of [deeper] joy in our relationship
I thought I was just going to try some desserts on this day to satisfy my curiosity for Jane’s itsamusttry endorsement. My heart ended up satisfied as well, inspired by Mich’s upstream-swim example to be a biblical wife and seeing the blessing of her obedience; the faith legacy of her sister Anna; Neil’s using his talent in food and how he has created an inspiring menu that showcases creative, delicious, proudly-Fillipino food to the world. I’m looking forward to bringing some people here on my day off! 🙂 #patayangdiet
L701 Westgate Center, Filinvest City, Alabang, Muntinlupa
Sunday – Thursday: 11:00am to 9:00pm
Friday – Saturday: 11:00am to 10:00 pm
Contact numbers: 810-5017; 710-8962; 0917-3112916