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  • Chef Justin Sarabia making a Pako Salad (Photography by Ina Jacobe)  
  • Shiitake Pork Buns  
  • A Concise Menu of Filipino Staples  
  • The Weave-Back Chairs were Designed by Justin Sarabia, while the painting "depicting Liliw and my lolo's first house" was made by a cousin      
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02/24/15 Justin Sarabia of Rural Kitchen

No one can say Justin Sarabia hasn’t gotten out of his culinary comfort zone. During his time in New York, the 28-year-old yes-chef’d his way through a big-city cooking career, from stirring stock at a ramen shop in TriBeCa to grilling lobster for top chef April Bloomfield. Amid the call of world-class kitchens, however, the draw of his grandmother’s dishes was hard to resist.

“I got homesick and I’m not a fan of the cold,” Sarabia says of what led him to return to Manila and put up Rural Kitchen, a tribute to the woman whose memory he celebrates through her recipes of Filipino staples. Tucked along Makati’s Rada Street is a compact dining hall with raindrop lighting fixtures and weave-back chairs inspired by his grandparents’ home in Liliw, Laguna. With hearty takes on adobo or beef mechado and a nomadic bite or two (shiitake pork buns with a parmesan disc), consider Rural Kitchen a flavorful homecoming accompanied by the chef’s travels in taste.

Stepping out of the kitchen one recent afternoon, Sarabia talked to NOUS about his days serving the likes of Pharrell, cooking under pressure for Bloomfield, and taking to the stove thanks to an even greater force of nature: his grandmother.

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Did you stay absolutely true to how your grandmother prepared her dishes or did you improvise on some?

90 percent of it is exactly how my lola did it. It’s the food me and my siblings grew up eating. Our [family’s] first restaurant was in Los Baños, where all the cooks who learned directly from my lola are. Ako, ‘til now, I still learn from them. I started really cooking when my lola was really weak and sick. Actually, right now I’m still learning from them.

As far back as you can remember, what dish of your lola’s really stood out?  

Me personally, pork adobo and beef mechado. I can remember ever since grade school, yun yung baon ko. The thing that I noticed growing up was my lola educated herself. She doesn’t measure anything. I would want the recipe and she wouldn’t know how to write a recipe.

So you were always interested in cooking, then?

When I was in first year high school, that’s when I planned on going culinary but then something happened—I thought of taking architecture or whatever, and forgot about cooking. I graduated [with a degree in] multimedia arts so after that, I remembered I wanted to cook. That was recent.

Then you wound up in New York.

I studied one year in French Culinary Institute during the night. During the day, I was a busser at BBar. There were a lot of celebrities. Yeah, I talked to Pharrell—pero yung mga, ‘Do you want more bread?’ (Laughs) ‘May I take your plate?’ So that’s what I tell people. The chef there knew I was studying culinary so after that, there was a time during the summer, they would have barbecues on the patio and he asked me if I wanted to do it. That was my first cooking job: hotdogs, baby back ribs. It’s a simple task but I would come early to work to set up my station. After that, I worked in several restaurants—a ramen shop, which is why I have a ramen shop (Mio Cantina) in Los Baños, actually.

What was your toughest experience cooking in New York? 

In the small ramen shop I used to work in, that was my first on-the-line experience. Our kitchen was on the second floor and our freezers were on the ground floor so imagine bringing big vats of stock up and down the stairs countless times. Nightly, I’d get burns, cuts, but still have to continue. My hours were deadly. I left because I had a hard time with the chef.

Not so bad considering you found yourself cooking for April Bloomfield.

Yeah, that was when I worked in the John Dory Oyster Bar at the Ace Hotel. She’s a little scary. Every now and then, she’d pass by the restaurant and there would be calls from the other restaurants warning us: ‘Hey, April’s on her way.’ So everyone would clean. That was my first restaurant with really high standards. When she’d come for dinner service, the first ticket that came—ang dami. Me and my partner in that station would cook so much. She was there right beside us watching. Then, ‘Put it all here’ on the chef’s table. Yun pala, it’s all hers and she just wanted to taste everything. We’d just watch her as she tastes what we made. She’d ask you, ‘What do you think about this salad?’ The thing that surprised me is her palate. We had a tiny bit of an herb in the lobster but she could really taste it.

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With regards to taste, how would you describe the flavors of Liliw?

There’s a lot of coconuts there, so when you say Liliw, you’re talking about lambanog, dishes with gata.

And your heart is set on the food of your heritage? 

I’d love to cook other stuff but right now, I don’t want to forget my lola. Especially now that we’ve seen it’s really something special—that a lot of people enjoy our food.