From working for free at the top fine dining restaurant in the U.S. to a career reimagining Filipino food, chef Emmanuel Garcia shows us the passion and grit it takes to build a career as a world-class chef.
“I chose to be a chef because cooking was the ultimate way that I found I could express myself,” he shares.
Houston, Texas — Emmanuel Garcia
Emmanuel Garcia: I chose to be a chef because cooking was the ultimate way that I found that I could express myself. Through colors, through textures, through tastes, through aromas. I love cooking that takes me out of my depth, that takes me to another culture, how they live, and why they cook that way — I love that.
I was in culinary school for a good two years, and I had to stop because of money, and for a while, was confused on what I really wanted to do. Out of nowhere, I met a chef, and he was like, “If you really want to do this, then you should work in kitchens for free — you should stage. If you could do this without the money, then you should be able to do this with the money.”
Stage: to apprentice with a chef for free to learn new techniques or gain a full time position.
So, I finally mustered up the courage — one of the scariest days of my life. I went to the back door of Alinea. Someone answered, and I said, “Chef, can I stage?”
Alinea is the top fine dining restaurant in the United States.
And then, he’s like, “Who scheduled your stage?” I’m like, “No one.”
“So, how’d you get here?”
“I just walked in the back door.”
And then, they looked at each other for a good second, and they looked back at me, and he’s like, “How long are you going to stage for?”
“As long as they allow me to.”
So, I quit my job for good, and then I staged at Alinea 15 hours a day, five days a week. I was so broke I couldn’t even afford toothpaste, and that’s not metaphorically. Literally, I couldn’t afford anything. I wasn’t making any money, but I was eating the best food in the world.
Everything that was happening at Alinea was outside of the norm. They had all kinds of ingredients. So, this opened my eyes to like, Oh my gosh, these are the kinds of things that we have in our pantry, the things that my family cooks with. Soy sauce in Alinea — really?
When I decided to become a chef, I sort of rejected the idea that I was going to cook Filipino food ever in my life. And then I see it, and I understand how they build flavors. And when you build flavors, and when you’re creative with something, there’s no boundaries. And that’s when I was like, If I could cook Filipino food, and express it very, very differently, maybe there’s something there. Maybe Filipino food doesn’t really need to be buffet-style kind of food. Maybe it doesn’t need to be a pedestrian type of food.
It doesn’t stop in the kitchen. When you go home, there’s a lot of learning, because you realize there’s so much knowledge out there. In a lot of ways, I still feel like I’m just new in this career. I I feel like there’s still so much I don’t know. But to be married, and now to have a daughter, if I thought I was already passionate about my career, then now it’s time to step it up, because I’m not just feeding myself anymore.
I want to be on the same level with all these chefs that I admire. I want to have a Michelin Star, I want to have a James Beard Award, and I do want my daughter to be proud of her dad in the future. From my humble beginnings of working for free to prayerfully, hopefully, having my own restaurant — and that’s all going to come from cooking reimagined Filipino food.
Sinigang: salmon nigiri, compressed watermelon in smoked tamarind consommé.
Kare-Kare: Oxtail in eggplant tempura, poor man’s caviar, bok choy confit, bagoóng tuile, peanut curry sauce.
Pusit: squid croquette, black lime and nori powder, squid inked dashi velouté, fried kombu.
So, we’ll see.
How to Plate Food Like a Chef
Chef Emmanuel Garcia teaches us the three elements that go into plating food like a pro:
- The plate
Plate like a pro.
Emmanuel Garcia: I think most important component of a plate for me — first one: the plate. The plate has to be beautiful.
Secondly, color: contrasting colors, vibrant colors. And then there’s this guy, who is just purely monochromatic. So if you’re going to go monochromatic, then might as well go all in.
And for the sauce — the sauce has to be sexy. It’s gotta be velvety and shiny. The sauce has to sing as well.
And third, I have to see some sort of technique applied to an ingredient on the plate. If you want to showcase some techniques and a lot of different elements in one plate, being petite, I think, is the way to go. It’s elegant. It tells you there’s more dishes to come — there’s more surprises to come.