On the Spot: Sharwin Tee of Curiosity Got the Chef
We sat down with the Toque-N one.
The curious chef is equally intriguing.
(SPOT.ph) Barely a minute into the interview and a man comes up to our table. It’s lunchtime on a Tuesday and we are, perhaps, in the most inconspicuous booth in a little Mexican restaurant in one of the quieter malls in Manila. Without so much as a hello or an introduction, the man walks up to Chef Sharwin Tee and says, "I watch your show."
We can't blame him. The lack of certain social niceties may seem awkward to some, but Chef Sharwin is no stranger-and it’s not because he fronts a cooking program already gearing up for a third season. It's because of him: a perpetually happy man with a warm, crinkly, seemingly permanent smile, and a vibe that recalls an oversized teddy bear. Watching Sharwin on Curiosity Got the Chef is like listening to a friend talk about this amazing new recipe you’ve just got to try-so much so that when you finally see him in public, you forget that you've never actually met. It doesn’t help that he’s dressed exactly the way he usually is on TV, with a sleeveless button-down over a long-sleeved shirt, his hair poofed up like a meringue.
Chef Sharwin doesn’t mind the recognition. It comes with the territory of hosting a successful cooking show-a dream of his since he was six years old. SPOT.ph sits down with the "Toque-N" one as he talks about giving up cartoons in favor of Cooking with Nora, the curious concept behind his show , his Iron Chef and Top Chef aspirations, pushing Filipino food overseas, and finally opening a restaurant.
How did you get started with cooking?
I started watching actually, more than cooking. I watched Wok with Yan which is a show you will only know if you're as old as I am. He's this Chinese guy who lives in Vancouver, cooks for a live audience, and can barely speak English, but he captivated the audience. He was making them laugh; he had plenty of knife and hand tricks. It fascinated me that someone just cooking is captivating an audience. That was the first trigger for me to be interested in food. How can food, the mere act of cooking, captivate an audience? That's what really pushed me to get started.
They say that if you want to be a chef, you shouldn't want to learn how to be a TV chef. I did it in reverse (but) I don't recommend it. I just kept watching shows. There was Wok with Yan then there was Cooking with Nora. I religiously watched her; of course Nora Daza is the first Filipino celebrity chef. I gave up watching certain cartoons because I wanted to watch cooking shows.
Was it weird back then to want to be a chef?
Yeah it was. It was more-funny than anything else. I think my parents found it funny that I liked watching cooking shows because, well, it's cooking! Even worse, I was a guy! Why would I want to watch a cooking show? Now, when I get to talk to parents-and this is probably the greatest compliment I can get about my show-they tell me their kids like to watch my show. I find that very gratifying because that's what happened with me. Watching cooking shows got me started. I love the fact that parents come up to tell me their six-year-old or eight-year-old watches my show and that they want to try cooking the dishes they see. The difference is, now, the parents tell me that maybe the kid will become a chef in the future. For me, that never happened. It was just, "Oh, my kid likes to watch cooking shows" then it's over. Now it's "Oh, my kid likes to watch cooking shows, they might be a chef in the future." So yeah, it was definitely weirder back then.
I never really got cooking until maybe I was around 10. I started watching when I was six. At that age, it's hard to be in the kitchen lalo na our kitchen wasn't very safe. I started by just telling the household help what to do because they wouldn't let me handle the knife, they wouldn't let me turn on the stove. When I got older, that's when I started playing around in the kitchen, but nothing serious, nothing significant. Just frying stuff or sautéing stuff. Not really anything groundbreaking.
When did you think of going to cooking school?
That came way after na. I finished college na. My college blockmates, I recently got to talk to one of them, and she was telling me she had no idea I wanted to cook for a living. Sabi ko I think that's understandable because I never mentioned it at all when I was in college. You know how it is when you're growing older, you start thinking of more practical things lalo na when I was growing up, it wasn't very practical to be a chef... It wasn't as widespread and then there weren't many schools offering cooking classes or even just HRM. I put it on the backburner. I finished college first, I took up Communication Arts, and I went back to Xavier to teach English. That was my other passion. It was all in the backburner, then I started researching schools and I found that there was only one culinary school here during that time. That was Cravings. CSB (College of St. Benilde) had not started; I think Café Ysabel was only just offering six-week courses. It wasn't a lot so I started looking online, abroad. Seeing all those schools and taking their virtual tours kind of ignited the fire to do it again. I got really excited about it. I decided that I wanted to this na.
I wanted to go to New England Culinary Institute because that's where Alton Brown studied and Alton Brown was a Communication Arts graduate just like me. He had a cooking show just like I wanted, Good Eats. I often fantasized about doing a Good Eats kind of show. New England Culinary was very expensive though and to live in the States is also very expensive so the alternative I found was the cheaper one in Vancouver. The funny thing is Wok with Yan was shot in Vancouver and I never realized that when I was there. I just remembered after I came back home. It was kind of-fate or coincidence. I mean, if you want to make it into a movie, that's how you would sell it.
There's no magic story na I was this wonder kid who cooked as a child. I was really trained in school. I only had ideas in my head, but I couldn't do anything because my parents don't cook. I never met my grandfathers. My grandmother cooks but she doesn't really teach me and it wasn't like tremendously good (either). I didn't have a lola or an auntie that was so good that everybody has to have (their recipes). I don't have that. I only got it when I trained.
Chef Sharwin’s self-made demo video
What was the plan after school?
I thought about working abroad. This is how I old I am: when I finished school, restaurants weren't as big here. I mean they were starting but the eating culture was not there. People didn't know the difference between a risotto and a rice pilaf. I felt like the best thing would be to work abroad first. The problem was, in Canada, they protect their citizens. You cannot get a job unless it's a job that no citizen would want to or cannot do. A couple of places wanted to hire me so they sent permission slips to the government, but being a dishwasher or a line cook isn't really something no one else can do. I had to come home. Here, I got to work at Tower Club which was one of those places that serve fine-dining food to really important people. That was a good experience.
So why did you join the Toque-n Ones?
I've always wanted a cooking show. But, and I'm not trying to be false modest here, in local television, we always look for good-looking people so it's very hard to break into the industry and nobody was doing cooking shows then. We always talked about it among our college blockmates kasi nga we were all studying about TV and radio. We always talked about the possibility of a cooking show, but it was never real. My friend used to work in Lifestyle (Network) so when Lifestyle told her that they were looking for a chef for this contest, she sent me the details, saying that maybe I should join. She was saying, "This is it. This is what you want." For me, I don't like to join cooking contests because I feel like food is so subjective. Parang very hard to judge. Whenever I judge, all my scores are very high and very close. Every time they ask me to judge, my scores are always in the 90s mark and then they're always just separated by a point each. It's very easy to satisfy me kasi with food eh. I don't like to join contests about cooking-as in me joining. Wala eh. It's food. You don't even know who you're cooking for. I always base what I cook on who I'm cooking for, but this one I wanted to join because the prize was the show. That was different.
I sent a video in. I shot it in Xavier, fooled a couple of friends into joining me, edited it myself. Luckily, they picked me, along with nine other people, and we did a screen test. I don't know how I passed that one. I was so reserved. (Then) we were down to six finalists and we each had to cook two demos using specified ingredients in front of three chef judges and the head of Lifestyle Network. It was tough because when you're doing a demo on TV, you can't really keep tasting your food because it looks ugly on screen. In real life, (however), real chefs will taste the dish five to six times before they send it out. The good ones, anyway. For me it was very difficult because I could only taste it once and I had to base my adjustments there. After you plate it, they serve it immediately. There were no cuts. There was just 10 minutes and if you make a mistake, you just keep going. Immediately after, you send it to the judges so you can't touch or retouch it. It was really tough. I was fortunate to be in the top two and parang we did an Iron-Chef style, one-hour cook-off.
Your audition video is online?
Yes it is. It's horrible, but it's online. It's very very horrible. Poor quality, poor lighting, the hair was horrible. But I'm proud of it because I didn't know how to edit using a computer kasi when we were in college we edited by linear. We had a couple of VHS machines and then you toggle. I had to learn from a friend. It took me around an hour to learn and three hours to edit. It was still ugly, but good enough to get me in.
How did you come up with Curiosity Got the Chef, the whole concept of the show?
That one was a collaboration. It seemed like it fit me because I'm a naturally curious person and not just in cooking. I want to know other things. If you follow me on Twitter, you'll see that I don't tweet about food all the time. I tweet about news, I tweet about sports. I like to know things so the curiosity aspect fit me. As for the format of the show, parang I wanted to, at least for the first season, promote Filipino food-my (specialty). The way to describe my food is Filipino food but your lola will never recognize it as such. I don't make any apologies about that because I (didn't) have ancestral or heritage recipes to grow up on. All I can do is base Filipino food on my self, on my own experiences, on my own-spirit? I wanted to push that during the first season. This was very early into the show and I told myself that if I got through the season, I would be super happy. I was afraid that they'd look at the first episode, see it as horrible then cancel me after one episode.
The funny thing is, there's also a curiosity aspect to my food because I do things people don't do all the time. I play around with flavors that don't look like they could (work together). If I make a dish that has flavors of laing, for example, they will not resemble laing anymore but all the ingredients would still be there. Even the producers noticed that the food was also very curious-that's how the show got a life of its own. That's how the whole concept of the show came along. Whether I'm curious if a certain ingredient works well (with another) or not, or how a traditional Filipino dish has been changed.
Who decides what you cook on the show?
Me. I try to, as much as possible. I want complete control over the food because one thing I'm very proud of [about] the show is that it's very real. If you try the recipe, it's really good, something I like to eat as well. I'm not that good of an actor and I cannot pretend to like something I don't. That's one thing I'm very proud of and that's why I want to do all the recipes myself. I want to make sure that it's something I want to eat para when I tell people that it's good, it's true. Of course we have certain concessions because we have to fit the theme of the show, we have to fit our partners and clients.
Do a lot of people approach you when you go out?
Yeah. I'm very happy about that. I like people coming up to me, telling me what they saw on the show because I know what they took away from it (and) I'll see what I need to improve on. I want to know what people want to see because sometimes that's where I get my ideas. For this second season, there were dishes and even episodes that were born because of people who tweeted me or people who approached me. I want to keep doing that. If you have an idea, tell me. Let me know. Who knows, maybe it fits with what we want. After the first season, people were asking me if I had recipes for good baon that kids would eat so, in the second season, we created an episode of kid-friendly treats. People were also saying, like, "Do you like cheese? Why don't you do an episode na puro cheese." We did that also.
What's the dish that you like cooking the most?
I like cooking simple dishes. Even on the show, you can barely find a recipe that contains more than 15 ingredients. I don't like complicated dishes so I like cooking things that are very simple. Of course the least stressful ones are slow-cooking like stews or big roasts. They cook slowly so less stress for me. I like cooking so generally, I don't have an exact favorite as long as they're simple. I haven't made a cake in years except a fruit cake. I make that every year. Definitely I prefer cooking over baking.
You still make fruitcake?
Yes! The funny thing is, fruitcake is so bad, ’di ba? It's like so so bad that people don't want to eat it. I have a fruitcake recipe that is not horrible. It depends on the time constraint though. I didn't get to make it [last] year. I adapted it from Alton Brown. The problem kasi with normal fruitcake is they use liqueur that's not very good and they use cherries-red and green cherries-and nuts. Ako I don't like the combination and I imagine people don't like the smell, so I use local dried fruit like dried mangoes, dried papaya-things you want to eat. If you want to eat it, then if you put it in a cake, you'll still eat it. I also removed the nuts and used mango rum instead of weird brandy that smells like your dad.
Can you tell us about the last really good meal you had at a restaurant?
I have to be careful not to play favorites. (Pause) It's so hard! One of my favorite restaurants kasi is Hossein's. Whenever I eat there, I feel happy, but I haven't eaten there recently.
What do you like ordering at Hossein's?
I like motabal, baba ganoush, I like the beef kebab. They have this thing that I can never remember the name of. It's roasted eggplant with saffron and egg (Misa Kasemi). I don't know what it's called but it's really good. I order that all the time. Of course I love papadums. I love papadums. Genius, whoever thought of it.
What are your five favorite restaurants?
Well, Hossein is one. I like Gulliver's. I know it's so old, but I like going there. It's the oldest restaurant you can imagine, carpeted, dark, with piano music, but they serve English-style roast beef with creamed corn, creamed spinach, Yorkshire pudding, baked potato, horse radish. It's so British and old-fashioned that I love it. What else? I like eating at Nomama. Their flavors are very subtle. Minsan we're so overwhelmed with flavor. All the food we eat is intensely, aggressively flavored so minsan I like mild flavors lang. I'm very easy to please kasi so it's very hard to (choose) the top. Terry's is nice. I'm a sucker for cured and smoked meat. I like chorizos, Jamon Serrano.
Now it gets tough. I would say Mamou because they serve really big steaks so whenever I don't know what to eat, I'll eat a steak. That's my go-to dish. It's safe. That would be my five, but I eat everywhere.
If you were to open your own restaurant, what kind of cuisine would you serve?
Actually I have a couple of concepts in mind. It's just that finding a place is so difficult. All the places that are good have lines of up to a hundred restaurants waiting for a space. Those that are free naman are so hidden that you're not sure people can actually find you. Whatever your type of food is, it will come out regardless of your concept. You have no choice if you're a chef worth your salt. What I'm confident about is that whatever restaurant I open, it will feature my food. A lot of what you see on the show will probably come out. That's how I cook so that's how my restaurant will turn out as well.
Are there dishes that you would call your signature dish?
I guess mayroon naman. It's just I don't like to be boxed in. There are go-to dishes that I serve. I have a dish called Drop-dead Fried Rice. I can never reveal (what's in it) because I'd have to kill you. It's the first dish I ever created so it's very personal to me. There's another one, the Lechon-style Beef. Generally when I'm in trouble or I don't know what to cook, that's what I'll cook for the client. As long as they eat beef and they say bahala ka na, that's what I cook. I'm fascinated with lechon baka so I created my own version. That's what I serve when I'm not sure what to serve.
Can you name one person you would love to cook for?
Well, I just cooked for Dia Frampton so I'm fine. Locally, I have yet to and still want to cook for Bea Alonzo. I heard she's on Cohen so I'd have to ask her. Actually, I wouldn't cook. I'd just sit down and look. (Laughs)
So the person you would love to cook for and the person you would love to have dinner with is the same?
Yes! Haha. For sure Bea Alonzo. And probably the President. I've always been fascinated with people in power because nobody ever remembers that they're people. I'd like to cook dinner and converse with him. Find out what he's really like. When you talk of heads of state, they only talk about their policies. Nobody ever talks about what they like to eat. I'd love to cook for the President.
What do you like doing when you're not cooking?
I like watching TV and movies. I'm a junkie. I'm an indoor kind of person. I like books, I like TV, I like movies. As you can see (points at his midsection), I'm not really an exercise buff. I watch other cooking shows also, which fascinates my director. But I do it anyway.
What would you say to Alton Brown if you ever met him?
I don't know. I've been asking him [questions] on Twitter and he never answers me. Like never. I'm so hurt! I’d like to know about the show, how he came up with Good Eats. But really, the one question I want to ask him is why he hasn't been challenged for Iron Chef America. Even in the Japan version, Dr. Hattori (Alton Brown's commentating counterpart in Iron Chef Japan) has joined. I want to know why he hasn't. He'd be good enough. I'm sure siya ’yong may ayaw. Jamie Oliver went. He lost to Morimoto. I would love to challenge but iba na kasi Food Network ngayon.
So if you were to do a cooking show, it would be...
I just want to challenge Iron Chef. ’Yon lang. I'd love to do Top Chef but you'd have to live in the States. Feeling ko lang not enough people are pushing our food. We keep talking about love our own, love our own, but we don't. Lately, we have great local chefs so Filipino food is great now. But we need people to push it abroad. Ten years ago, they had no idea what pad thai was and now everyone knows it because somebody was brave enough to push it.
I always applaud Filipino chefs in the States. Like the sisig burrito was in a food truck in the States. That's how it started. Everyone will tell you it's not Filipino food, but it is. (Americans) don't know (sisig) so that's their introduction to Filipino food so when they come here, they'd want to try the real sisig. My food is like that-gateway Filipino food. It's like the safest Filipino food foreigners can have. Once they're accustomed to the flavors, they'll like it, then they'll be pushed to try the real ones. Tayo we're concerned about authentic Filipino food, but what is authentic and what is not? We don't know anymore. What is authentic American? A jambalaya? That's authentic American. Hamburgers? We're no longer sure. French fries? That's French-or is it Belgian? Belgians will claim they started it. Now you don't know. But it's authentic because people have accepted it as authentic. I think it doesn't matter if the Filipino food you're cooking is authentic as long as it has the Filipino spirit. I love what Señor Sisig in LA is doing, the 'Silog truck in Hawaii or California. What they're doing now is that they're introducing Filipinos to the flavor of the Philippines. We need better Filipino restaurants in the US.
Recently in Top Chef, (Chef Sheldon Simeon) cooked sinigang and he won, but what made me happiest was was not the fact that he won. When they were tasting the sinigang, Padma was commenting na, "You know, this dish usually looks so ugly, but you made it look better." Just the mere fact that she said that means she knows or she's at least pretending to know what sinigang is. It means the Filipino food has already penetrated overseas.
People will be excited to go to your restaurant...
Yeah, I hope so. It took me years to decide to want to open one and it's taken me years to decide what concept, and now it's taking me years to find a place. I want to do a food truck but I'm not sure how viable it is here. Five months ago, we were talking about a food truck, but we didn't know where you can sell outside Mercato and Cucina Andare.
And your show will be starting its third season this year?
It will probably start June or July, but they're still airing the second season. Our reruns still get new viewers because not everyone has time to watch it when it originally airs. Hopefully they're still running it by the time the new season comes out para walang gap. I have this irrational fear na when there's a gap, people will forget who I am.
Photos by Joanna Manalastas