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Interview: Chef Budgie Montoya of Sarap

Sarap_credit_ thomas alexander.

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24th January 2022

“I still have trouble to this day to be honest, there’s so much history with our cuisine and sometimes finding a clear message is difficult,” explains chef and restaurateur Budgie Montoya

When I ask him to describe Filipino cuisine. Montoya and I share the same challenge—as someone who was born and raised in the Philippines, it’s only when I moved away that I realised how difficult it was to explain the moreish quality of a crunchy sisig, the way a spoonful of bagoong takes the creamy kare-kare to another level, or how the adobo you had at your friend’s house may taste completely different to what is served at mine. With a complex history that includes over 300 years as a Spanish colony, nearly 50 as an American territory, and time under Japanese occupation during World War II, it’s only natural that it’s taken some time for Filipino cuisine to reclaim its identity whilst embracing the different influences that makes it unique. “If I had to break it down,” says Montoya. “Filipino cuisine is bold and exciting, with lots of acidity, umami and plenty of textures to keep you interested.”

I first met Montoya years ago when he was serving up ceviche tacos at a Filipino food festival in East London. At the time, the cuisine was barely a blip on Londoners’ radars. A lot has changed since then, and Montoya has been one of the most recognised faces of the movement. After hosting a number of supper clubs and pop-ups, he won the Brixton Kitchen competition which earned him a space for his casual restaurant Sarap BAon. His newest venture has him jumping across town to 10 Heddon Street in Mayfair where he’s reimagining Filipino food in his own way at Sarap Bistro. “Sarap Bistro is first and foremost a place that champions Filipino cuisine at its core. Our inspiration goes beyond just modernising traditional dishes; we really want to explore what our cuisine is in our time and place. I always go back to our mantra of ‘authentic flavours delivered proudly inauthentically’ and I think that really sums us up quite nicely.” For The Sybarite, I chat with Montoya about his R&D process, challenges with staffing, and the infamous fried chicken spot we can often find him in.

I have seen, and feel privileged to have played a tiny part in, the Filipino food movement in the UK over the past few years. Where do you think our cuisine stands currently within the greater landscape?

I think we’ve certainly come a long way. When I first started Sarap as a supper club, there were a few other supper clubs and we had the restaurants in Earl’s Court, but now there are some amazing street food brands as well as brick and mortar restaurants located throughout the UK. A few have even opened up in Central London, which is a huge step for the visibility of Filipino cuisine, but we still have a great deal of work to do in creating our own identity within the overall food landscape.

10 Heddon Street is a very enviable location and has reaped great rewards for its previous tenants. How did the opportunity come about?

We first came across the site a couple of years ago after we had just completed our residency at the Sun and 13 Cantons in Soho. At the time, we had just won the Brixton Kitchen competition which got us our site where Sarap BAon is currently located. We were approached again earlier this year about the site and we pitched the Sarap Bistro concept—the rest is history.

I loved the way the dishes I had at Sarap Bistro still tasted like the food I grew up with, but also felt different and exciting. How did you achieve that balance?

Our aim is always to cook with respect to our Filipino heritage. I battled a lot with my own identity growing up and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more comfortable with who I am and I think that balance is reflected in the food.

What does your R&D process look like when developing a new menu?

We have an open policy when it comes to menu ideas—we come together collectively as a group and brainstorm ideas. We talk about the dishes, ingredients, and places that inspire us and it all starts from there really. I want a menu the entire team is proud to produce and I want all of us to be a part of the process.

Staffing has been a huge issue in the hospitality industry. To add to this, there aren't a lot of hospitality workers and chefs in the UK who are familiar with Filipino flavours. How have you tackled these challenges?

We focus on creating an environment where everyone is valued—Filipino culture is built on the “bayanihan spirit” which roughly translates to community spirit and coming together as a community to achieve a goal. Basically we’re one big happy Filipino family.

You're having friends over for dinner. What's on the menu?

JOLLIBEE! If not, then it’s usually something easy to do and that can be shared family-style. A whole roasted fish like sea bass or plaice and some in-season vegetables prepared simply, and sawsawan. There’s always sawsawan at the table.

When not at your own restaurants, where can we find you wining and dining?

Kiln, Smoking Goat, Legare, Native, Jae @ Untitled are my go to places, and Jollibee if I’m feeling a little naughty.

What does 2022 have in store for you?

We’ll continue to do what we do and push Filipino cuisine forward. We would love for Sarap Bistro to find a permanent home in the West End.

 

Sarap Bistro
Address: 10 Heddon St, London W1B 4BX
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sarap_filipino_restaurant/

Sarap BAon
Address: 14D Market Row, London SW9 8LD
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sarap_baon/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/budgie_montoya/
Website: https://www.saraplondon.com/

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