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The Taste of Fate

Coincidences abound in the tale of the Fatted Calf

THE FOOD is good, but the taste of someone’s dream come true tastes even better.

The Fatted Calf in Silang, Cavite has since 2019 been known in dining circles as an off-road must-visit — but several setbacks, including the Taal Volcano eruption of 2020 and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic just months after resulted in four closures. For chefs Jayjay and Rhea Sycip, there was a final glimmer of hope in the waning months of 2022, but even that was extinguished when their landlord decided not to renew their lease.

Which was a real shame, since the property held sentimental value for the couple. During lunch on May 25 in the new Tagaytay property they occupy, the couple recalled how in the early 2000s, while out on a date, they had missed a turn and got lost, and found a property for sale. Ms. Sycip joked that she would be fine living there. When they quit corporate life 12 years later to open up their own restaurant, they found the same property still up for grabs on a lease deal, and they decided to build there.

After their lease ended, Ms. Sycip said, “We felt that that was it.”

However, a visit from Senator Loren Legarda during their last days changed their fate (or perhaps it was simply another one of the guiding hands that would sweep them towards their true destiny). Upon being told of their impending closure, the senator is said to have said, “You cannot close this because you’re helping so many people.” Ms. Legarda then gave them the lease for a property she owns in Tagaytay, the new site of the Fatted Calf. It is slated to open today (June 1), after having closed the Silang branch earlier this year.

During our tasting, the restaurant’s new sign was just about to be installed.

“Some people believed that we shouldn’t stop what we’re doing,” said Ms. Sycip. “It’s an answered prayer in such a way that it was impossible,” she said during a speech at the lunch with the press.

When Ms. Legarda said that the couple were helping so many people, it’s because a lot of the produce that they served in the restaurant came from small producers in the area. For example, Mr. Sycip pointed out that the eggplants they use come from a nearby farmer who just has a stall in front of their house. When they mean they source locally, they really mean locally, with many of their sources being their neighbors.

Mr. Sycip says that it boils down to specialization: industrial farms will maximize the use of their lands with diverse crops, but smaller producers will maximize by filling their land with a single crop, probably more well-tended.

“The synergy between farmers and chefs cannot be broken,” he said. Added Ms. Sycip, “Not all farmers will have the courage to tell you to [just] go pick it up and eat it,” which she says is usually how they test their produce. “The food we’ll all be partaking in is mostly from farmers, who, like us, have been struggling,” said Ms. Sycip in a speech.

They do source from farther regions — as far as Davao and Palawan, and the beef in the galbi bao comes from Australia. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The meal that day consisted of old and new items, from the old restaurant and for the new one. Lunch started with two salads, one with smoked duck, and the other completely vegan. The smoked duck salad had a five-spice vinaigrette, and the Vegan Glow salad had a maple black sesame dressing, and a spice-roasted slice of squash. It’s easy to ignore a salad, but this one is a great testament to natural and organic farming techniques. The leaves had a depth and flavor that only nature can give, and we found ourselves chewing through this course very slowly, savoring each bit of foliage.

There were then Vietnamese Shrimp Balls that were chunky and a bit rustic, made with wild-caught shrimps, but this paled in comparison to the cod cured in pastis and gin for half a day, served with creme fraiche, kaffir oil, lemon puree, and red radish. Served as lacy, translucent slices, the delicate fish was very expressive and explosive with its flavor.

The aforementioned galbi bao with the Australian Wagyu, Ssam sauce, radish carrots, and homemade mantou (buns) was great and filling and satisfying, but was easily overshadowed by the silky Shrimp Spaghetti. This one was made by tossing it in an oil infused with shrimp heads and spices like cardamom, cumin, and star anise; served with wild-caught shrimp, kaffir leaves, karipatta, and brined kesong puti (a local cheese). Wonderfully subtle and elegant, it tasted like a song.

That was a nice prelude to the Thick Cut Porkchop, made from organic pork, braised red cabbage, Cebu corn grits, applesauce, and corn ribs. It was all wonderfully mild, better so we could enjoy the fiery Red Curry Beef Pot Roast, made of local beef, Benguet potatoes, the eggplants from their neighbor farmer, and fresh coconut milk. Delightfully spicy and staying in the tongue, we regret not having this with rice.

The piece de resistance was a Signature Whole Roasted Leg of Beef (torched by Ms. Sycip as we watched), which had been roasted for 10 hours with aromatic spices, roasted vegetables, and rum jus. This was a true masterpiece (our notes said, “My God!”) and along with the powerful beef flavor, also had more than a hint of loving labor.

We had been inclined to skip dessert, averse as we are to ube (purple yam), but we were assuaged with a Tablea Chocolate Cake made with local chocolate from a farmer’s cooperative in Davao. A woman at our table said that she had committed a sin, and was grasping for the word “gluttony,” but had a smile on her face all the same.

The couple had met first as children in the third grade and then again as adults (again adding another note to this story of fate and destiny — a little more and we’d believe in anything at this point).

The name The Fatted Calf comes from the biblical tale of The Prodigal Son — the son, after squandering his inheritance, came home destitute, only for his father to welcome him home with a fatted calf. “It’s about family and feasts. That’s the essence of The Fatted Calf,” said Mr. Sycip.

The pair had been working in the food industry under the Discovery group — Mr. Sycip had been the Executive Chef of Discovery Country Suites, while his spouse worked as the Assistant Food and Beverage Manager over at Discovery Primea. “Although they’re very good to us, we can’t do what we want to do. Of course, we had to meet a certain budget,” said Ms. Sycip of being corporate chefs. For example, they recall passing up on great produce several times because the farmer couldn’t issue receipts.

The couple discussed the pros and cons of giving up corporate life and living their dream. Mr. Sycip says, “There will be days when you’re ‘in poverty.’” She says, “We don’t have a stable income. It’s not for the faint of heart.” Ms. Sycip recalls that their first stove had been a raffle prize, and the equipment they use now in the kitchen was mostly donated. She recalls fundraisers held for them when Mr. Sycip was mortally ill with COVID-19, and when friends and customers helped them sweep up volcanic ash from their driveway in 2020 so they could open again. “This is really such a nice place, but this is a story of blessing,” she said.

“It’s something that we don’t really look at,” said Mr. Sycip, still answering the question of the pros and cons of leaving stability for a dream. “At the end of the day, we wake up, we do what we do, and we get tired. It’s a struggle. We sleep, and then the following day, we do it all over again because it’s what we love to do.”

Ms. Sycip added, “It’s difficult not to get up in the morning knowing that people depend on you.”

Still, despite the struggles, we asked them what makes a dream worth all of it in the end. Mr. Sycip said, “It’s your dream. It’s everything that you’ve ever wanted.

“How many people can say that they’re living their dream?”

The Fatted Calf is now located on the Tagaytay-Nasugbu Highway, Barangay Neogan, Tagaytay City. Reservations for breakfast, lunch, and dinner starting June 1 are now being accepted. Call 0977-643-7477 or 0917-789-2352 to reserve or send a direct message on Instagram @thefattedcalf_ph. — Joseph L. Garcia