Seya tackles classics with a twist and urban farming

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By Michelle Anne P. Soliman, Reporter

SANDWICHED between two pet service stores along Katipunan Ave. in White Plains is a two-month-old restaurant adorned with produce — white bitter gourd, chili, tomatoes, and edible flowers — in pots of varying sizes.

According to restaurant owner and chef Isaiah “Seya” Ortega, he originally wanted to pursue a farmer’s kitchen concept for his new business. To avoid the notion of the place as “too healthy” or “very farm to table,” he and his partners decided to name the restaurant after him since it was a chef-driven establishment. “Hopefully, the food will stand out. Never mind the name, the food should be the real star,” Mr. Ortega told BusinessWorld during last week’s visit.

Compared to his previous business ventures — a small mall-based food business and a restaurant specializing in sinigang (sour soup) — where he was restricted to theme-based dishes, Mr. Ortega said that opening this restaurant has allowed him to explore his creativity as a cook. “In terms of the menu, I have more freedom since we serve [a mixture of] Filipino and international cuisine,” he said.




“I don’t want to stick to a certain cuisine. With my background in cooking, you’ll have the urge to really practice what you’ve learned,” added Mr. Ortega, who took up a vocational course in culinary studies for two years at Center for Culinary Arts Manila before earning a degree at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde (DLS-CSB).

Seya’s Kitchen serves 13 main dishes to keep the choices concise and simple for the diner. Changes in the menu are done every month which allows the chef to create and explore more dishes.

Mr. Ortega noted that the dishes are not fusion but a “use of the available ingredients to enhance a cuisine.”

For lunch that day, Mr. Ortega served coconut garlic squid adobo (meat stewed in vinegar) which he explained includes Japanese ingredients such as bonito flakes. The torch salmon fillet with Thai basil lemongrass broth was a prepared with a combination of cooking techniques as the salmon done in Japanese aburi style (flame seared) and flavored with Thai herbs. The roast pork for the special lechon bagnet with lechon sauce and vinegar went through a 48-hour cooking process to achieve the right flavor and texture; Mr. Ortega describe it as “how you would cook bagnet (a deep fried crispy pork belly dish) but season lechon (whole roast pig).” For dessert, he served salted caramel and moist chocolate liquor cakes in cans by Pastry Amore.

Mr. Ortega plans to convert the restaurant’s outdoor space into an edible landscape. He said that having an urban farm in Manila makes the ingredients more accessible for him rather than sourcing them from his farm in Batangas. In the future, he plans to include the produce of his small urban farm as part of the restaurant’s product line.

Mr. Ortega noted cooking a better version of dishes as his philosophy as a chef. “It is very easy to cook something so good. But it’s very hard to cook something so bad,” he said.

PLANTING IN YOUR OWN SPACE
Mr. Ortega’s introduction to farming began with planting his own herbs which he used in cooking competitions he joined as a culinary student. He further enriched his knowledge through attending seminars, and reading magazines and online articles on urban farming.

“When you say urban farming per se, [it means] you’re producing more than enough for yourself. It will depend on how big your space is for it,” Mr. Ortega explained, differentiating it from gardening which is done as a hobby or to “supply enough for yourself.” He added that vertical farming is the current popular method.

There is no minimum area requirement for farming he said, noting that gardening may be done in spaces as small as one’s window or porch. “It’s not really a space issue. It’s more about how you creatively utilize the space for your crop,” he said.

Given an example of a family of five, Mr. Ortega explained that “what they eat within a week is more than enough for them to have a cycle of food when they try to plant their food.”

For households that plan to start growing their own food, composting is practiced in order to produce organic fertilizer.

He pointed out that using banana peels and eggshells in compost give “more than enough calcium for the soil for an entire month.”

Companion planting or planting crops in proximity with each other is another suggestion. “Some types of plants grow better if they are accompanied by certain type of plant of a different variety since they benefit from each other,” he said.

For Mr. Ortega, learning about farming alongside cooking makes one aware of a crop’s distinct taste and the best time for it to grow. Cautioning that it may sound boastful, he said, “It will make you a better cook.”

“If you learn both practices, you get to be more intimate with the ingredients,” he added. “Most of the time, the chefs would work with farmers. They ask about how you cook it. But they fail to ask how you plant it and care for it.”

Based on Mr. Ortega’s observations, one advantage of growing your own food is a decrease in food expenses.

“I think farming should be a common knowledge for everyone. It’s more rewarding to take care something, harvest it, and not just rely on groceries or other food sources.”

He pointed out that for most of history the majority of humans were involved in farming and raising livestock. That changed with industrialization. Now farmers are in the minority. “So, for me that’s quite sad. It developed a negative connotation of being ‘dirty’ and ‘muddy.’ It’s part of it. But it’s not like that. There’s more to it than just that,” said Mr. Ortega.

Farming requires planning and patience. “It took me a really long time to really somehow understand. I’m not saying I mastered it. It takes time,” he said.

Seya’s Kitchen is located at 42 Katipunan Ave., White Plains, Quezon City. It is open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11.30 a.m. to 2.30 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m., and Sundays at 10 a.m. to 2.30 p.m. and 6 to 10 a.m. For inquiries, call 911-4734 or 0917-674-1445, or visit www.facebook.com/seyaskitchen/.