The Village Chefs


As dining spaces changed, the chefs and cooks of Tahanan Village stayed close to home to serve food to the neighborhood.

Story by
Sofia Recto
Photography by
Mohd Sarajan
Read Time
Location Tag

At some point during the quarantine, I should’ve been taking my final exams. Instead, I was at home, helping my sister advertise her cinnamon rolls online.

On Facebook, our neighbors had created a group called the Tahanan Village Marketplace, a virtual space for small businesses, restaurants, and households to trade online. It was in this marketplace that my sister decided to put her newfound baking skills to the test, along with many others. Plenty of these people had started out of curiosity, perhaps as a way to pass the time.

But as you scroll through the Marketplace, you’re bound to catch a glimpse of a few professionals who have been in the food service business for a long time.

At the height of the quarantine, when restaurants halted dine-in operations, these cooks and chefs were forced to move their services in the digital sphere with the rest of the pastime bakers. And the Marketplace, with its two thousand active residents, proved a good place to sell.

Exterior of the Tahanan Village daycare center

The food and beverage industry was among the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, affecting not only people’s livelihoods but even the ways we partake and experience food.

In Tahanan Village, the gated community where I live, I’ve noticed both big and small changes. For one, my sister’s participation in the marketplace means that at least four times a month, I witness my family’s kitchen explode with trays on trays of baked goods. It almost feels as if I’ve run on a diet of confectioneries since June—not that I’m complaining. But the other changes were far less pleasant; a trip to the grocery or the corner store is no longer convenient, and dining in restaurants and cafés have to come with a side of caution.

“Everybody was saying, ‘Look, Wendy, we’re all stuck here. If you go out, you risk all of us',” she said.

As the culinary landscape went through these tectonic shifts, I thought about the people behind the scenes—the chefs and cooks whose restaurants have been a staple for many families in Tahanan, including my own. How did they cope with the realities of running a business amid a pandemic? Was their perseverance driven by need or the desire to provide? I wanted to find out.

Exterior of Tito Chef along Presidents Avenue
Sitting proudly along President’s Avenue right outside the village gate, Tito Chef is a staple restaurant in the neighborhood.

Wendy Ozamis—or Tita Wendy, as our family likes to call her—has been a reliable source of good food well before the pandemic. As a private caterer, Tita Wendy helped us transition to a healthier lifestyle with her vegan meal plans. She also catered my past two birthdays. When restaurants closed down, it was her food I missed the most. (Her Mexican Dip was the best I’ve ever had.)

“When the pandemic hit, I was in two minds. For the sake of my family I really wanted to not go out as much,” she told me. “[But] if I don’t go out every day, that meant that I could not cook for other people.”

Tita Wendy’s decision to keep her services open meant falling into grocery lines where she had to endure the long wait twice, the scathing heat, and the risk of exposing herself—and possibly, her family—to the virus.

“Everybody was saying, ‘Look, Wendy, we’re all stuck here. If you go out, you risk all of us',” she said.

But she felt that the risks could be navigated; she was otherwise a healthy person and sensible enough to follow safety protocols. After all, she wasn’t just doing this for herself. As Tita Wendy braved the lines, her thoughts remained with the people in Tahanan Village who could not provide for themselves.

Wendy Ozamis caterer picks blue butterfly pea flowers from her garden
Tita Wendy’s garden is as full of life as her kitchen. Blue butterfly pea flowers make a delicious natural tea.

When it became clear that quarantine wasn’t ending anytime soon, Tita Wendy’s business became a great source of support for the most vulnerable: the elderly, many of whom have lived in Tahanan Village since its early days in the 70s and 80s. Not only were they more at risk of contracting the virus, many were also retired and without stable sources of income.

“I was looking at other people who were selling food and I found it to be downright criminal. They were charging three to four times what the food was worth to people who don’t have jobs and are stuck in their homes,” she said. “They don’t have helpers and they’re so old—they can’t go out. I knew I had to do something.”

blue butterfly pea flowers hand-picked from the garden

As a result, Tita Wendy created a homestyle menu for people in Tahanan and kept her prices low—sometimes, even lower than the ones at the palengke. “People laugh at me. They say, what are you doing?” she said. “These are crisis prices. I’m not going to make money out of these people who don’t have jobs. Just because I’m the one who has the guts to go out and buy ingredients doesn’t mean I’m going to go, ‘hostage kayo.’”

Not all businesses, however, had the privilege of being as generous. While it was easier for private caterers like Tita Wendy and the resident sellers of Tahanan Marketplace to transition into the digital sphere, other businesses struggled to navigate. One of them was Tito Chef.

Menoy Gimenez of Tito Chef Restaurant Parañaque
Menoy Gimenez is the brains behind Tito Chef. Like the name implies, he’s just like your typical Tito—warm, lively, and with a sharp sense of humor.

One of the challenges Menoy Gimenez encountered while running his restaurant Tito Chef was having to shift away from its dining experience. Just a few buildings away from the village gate, the restaurant’s convenient location is one of the reasons it has become a favorite among Tahanan Village residents—it offers a taste of fine dining without being too far away from home.

Tito Chef has long been our family’s go-to for any sort of celebration. It is the textbook definition of a neighborhood restaurant: soft lighting and warm colors, a cozy and mellow ambiance perfect for intimate gatherings. Even its name implies homeliness—Tito Chef suggests that the brain behind the restaurant isn’t some intimidating or illusory figure, but someone you know.

In English, “tahanan” means home. To me, a home is a safe place, where people provide and look out for one another.

That’s how it felt the first time I met Menoy Gimenez. He struck me as your regular Tito: lively, candid, with a sharp sense of humor. The minute my mother introduced me as her working-aged daughter, he quipped, “Oh, you’re that old na pala?”

Menoy is animated when he talks about food, and just as much when he talks about his livelihood.

Tito Chef never really closed during the lockdown. When I asked what it was like to run a business during a pandemic, Menoy told me he had to be realistic in ensuring his and his company’s survival. When dining in was still prohibited, he had to change strategy: food would be sold outside the store, and their dishes made available for pick-up and delivery.

It wasn’t an easy transition, given that Tito Chef was a place best experienced through physical gatherings. The entire dynamic changes when you can no longer see your customers face to face. When I asked about his relationship with his clients, Menoy said, “It was a very personal thing. When you talk about business, it’s all about relationship building. It’s not about what you sell, it’s the feeling they get when you sell. That’s what people really buy at the end of the day.”

Interior of Tito Chef Restaurant Parañaque

There was also the added challenge of having to navigate a language that a true Tito like Menoy wasn’t entirely fluent in: social media. “I don’t believe in using social media a lot; I’ve always believed in the live experience,” he said. “When Covid-19 came, [everything] really became virtual. I had to engage the limited amount of clients that we had to go on social media.”

It took Menoy about two weeks to fully adjust to these changes. Not only did he have to make quality food, he had to make them look good too. “Every day we would try to engage the customers with visuals—pictures of food along with descriptions, so people would be enamored to actually order them,” he said.

Even its name implies homeliness—Tito Chef suggests that the brain behind the restaurant isn’t some intimidating or illusory figure, but someone you know.

Despite being forced to step out of his comfort zone, Menoy still affirms his passion for the business. As of writing, Tito Chef plans on reopening their culinary school — a small institution that sets to empower aspiring chefs through an education in culinary techniques.

The challenges posed by the pandemic do little to sway Menoy’s love for his job. In fact, he claims that the element of surprise is part of what makes running a restaurant so interesting. “Creating an income has never been the first driver of something like this. What drives me is that this is something I actually enjoy. There’s this saying in Filipino, ‘Kahit harangan ka ng sibat, gagawin mo pa rin.’ No matter what your barriers are, you will still find a way to do it.”

Tito Chef's chicken and pasta Parañaque

In gated residential areas, parks have taken the role of town plazas. The Tahanan Village park sits at the center of the neighborhood, complete with a church, a playground, a basketball and tennis court, a community swimming pool, and a football field.

It’s attractive to operate a business here: the constant activity means there will always be potential customers waiting outside, from athletes in need of lunch to churchgoers looking for a hot meal. To keep the village from getting too busy, Tahanan Village has prohibited commercial establishments from setting up shop, leaving only a single lot for the village restaurant.

A few eateries have tried to claim that lot, but so far, only one has succeeded in carving their place: Braiser’s The Village Cafe has been running for a solid four years, longer than any of the other establishments that have tried. “Tahanan residents have discriminating taste,” is how chef and owner Martin Guzman puts it.

Martin Guzman of Braiser's The Village Cafe Parañaque
Exterior of Braiser's The Village Cafe Parañaque

Martin is a businessman first, a chef second. When asked about himself, he gave a brief rundown of who he was (name, age, how long he’d been running Braiser’s) before excitedly popping off to sell his business. Braiser’s, as he describes, is a restaurant, gym, and music hall all rolled into one. While mainly a café, perhaps the reason it has survived longer than other establishments that have tried was that Martin wanted to accommodate more needs than just food.

Cooking is Martin’s passion, but business is clearly his calling; restaurant management is merely the vehicle with which he travels the road of commerce. “What’s your favorite part of the job?” I asked. “Making money,” was his honest reply.

“If you don’t focus on making money, you will fail the people who rely on you. Your employees won’t have jobs, and your residents won’t have a source of food.”

It wasn’t the answer I expected, or, admittedly, wanted. When I think of The Village Cafe, I’m reminded of the many Sunday lunches our family has had there, and imagine many village residents share a similar fondness. The notion that the very owner of The Village Cafe didn’t have a sentimental view of the village and the people he served was a surprise.

But Martin’s money-oriented approach—which, I admit, I dismissed as selfish at first—allowed the Village Cafe to stay open. It’s the reason his business, and the many employees that relied on it, survived.

Chefs at The Village Cafe Parañaque
“If you don’t focus on making money, you will fail the people who rely on you.” Thanks to Martin’s business sense, chefs at The Village Cafe continue to work and provide for their families.

Martin’s survival mantra was, “Focus on making money, not saving money.” When dining in was prohibited, The Village Cafe decided to provide fruits and vegetables. It was something that both the restaurant and the people needed; without access to the palengke, it was hard to find fresh produce. And without customers dining in, there was no way to make use of the space Braiser’s was renting. “I thought, how can we make use of this space? So we used the air conditioning for fruits and vegetables.” he said.

“If you don’t focus on making money, you will fail the people who rely on you. Your employees won’t have jobs, and your residents won’t have a source of food.”

Hand-kneading dough The Village Cafe Parañaque
The Village Cafe Parañaque wok fire

Despite the anxiety that comes with living through a global pandemic, it is comforting to see the spirit of my neighborhood come alive. On the Tahanan Village marketplace, I see symbiotic relationships forming, former strangers supporting one another’s endeavors, be it through trading goods or sharing words of encouragement. As I watch my neighbors try to navigate their daily lives in new ways, I am starting to accept that perhaps for a long time, there won’t be a return to normalcy, but rather, more changes.

In English, “tahanan” means home. To me, a home is a safe place, where people provide and look out for one another. It goes without saying that living within the confines of a gated residential community comes with big privileges—but I remain hopeful that this sense of community only begins in the home, and then extends outwards to the places it needs to reach.

Today, The Village Cafe is doing well. Martin remains a consistent presence on the Tahanan Village Marketplace, doing his part to lend a hand by offering his products free of delivery charge. Tita Wendy continues to run an active delivery service with the help of her son, Kaz. Menoy is setting his sights on reopening his culinary school, studying the possibilities of blended learning to prepare himself for another new landscape: online education.

Since quarantine rules relaxed, mornings at the café have become livelier, as neighbors gather (with responsible distance) over outdoor tables to enjoy breakfast and the crisp September breeze. Together, we look forward to more days like this.

Tahanan village children playing