AT a relatively young age of 23, chef Gene Gonzalez opened Café Ysabel in the early 1980s at P. Guevarra Street, Wilson, Greenhills. The café served their clients for three decades and became a landmark in the upscale district.
Acknowledged as one of the best restaurants in Metro Manila, Café Ysabel became a byword serving classic Filipino dishes, such as boneless bangus belly ala Pobre and the exotic food like stuffed frog legs.
When they learned Café Ysabel would be closing down, loyalists and foodies protested because a lot of them have developed a strong affinity to the food institution in that part of the metropolis.
After a strong clamor, Gonzalez reopened Café Ysabel two years ago. However, the reopening was met with a lot of challenges that tested his patience and perseverance.
In fact, Café Ysabel’s opening had to be moved several times because Gene has to contend with one issue after other.
Gonzalez revealed in a recent interview with the BusinessMirror that he even planned on retirement and close Café Ysabel for good. Nevertheless, Gonzalez would still be busy as he will continue teaching at the Center for Asian Culinary Studies (CACS) and, at the same time, do consultancy work in the hotel and restaurant industry.
The crucial point of his decision to carry on came from his daughter Gianina. “My daughter told me: Dad, if you retire you will get bored and die in two years,” he recalled telling him. “It was a choice between retiring and continuing Café Ysabel. What happened was that we spent a whole load of money here in our new home in P. Guevarra renovating this place,” Gonzalez pointed out.
The loving father followed Gianina’s recommendation and continued Café Ysabel at the same time doing a lot of consultancy work on the side. Gonzalez’s consulting job is lucrative because he and his group worked with the major names and players in the restaurant business. “We were the same group that did projects with Vikings, Seattle’s Best and Max’s,” he said. “It was a choice between retiring and continuing Café Ysabel. What happened was that we spent a whole load of money here in our new home in P. Guevarra renovating this place,” Gonzalez pointed out.
Gonzalez added that finding the new location emerged as the initial challenge. Chef Gino, son of Gonzalez, revealed in an online magazine interview, that their decision to move to their current location in M. Paterno Street was a blessing in disguise because the ancestral house was a bigger location. Although it has moved to a new location, Café Ysabel has retained his old-world charm because the father and son tandem has brought the paintings and fixtures from their original location.
Gino and four other senior consultants are helping Gonzalez in the consultancy projects with hotels. For those who cannot afford a foreign-executive chef, Gonzalez and his group developed system to run a hotel, or a restaurant’s food and beverage operations. “All the executive chef needs to do is enforce the system,” he said.
That takes out the several variables such as the dependency on a foreign executive and the high cost that goes with it, according to Gonzalez.
Meanwhile, Café Ysabel is going to pursue an aggressive marketing campaign to bring back the old clients and attract new ones to handle the rental expenses.
Moreover, Café Ysabel will also concentrate on developing custom-made meals and concentrate on events. It is finishing its banquet hall that will host bigger events. It is also producing a line of bottled products, such as bagoong that is being distributed in SM malls other supermarkets.
“We want Café Ysabel to be a brand and a label and at the same time keep up its prestige,” Gonzalez said.
Just like Café Ysabel, Gonzalez guaranteed his group is ready and capable to deliver a high-quality food and beverage system. It has 1 million recipes on file for interested clients.
Gonzalez also ensured students from CACS will excel in their field once they go out for the apprenticeship outside. Café Ysabel serves as the internship venue of the students.
“Before we send our students for their externship, we made sure they will stand out, have the confidence and the movements of a good chef,” he pointed.
At the same time, Gonzalez trains his instructors in a rigid manner and that is why CACS is known to produce skilled chefs. To ensure quality instruction, student to teacher ratio is one instructor to 15 students.
Gonzalez recalled that there was an upsurge in the 1990s of young people enrolling in culinary arts. He said television played a big part in attracting the youth because they thought being a chef was a glamorous job. “Then they realized all that they saw on TV was all glamour stuff,” he pointed out.
Interestingly, Gonzalez mentored celebrities such as Judy Ann Santos, Ryan Agoncillo, Sarah Geronimo, Matteo Guidicelli and Pia Wurtzbach. But this has changed in the current times. He said people now come to CACS become they want to be chefs and really like to cook.
Right now, Gonzalez’s time is variable. When he gets up in the morning, he is ready for work. In fact, he enjoys the routine because he loves what he is doing and did not consider his being chef as a job.
“I’ve probably never worked in my entire life. My work does not only involve teaching people to make recipes but tying it with up with ideas of business development. That is the strength of our consultancy,” he said.