IT’S Christmastime! And quite certain, our kitchen tables will be filled with food, more food in the coming days, and still lots of food…until the longest Yuletide celebration in the world comes to a close by the first weekend of the New Year.
For those who fancy a novel gastronomy twist in their holiday fare, giving it a French flavor will definitely be in the worth considering. After all, its food culture is all about bringing people together to enjoy the art of good eating and drinking, according to the Unesco.
To sample top French cuisine offerings and dining, or to satisfy cravings and curiosities on one of the world’s finest gastronomic delights, head on over to Vatel Restaurant Manila in the heart of Malate, where Executive Chef Pierre Cornelis is eager to greet guests and diners with a warm “Bienvenue!”
Just as the meaning of his first name (Pierre is French for Peter), Cornelis has actually been a solid foundation of knowledge and skills for aspiring young Filipinos who are seeking a career, and wishing to make their mark, in the hospitality and culinary industry, be it locally or overseas.
He happens to be the chief instructor and consultant of De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde’s (DLS-CSB) School of Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management starting in 2009. Since then, Cornelis has actually made Manila his home for over a decade now.
Prior to his scholarly stint, the French chef was originally scouted for his culinary skills to help establish the La Regalade French Bistro in Makati in 2008, adjudged as one of Philippine Tatler’s best restaurants in that same year.
Thus, Cornelis actually wears two hats—or toques, at that—as he oversees the culinary ensemble of Vatel Restaurant Manila. The French-Mediterranean dining outlet can comfortably seat 72 while accommodating 40 alfresco guests at the deck overlooking the majestic Manila Bay.
Behind its commercial purpose, Vatel Restaurant Manila serves as a hatchery of the strengthened educational partnership of the college and Vatel International Business School, a leading European hospitality learning institution based in France. It trains students for middle- and higher-management positions in hospitality and tourism. DLS-CSBis one of its many partner-school around the world.
Speaking of his profession which has brought him to this corner of the world, Cornelis derives a great deal of fulfillment in being an expat.“The best thing about living here is that it gave me the opportunity to start an application restaurant, which I operate with students. I enjoy sharing my field of expertise with them.”
The Frenchman recognizes that running a successful restaurant requires an excellent team to uphold the integrity of recipes, procedures, standards and the application of expertise.
With regard to the specialties of Vatel Restaurant Manila, it follows the original way of the French to keep recipes authentic. Cornelis occasionally introduces new dishes in the menu, offering varieties and giving customers more reasons to enjoy French food.
The seasoned chef cites bistro cuisine, baguette aux echalotes (French bread with shallots) and cassoulet (meat and beans stew)as good introductions to French cuisine. His must-try signature dish is beef bourguignon (sauce with red wine, onions and seasoning).
Desserts are also something to look forward to. The Cerveza Negra ice cream, for one, will definitely not disappoint novice diners.
The French expatriate is all too eager to share his cooking philosophy which he has stood by from the time he was a newbie in the kitchen. “Choose the best produce; use the best technique. Expertly use seasoning and flavors to elevate taste. Always ensure quality and texture,” were his sagely pieces of advice.
The French advantage
WHEN it comes to his career, Cornelis was inspired by Chef Bernard Loiseau, who is regarded by peers as the most charismatic kitchen whiz of all time.
In recent years, however, the Vatel Restaurant Manila’s chief cook found encouragement in the achievements of Alain Ducasse, who happens to be the most celebrated of modern French chefs.
With regard to his inspiration in being a chef and making his mark in the culinary world, he had this to say: “I have always been interested in food and ingredients: meat, fruits and vegetables, which grew my fondness of visiting and enjoying the ambiance of the markets in Belgium and in the South of France. I look forward to their local and seasonal products.”
He shares his take on what makes French cuisine profoundly different from others. Owing to the geography of France and location, he is proud that his country has the advantage of having different climates. The neighboring areas, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, influence the varieties of cheese, wine, fish, meat, vegetables and fruits.
Cornelis continued: “The French have a selection of food varieties. We explore and enhance different flavors from our regions. Finally, we enjoy combining French techniques and cooking methods. I want people to understand that French cuisine is built from authentic, provincial rural recipes.”
The highly prolific chef started to build his portfolio from time he graduated from Ecole Hotelier et tourisme de Liege in Belgium, then harnessed his craft further in a “classic” restaurant after his studies. He further honed his culinary skills by gaining experience in cooking Mediterranean cuisine in various dining establishments in the south of France, in the environs adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea and Corsica.
Cornelis’s keen understanding of the demands of the kitchen has made him sought after not only in his native France, but overseas, as well. The chef has seen action in Montreal, Canada, where he worked with top hotels, such as the Westin Montreal and the Hilton.
During his six-year tenure as executive chef of Le Spa Eastman, where he specialized in healthy cuisine, he was able to parlay his culinary expertise into authoring a cookbook, Le Spa Eastman a votre table (Le Spa Eastman at your table).
The book, which features 100 nutritious recipes, won an award in 2006 as the Best Culinary Cookbook in French at the annual Cuisine Canada co-organized by the University of Guelph, in Ontario.
Speaking of nutrition, Cornelis admits that the creative process of turning a recipe into a gastronomic cuisine with the collaboration of a nutritionist could prove to be challenging. “It begins with meticulously choosing the ingredients. Then everything would follow.”
Recipes for success
CORNELIS has served as competition judge and chef demonstrator at numerous staging of “Chefs on Parade” and culinary events of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of the Philippines a few years back.
In March, he was among the 26 chefs in the Philippines who were selected to participate in the fifth edition of “Gout de France,” the largest annual dinner in the world that highlights French gastronomy.
Working about 10 hours daily, the head of Vatel Restaurant Manila makes sure to “cook up something interesting” on weekends—outside the kitchen, that is. His hobbies include swimming and scuba diving, as he is a certified dive master of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, or Padi.
For his artistic endeavors, Cornelis finds time to feed his soul by playing the electric guitar and the acoustic six-string. He can also show some moves in the dance floor with the salsa.
The premier chef may be enjoying the view from the top, literally (find out why with a visit to Vatel Restaurant Manila), but he does not stop there.
“I would like DLS-CSB to open another branch of Vatel to reach more customers and students, so they may be able to enjoy and experience dining in a French restaurant serving authentic French cuisine,” he thus expressed his earnest hopes.
It is good to note that Cornelis finds working with Filipinos a breeze:“They are nice, friendly and easy to work with. They understand that preparing and cooking at the kitchen carries a big responsibility, which is to satisfy the cravings of the discerning customers.”
His constant advice to his learners in the kitchen: “I always remind them to be consistent with the recipe to maintain the original, authentic flavor.”
Among the countless cuisines and food preparations he has been exposed to from around the world, one Filipino dish though has won his French heart: “My favorite would have to be chicken tinola. I like the combination of ginger, papaya, malunggay [olifeira] and garlic.” To which, he exclaimed, “Sobrang masarap!”
To Chef Cornelis: It’s such a delight that you love a traditional dish prepared during Christmas in almost every Filipino home, monsieur!
(Vatel Restaurant Manila is at the roof deck of Hotel Benilde Maison De La Salle, Arellano Avenue corner Estrada Street, City of Manila.)
Image credits: Jimbo Albano