May 14, 2012
Stephanie Zubiri, chef, entrepreneur
Photo by Joseph Pascual
Ideally, her life would be the stuff of telenovelas. Stephanie Zubiri was born into a well-known Philippine clan, her father a former Assemblyman in the 1980s, her brother was a Senator until his historic resignation. In theory, she could live it up as a princess, waited on hand and foot, whose only challenge would be to capitalize on her good looks and look perfect for photo opportunities at galas and fundraisers. She could easily have chosen the easy life.
In real life, though, Stephanie chose to forge her own path, and use that proverbial silver spoon to stir sauces in the kitchen of her own restaurant, where guests are astounded to find her occasionally waiting on the tables of Atelier 317. "I'm more the bohemian in the family," she grins.
She also calls herself "a super nerd". "After Le Cordon Bleu, I did my Bachelor's and Master's degree in the University of Paris IV Sorbonne in History and Geography. My masters was sustainable development. I interned with the Philippine delegation to UNESCO and was interning in UNEP in Paris during my studies and really enjoyed the word of international organizations and diplomacy." She says that she hides her "nerdiness" well with the fashion legacy passed on to her by her mom, who is always on Manila's Best Dressed list. She laughs, "I don't see why we have to fit in one category only."
One thing she is sure of is that she won't be throwing her hat into the political ring anytime soon. "I actually came home to work on Biofuels and specifically on some Jatropha Plantation Projects for Biodiesel. Thing is, I quickly realized that things back home are too political and far from the UNEP environment I was used to. I guess you can say that despite my family's political background I don't have the stomach for it. You have to be a strong-willed fighter." So, she turned to food. "It was actually my mom who suggested that I teach cooking classes to friends while waiting on what I would do. I always loved to cook and studied it in Cordon Bleu so it seemed natural. I was so happy when I earned my first pay while teaching. It was such a great feeling to earn a living while doing something you truly love! It wasn't like working at all!"
Her father helped me set up her little business, she partnered up with Global Restaurant Concepts Inc. (which holds franchises for California Pizza Kitchen and P.F. Chang's) where her brother Manuel is very active. "They were extremely supportive all through out! I'm very lucky, I actually put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed because I don't want to disappoint the people who believe in me," she confides.
Growing up Zubiri
At the Arzak Wine Cellar with Steph Kienle.
She gives a sneak peek into her family life. "It was a lot of fun. I'm the youngest of five kids. I'm also much younger than all of them. I'm 21 years apart from my eldest brother Joey and 13 years apart from my sister who is before me. I grew up being a very favored and privileged child—i.e. a little spoiled at times! But at the same time, I was very independent, almost like an only child. They were all much older, doing their own thing and yet when they were with me I was like the little princess."
She talks more about her sibs. "Joey was the one who stayed at home with me and despite the age gap we are extremely close. We used to love talking about aliens and things like that. I wanted to be an astronaut. I was a super geeky kid with big eyeglasses. I'm also very close to my sister because we're the only girls. But because of this age gap in general and I left for France when I was 18, stayed there almost 6 years... I think they're only really starting to get to know me now. It's nice to be able to hang out now, go out together, share friends—Audrey, Miguel's wife is one of my best friends."
She says her big bro is a big help. "What I appreciate the most is spending time with my brother Manuel, who got married when I was seven. We're both in the same industry as he is one of the executives of GRCI. In the beginning it was tough. I would get really emotional with his criticism and advice for my company but I always listen to him because he has such amazing experience in the industry. Now I really don't think my company would have survived even one year without his help and advice."
"It's really nice to be back home and share things with my family every Sunday. No matter what happens you know you have this amazing support system. We all love each other so much." She reveals, though, that like any other girl, she still gets teased by her brother. "Miguel calls me istepanty or stepipay... yikes!" She laughs.
She adds that her fabulous mom plays an important role in her life. "My mom has an amazing zest for life, in all her glamour she really enjoys just being with her family the most. She's also a doer, she always said—When in doubt do!'—Which is what I try to do."
She turns serious. "My family keeps me grounded. Helping other people keeps me grounded. Counting the blessings God has given me keeps me grounded. I think in this fast-paced generation we have to find the time to do that. I have to remind myself to slow down and reflect on these things."
A love affair with food
Cooking classes at Blue Elephant in Bangkok.
"I started cooking when I was small because I was bored of the food they served me at home. I was always a very hands-on kid. So when I went to France, I really enjoyed learning all of that. I would host dinners and cocktail parties for large groups, take the whole day to go to the grocery, put some music on, open a bottle of wine while I do my mis-en-place. It was great! It's the clean-up I hated—then I got a dishwasher and life was easy!" she laughs.
Despite growing up with house help, Stephanie is definitely into D-I-Y. "Even when I came back here and started my business, I'm proud to say that I did everything myself before. Groceries, going to Dangwa to buy flowers at 4 a.m., chopping, cooking, waitressing, accounting etc... Now I have to admit, if I can do away with chopping and prep I'm happy! I need to focus on the bigger picture. Quality control, execution, logistics, recipe development, getting clients... It pays to have good staff. So far my little team is great! Crossing my fingers I can keep them."
Stephanie, who has a widely-read food column in a daily, says she applies what she observes from her on-the-job restaurant visits to her own Atelier. "When we started, I did all the service simply because whenever we'd hire our regular on call waiters, catering is different from restaurant dining, I would just get frustrated. Being a foodie and eating in countless restaurants I know how things work. It's instinctive." She smiles when she talks about her customers' reactions when she waits on them. "When guests used to see me serve, most are pleasantly surprised and some are downright embarrassed! Some would even help clean up! I really enjoy it. I love interacting with the clients, making them feel special. I always try to be there every service even for a bit to check on things, but sometimes you just don't have the time."
Eating goulash in a Prague tavern with boyfriend Jonathan Crespi.
Like any proud entrepreneur, she waxes lyrical about her restaurant. "317 is our address. I think the space brought me luck. I chose the French word "atelier" which means workshop because I like working with other chefs. For me things are all about collaborating, helping each other out. It doesn't have to be all about me. I recognize my strengths and weaknesses and am very happy to let the experts take over. I also see the place as a lifestyle store. Almost like a foodie 'colette' or boutique in Paris where you have some truly special items. We're getting there. Everything is a process. Even the decor... It all has a story. I bought most of the furniture from Bangkal, second hand, some things I brought home from France.... I wasn't in a rush to finish... I like to take time and make sure everything is special and not contrived."
Then her foodie side shows itself. "I want it to be a place where you can find unique things: Xandra Rocha of Pinkerton Ice Cream makes a special flavor for us White CHocolate Black Truffle. Patti Grandidge of SweetPattiCakes makes a Nutella Cupcake with White Truffle Honey Frosting. Carmela Villegas and her french hubby Julien of Casa San Luis makes amazing little quiches and a new dessert addition: White Chocolate Green Tea Mousse. I'm looking forward to adding new collaborators to our roster."
She adds, "I'm totally the bohemian cook. I don't consider myself a chef. People just like to put labels. I love to cook, I love to host, I love to decorate, I want to make people feel at home. Even my dishes are all about a journey of self discovery. There's a lot of our best sellers from our catering days such as our Balsamic Beef Adobo, Crispy Bicol Express Chicken and Truffle Mushroom Lasagna. There's definitely a French influence in the techniques and use of herbs. I also love the freshness of Mediterranean food. And the use of Asian flavors like kaffir lime and lemongrass. Our food is unpretentious, affordable, fresh, and hopefully exciting on the palette."
Her other passions
Scuba diving in Anilao.
Stephanie groans that the foodie aspect of her life comes at a price. "When I started my business I put on 10 pounds. I was feeling sluggish, unhealthy... not good. My work coupled with food writing can be deadly. I love wines and liquors as well. The only secret to stay in shape is exercise. I work out now five times a week—yoga, weight training and zumba. I also try to eat fruits every morning and vegetables with every meal. I've learned to choose my battles. My mom always says "A pound on the plate is better than a pound on your tummy" which well unfortunately I don't always follow!" she laughs.
Her advice for fellow foodies: "Try everything but only eat things you truly love. Same with the wine tastings, after 11 courses paired with wine, you're heart and liver really complain. Sip everything and only finish the glasses of the stuff you enjoy. Trouble is... every so often you'll go to a dinner where you love everything!" she laughs. "So I indulge and whip myself the next day in the gym."
Travel is also on her list, which she says, she got from her mother's wanderlust. "I definitely inherited that from my mother. One difference though, she likes the guided tours and I like to wander. For me traveling is one of the most enriching experiences. You become a more tolerant, open minded and cultured person. I need to leave every so often, to explore, gain inspiration, see what's out there. It's not good to live in your bubble. This is true even for local travel. The Philippines is a beautiful place and I'm a scuba freak so we really try to get away and be with nature. Underwater is amazing! Apo reef was unforgettable."
"I have a soft spot for Paris," she continues. "I really try to go back once a year. It's like home to me. Walk in the same streets as I used to, eat in the same places... The best food around. It's nice to go there and not be a tourist and at the same time it's such dynamic place there are so many great new places to explore. I love Europe in general and have started enjoying Germany. My boyfriend is half German, so we visit his family often there. I try to practice my German, which isn't easy!"
When asked what she does on her days off, we are rewarded with a guffaw. "Days off? What's that?" she laughs. "I usually try to get mini-breaks. In between meetings, scheduling lunches with friends, getting my nails done... Working out is now relaxing for me as well. I try to get off work early or wake up early to get stuff done so I have more time in the day. Sunday is a true rest day. I spend time with Jonathan (the aforementioned boyfriend)), we watch movies, do DVD marathons, swim with our dog, have family dinner. I like to read, I like eating out and true vacation is when we travel. I leave my work phone with my assistant and just shut off and absorb life around me."
She has her own version of The Simple Life. Her guilty pleasure? "I love fried chicken!" she chuckles. "I also like coming home to my Labrador, Kaloo, who goes crazy to see me. I like getting these moments of clarity at the end of a productive day and thank God for what I have. I like waking up next to someone I love. I like spacing out amidst the chaotic conversations of family dinner and thinking to myself how truly blessed I am."