Growing up, I was never more like myself than when I was in front of a stove: Everything just made sense. I not only enjoyed the craft, I could eat it, too. I recall watching our cook throw ingredients in different-sized pots and pans throughout the day, with aromas building and building as the hours passed. She never measured; everything just came together. The first half-hour would be acrid after she added cane vinegar; minutes later, it would evolve with the addition of star anise and peppercorns. Then muscovado sugar would bring a sticky-sweet and salty pungency into the braiser filled with pork hocks. Pata tim was for Sunday lunch, wonderful with steaming-hot white rice and petchay (Chinese white cabbage).
I found a lot of calm despite the heat in our kitchen, something I missed as the middle child in the family. My oldest sister, also the oldest grandchild, excelled in school, is outgoing, and is also a brilliant writer. My other older sister is autistic, which set her apart. And after I was born, my parents prayed novenas to St. Gerard to give them the boy. A little over a year after my arrival, my brother, Gerard, was born.
For most of my childhood, I rarely provoked much notice from my parents until I started talking about a career in kitchens. They would say to me in Tagalog, “Gusto mongmaging kusinera? Anong mapapala mo doon?” (You want to be a chef? What good will that do you?) My dad insisted I get a university degree before pursuing food. Once I graduated, I did an intensive six-month course at a culinary school in Manila. At 22, my first job was at a wine bar my professor had opened while I was still a student. I was the marketing coordinator for the bar—having graduated with a marketing and PR degree and a love of food. But I really wanted to be in the kitchen.
The wine bar had the first Enomatic machine in the Philippines, with over twenty rotating wine selections. It was the kind of feature that was avant-garde back home and everyone and their sophisticated mothers loved to visit to be able to say that they enjoyed wine at this newly opened spot. Wine is not a thing in the Philippines; the proportion of Filipinos who genuinely prefer wine over beer and hard liquor is mostly within the realm of the country’s richest one percent. I would give back to the company most of the part-time salary I was earning at the bar by sampling the “goods,” mainly the ones from the section that housed “value wines”—the wines for the curious and uninitiated.
I remember watching the spout dispense two ounces of Beringer Chenin Blanc into my glass. I didn’t want the Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc that was next to it, despite it being slightly less expensive. I wanted a wine that didn’t sound familiar even to a novice like me. I’d heard people oohing and ahhing about “sauv blanc” and how it was all they drank. No, ma’am. I took the chenin, despite not knowing what I was signing myself up for. To this day, it remains one of my favorite grapes. It had the same bright acidity as the sauvignon blanc but was rounded out with “friendlier” flavors. I would rather taste dry honey than cut grass, crunchy golden apples over mushy kiwi.
There are only a handful of Filipino sommeliers back home because it’s not seen as a serious profession, much less one that earns a living.
There are only a handful of Filipino sommeliers back home—it is not seen as a serious profession, or a way to make a living. If you can’t attach an MD, PhD, ESQ to your name, if you don’t work from nine to five, then it’s a hobby. I heard my parents’ targeted comments and the puzzlement of my friends, even strangers, when I explained what I wanted to do. So I knew I would have to leave the country, reinvent myself and find my place.
With Rocks + Acid, the store I opened in Chapel Hill, NC, I didn’t want it to be just a wine shop. I wanted people to walk into an open, welcoming space instead of racks and racks of bottles where the wines’ stories disappear because it looks overwhelming. I wanted a space where people could sit down and enjoy a glass, start a conversation and learn something new—a place where guests could find unique sauvignon blancs as well as distinctive chenins. I wanted to be able to treat every person who comes through our doors the same way we curate our selections: welcoming their individuality.
I still routinely send links, photo updates and articles about my life as a sommelier and of the shop to my parents. I’ve stopped holding my breath for any sort of interest. It’s as if, the less they know, the less they need to ask questions. I don’t begrudge them for it—I truly find it amusing, as their daughter, that they know virtually nothing about what it is I really do. I’m 37, and my mother still thinks that I only need to smell wine in my line of work. I don’t feel the need to burst her bubble. Unlike in my younger years, I have no desire to stir the hornet’s nest. All that matters to me now is that I have found my place.
This story appears in the print issue of Summer 2023.
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