New Restaurant: Filipino Food Is Brilliant At Sawsaw
Chef Sau del Rosario explores the infinite possibilities of Filipino cuisine in this new playground.
Sau del Rosario never wanted to be a chef. As a young boy, he actively resisted even considering the thought, in spite of the fact that he was the son of a professional chef. You see, his father was always away working, hardly home. Sau, in his childhood wisdom, vowed that he wouldn’t ever want to have the same kind of career that would keep him apart from his family in the future.
But the absence of his father was compensated by the constant presence of his mother. Sau, for a long time, was the youngest in their family, so his mom took him under her wing – which included regular trips to the market, and yes, helping her out in the kitchen. That lit an unexpected fire in Sau, and that led to his own unanticipated career as a chef himself. That flame still burns today, brighter than ever, in his new restaurant, Sawsaw. It is, in many ways, the apex of Sau’s career as a chef: molded by his mother, and inherited from his father.
ACT 1: The Rookie
These days, it’s really quite difficult to casually walk into Sawsaw and just expect to find a free table. The restaurant is always – every single day --- packed to the rafters, specially during the peak lunch and dinner hours, so reservations are recommended. And it’s a fine venue for people watching too: captains of industry, showbiz celebrities, and Sau’s fellow chefs and restaurateurs all flock to the restaurant, and not just once. Return visits are almost mandatory, thanks to the vast panorama of the menu that showcases the width and breadth of Filipino Cuisine.
But it was never an overnight success story. Like the story of all the great chefs, Sau’s career started from adversity. The del Rosario family was forced to migrate to the United States after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. That devastated their hometown, Angeles in Pampanga, and prospects in the city were bleak. But not in New York: Sau eventually enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, and soon after graduating, realized that he had found his vocation. And so did his mentors from all over the globe, who all realized that they had discovered a protégé, a wunderkind. Sau’s journey, from Angeles to New York, soon brought him to Paris, Singapore, Bangkok, Shanghai, and eventually, back to his homeland.
ACT 2: The Celebrity
Around a decade ago, Sau published his first book: “20 Years of Love + Cooking”. That’s what sealed the deal for his celebrity chef status. Since then, it’s been a constant cycle of commercial endorsements, Filipino food festivals in five-star hotels, and appearances in international campaigns of global food companies.
In 2016, Sau opened two restaurants in Angeles: 25 Seeds and the first Café Fleur. That solidified the strength of his commitment to his home city, and both became two of the must visit destinations in Pampanga food tourism.
It all peaked in 2019, when Sau and Chef JP Anglo were the two Filipino chefs invited to what is arguably the culinary world’s most prestigious culinary event: the San Sebastian Gastronomika. The Capampangan served – what else? Sisig, and it blew away the superstar chefs in attendance, including San Sebastian’s beloved native daughter, Chef Elena Arzak.
In December of that year, Chef Sau took on a leadership role in the 30th SEA Games. The Culinarya Pampanga group of chefs and restaurateurs took on the massive undertaking of feeding 4,000 athletes: morning, noon, and night, for two weeks. San Sebastian and the SEA Games further sharpened Sau’s appetite to do more, much more. Not only for Pampanga, but for the Philippines. There was so much potential and so much work to be done to elevate the gastronomy of his province and his country in th eyes of the world,
And then the Pandemic happened.
ACT 3: The Prestige
“You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” goes one of the most famous quotes from Steve Jobs. In Sau’s case, there’s a straight line connecting all the dots from May 2020 to January 2021 to the here and now: Sawsaw.
“So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” During the first weeks of the lockdown in March of 2020, Sau found himself alone and isolated in the house he grew up in Angeles. It was a dark, uncertain time. Time had stopped, and along with it, all the promising plans and programs. Sau went into a deep funk, until divine intervention blessed him with an overabundance of fresh coconuts. In a lightbulb moment, he realized that he could, one: use his French-trained pastry skills to turn them into pies; and two: provide employment for his chefs and servers. The result? The glorious “Vuco Fye”. Dozen after dozen were sold starting in May of that year, and thousands and thousands since. During the saddest days of lockdown, the Vuco Fyes, delivered freshly baked from Pampanga to all points of Metro Manila, also brought the happiest and most satisfied smiles too. It was “Wow, Chef Sau!!!” in hundreds of households.
“You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” There was obvious momentum for Sau the chef, and a newfound, warm affection for the person himself. The globetrotting celebrity, the endorsement superstar had become, in the midst of Covid, everyone’s friendly neighborhood chef. In December 2020, the Makati outpost of his Café Fleur quietly opened. By the start of the new year, it was the most popular new restaurant in the city, and single-handedly resurrected Poblacion, which had become desolate in the pandemic. Suddenly, after nine months, the lights were bright and traffic was heavy again in the hipster district. Chef Sau had found his niche, and his new home.
The grand success of Café Fleur, like a Hollywood Blockbuster, demanded a sequel. And frankly, Café Fleur was bursting at the seams. The cozy restaurant had become too small for the demand of all the passionate foodies. And so… Sawsaw.
It's literally just four blocks from its sister restaurant in the Poblacion, but it’s opened up the infinite possibilities of Filipino cuisine. If Café Fleur is his gentle love letter to his parents, who imparted the skills and passion for cooking, then Sawaw is Sau’s viral video to the world: that Filipino food really has arrived, and is here to stay. There’s nothing too cute or too fancy on the menu. There doesn’t need to be.
The brilliance of Sawsaw lies in the chef’s integration of the flavors of the archipelago, uniting Bicol with Pampanga, Batangas with Cebu, Bacolod with Davao, and more. It’s not fusion at all. But it is a deep understanding of how our regional specialties can actually pair beautifully together. Regionalism turned into Nationalism, with a touch and a tease, of Sau’s international exposure and experience.
The open kitchen hums with action, and the young team of cooks and aspiring chefs within deftly dance in the limited space, organized and spirited, overseen by Sau’s #1, Chef Bong Sagmit. It’s beautiful to behold, and their output, plate after plate of gorgeous deliciousness, is the exclamation point!
Sawsaw deserves all the accolades it has received so far, and it’s only just begun, and it’s only just about to enter the exciting part. There is so much more in store for what could be 2022’s best new restaurant. Sawsaw is peak Sau.