Island chefs travel to Philippines

Executive Chefs Daniel Kenney and Nathan Gould visited with students at Our lady of Fatima University in the Philippines. — Photo courtesy of the Harbor Vie

In August 2013, when executive chef Nathan Gould of the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown signed on to travel to the Philippines for a two-week culinary intern recruiting trip, he had no idea that the country would be devastated by a super typhoon and a major earthquake.

But by the time of his departure on November 28, the Philippines had weathered two natural disasters. The October 15 earthquake, followed by the November 8 typhoon — the country’s deadliest on record — resulted in the deaths of nearly 6,500 people and the displacement of more than 16 million others. In spite of the calamities, Mr. Gould and fellow executive chef Daniel Kenney of the Sea Crest Beach Hotel in North Falmouth embarked on their mission as planned.

With both resort properties managed by Nantucket-based Scout Hotels, the chefs’ trip was the result of regional director of operations Clark Guinn’s professional vision: an ongoing relationship with the Philippines’ culinary schools that had turned into a formal training program for interns. Mr. Guinn had lived overseas for seven years and developed an affinity for Filipino culture and cuisine.

“I had the pleasure of working with gifted culinarians from different parts of the world,” he explained, “particularly the Philippines. I took such an interest in their culture and way of thinking that I wanted to share my experience with others at home.”

Mr. Guinn launched an official program for Scout Hotels in 2011, opening up a cultural exchange between Filipino culinary students and Scout’s U.S. food and beverage professionals. “These young people have a tremendous amount of passion and skill and are an asset to our hotels,” he said.  “Ultimately the program works, and more importantly, it is fun.”

While the late autumn journey would be Mr. Gould’s first, Mr. Kenney had made the recruiting trip on two previous occasions. He would serve as an informal guide to his younger compatriot, introducing him to culinary school administrators and to the rich culture of the country.

Over the past several years, Mr. Kenney explained, the intern program had grown. With culinary school personnel and students expecting them at seven locations across the Philippines, the chefs agreed to adhere to their schedule, understanding that the areas they would visit were not those that had been directly devastated by Typhoon Haiyan. Upon arriving in Manila, however, the chefs discovered a city working feverishly to absorb a large influx of homeless individuals.

“It was a shocking experience,” said Mr. Gould, 27. “There are already 12 million people in Manila, plus the homeless who gathered from both disasters. The population, pollution, and poverty were overwhelming.  But,” he added, “the culture is so strong.”

Mr. Kenney, 41, the veteran of the duo, looked at his return to the Philippines as an opportunity to strengthen ties with the academic culinary community, with working chefs, and with former interns now working as professionals in their own country. “I knew interns from last year whose families were at the center of the typhoon,” he said. “They lost family members and businesses.”

But with culinary schools growing in attendance throughout the sprawling country, both chefs were eager to build new relationships, experience the varied foods of the culture, and choose a new crop of interns for the 2014 season. Visiting seven culinary schools and universities across the country, Mr. Gould and Mr. Kenney interviewed 100 students for just 32 total positions — 24 for the larger Sea Crest Beach Hotel’s Red’s Restaurant and Lounge, and 8 for Mr. Gould’s Water Street Restaurant and Henry’s Hotel Bar at the Harbor View Hotel. The screening process, according to Mr. Gould, is rigorous. Starting with one-on-one interviews, each candidate is given up to three hours to prepare and present a dish to the chefs.

“We ask five to 10 questions of each student,” Mr. Gould said.  “’Why did you choose to make that dish?’ ‘Why do you want to come to the U.S.?’ We try to get a grasp on who they are and what they hope to gain from the program.” He added that even if a dish comes out poorly, if the student demonstrated great creativity, they’re not demoted. “We look for attitude, passion, and creativity,” he said.

One of the forays from Manila included a trip to the Cebu Province in the Central Visayas region of the country, an area harder hit by the natural disasters. While in the process of interviewing students, as well as visiting a new restaurant opened by former interns of the Sea Crest and dining with the family of a current intern, Mr. Gould and Mr. Kenney learned of an overcrowded orphanage nearby.

“We spoke with our guides and with the culinary school staff about trying to help in some way,” Mr. Kenney said. “They explained that the orphanage next door normally housed 15 children but that the storm had left thousands without families. They had 70 children living there, many displaced by the typhoon.”

Explaining the institution’s plight to Scout Hotels, the chefs were given the go-ahead to purchase diapers, toys, food and water for the children, aged six months to two years. The potential interns from the neighboring school decided to join Mr. Kenney and Mr. Gould on their visit to deliver the donations.

“We didn’t ask the students to come with us,” Mr. Kenney explained.  “They just volunteered. There’s a culture of helping one another in the Philippines, of staying together. They’re unbelievable people.”

With new toothbrushes and clothing in hand, the entourage visited the orphanage and was treated to lunch and a serenade by the children.  “It was heartbreaking and inspiring,” Mr. Gould said.

“It was the highlight of the trip,” said Mr. Kenney. “It humbles you to go from the U.S., to feel the emotion and happiness of the people. They may not have two cars and a flat screen TV, but with food, faith and family, they seem to be content. It humbled me to be there.”

By hand-selecting prospective interns for the busy upcoming season, both chefs feel confident that they will be well equipped for the inevitable onslaught of diners. The program seems like a win-win, with Filipino students learning every aspect of running a major food operation, from butchering to preparing desserts, and touring as much of the U.S. as their spare time allows. Returning to the Philippines with a prestigious certificate and personal recommendations, they are poised for success in their native country — or anywhere in the world.

Mr. Kenney is already talking about his next trip. “I plan to return this spring for a major chef event in Manila,” Mr. Kenney said. “It’s an opportunity to gather former interns and help them make new contacts.”

Although the five 50-pound freshly roasted pigs they were given as gifts were memorable, Mr. Gould says it’s the overall impression of the country and its people that has stayed with him. “The experience has challenged me to do more,” he said.