Giuseppe Bonavitacola, the man behind Tacloban’s famous Italian-Filipino restaurant Giuseppe’s, clues us how a young chef like him has been able to carry on with the almost three-decade family legacy under the most challenging and unstable period for business owners.
Bonavitacola recalled how he was born into the restaurant business quite literally—he grew up in the restaurant taking his first steps in it. Then after some time fighting against the tide of what was the obvious choice of a career path during his teens, he embraced the idea of cooking. “I saw that food can be so much more than just the action of eating to be full. There is so much history and challenge to make a dish that is simply art. The art of making food attracted me, so here I am trying my best to fill the role of chef,” he shares.
As a chef, Bonavitacola admits that working for a restaurant is tedious. It requires long hours and demands more from everyone on the team. “Weekend and holidays are the hardest days from already hard every day. You have to move as fast and as organized as you can. You give the people you are within the kitchen with everything you have at all times. It makes you harder and more resilient,” he explains.
For Bonavitacola, hospitality is the experience of feeling welcomed and accommodated. Knowing customers on a first-name basis, cracking jokes with them, asking how their day was are only some of the little things that don’t make the restaurant feel robotic. He wants his customers to feel like they are guests in his own home who are simply coming to stay for the weekend or holiday.
When the pandemic started, his family members were all a bit curious as to how things would settle. Bonavitacola explains, “Having experienced the biggest storm, Yolanda, I wouldn’t say we are used to daunting situations. I would say it gave us a mindset to move forward instead of worrying. My father and mother always made it clear to work through even the hardest times because there is always an opportunity to serve.”
During the pandemic peak, the restaurant closed for about a month, which is the longest time the restaurant has ever closed since it opened 28 years ago. Given the unexpected twists and turns, they gradually started to accommodate take-out requests and moved the restaurant to cater to “to-go” orders. Their family purchased more cold cuts, and, being the chef of the restaurant, Bonavitacola started to work on bread to go with them. “We came up with the idea of becoming a one-stop-shop. Since traveling was not an option for many of the locals, we thought it would be great to bring the travel experience to them through food. We already made pizza a classic and staple of our restaurant, so what followed next was only natural. They were able to buy fresh bread made in our brick oven to go along with various cheeses, meats, and wines which we started distributing as well during the pandemic.”
Surprisingly, Bonavitacola noticed that the locals responded well to this shift, and so the restaurant successfully pivoted from dine-in to take-away. What was also interesting was that people started to experiment more with their palate. They became a little more adventurous and willing to try new things. They even came to the restaurant to buy ingredients to make their own versions of pizza and pasta. He adds, “That’s one takeaway I feel like people used to take for granted—the impact food can have on a person. Especially coming from the province, people tend to look elsewhere when the answer to their craving can be right next door. This really opened up a new avenue in the now growing city of Tacloban to branch out and become more than just a restaurant. Now, people come to have dinner and buy other items to bring home to enjoy because they trust us, and we try our best to give the city of Tacloban nothing but the best.”
Bonavitacola also explained that before the pandemic, one of the biggest challenges was to find like-minded people who shared the same passion for food. He aims to work with professionals on the same wavelength to create something bigger for the community. Consequently, he says, “Studying Diploma in Professional Culinary Arts and Kitchen Management at École Ducasse Manila at Enderun Colleges has helped me to refine my techniques in the kitchen and how to carry myself as a chef. They give me the base knowledge to do more, and I intend to use all of it in furthering my career, giving my palate more depth by exposing me to new dishes and processes I have never thought of or bothered paying attention to in the first place.”
Bonavitacola remembered an experience he had with Chef Marc Chalopin, who had him teach everyone how to make arancini. He shares, “As I finished making one and gave it to Chef Marc, he asked me ‘How is it?’ Then, I said, ‘I hope it’s good.’ He looked at me and said to be confident in what I cook. That spoke more to me than anything else I’ve learned in the kitchen. Since then, I live by that, to be confident and competent with whatever I make in the kitchen. The food isn’t good? Fine, we go back and fix it and move forward unafraid of making mistakes but at the same time trying my best to not make one in the first place. Serve and cook with full confidence always; if it falls short of that, then there is a problem.” Chalopin is the executive chef at École Ducasse Manila at Enderun Colleges. He maintains the standards of Alain Ducasse and ensures that the philosophy, culinary principles, and techniques are properly transmitted to students.
His parents remain his inspiration to push himself in all life’s aspects. He values how they worked tirelessly for him to succeed and provide while he was growing up. “The only way to repay them is to do the best I can to achieve my dreams,” he says. Bonavitacola loves the concepts that Massimo Bottura presents by going against the grain in Italian cooking for culinary inspiration. Similarly, he finds Jordy Navarra’s new take on Filipino food as amazingly refined and delicate.
Bonavitacola hopes to have a world-renowned restaurant featuring Italian and Filipino cuisines, with a star or two in there. He also dreams of joining in the culinary awakening in the Philippines, especially in big cities which have a high demand for good restaurants like Manila and Cebu.
Bonavitacola encourages those who aspire to build a career in the culinary industry just like him. “Be open to learning. It’s scary, hard, long, and sweaty, but cooking is an art with a different medium. Instead of painting with a brush, we cut with a knife. Keep your head up, learn from the best, and aspire to be the best.”