MANILA -- Nearly nine years after it opened, Tito Chef has undoubtedly become a byword among many southerners who love to eat.
As the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and most businesses got affected, Tito Chef, which is located in BF Homes in Paranaque, has admirably learned to survive.
“The business went from profitable to barely surviving,” Tito Chef owner Jose Amadeo “Menoy” Gimenez honestly admits. “The loss from dine-in customers was greatly felt, since we sell the ‘dining experience’.”
All the 28 employees of Tito Chef – from the chefs, cooks, servers, staff and crew – immediately felt the impact of the lockdown when the restaurant was closed in mid-March.
“The first reaction was that, ‘This lockdown will not last for long,’” Gimenez recalled. “Then, the realization hit everyone that this [COVID 19] will not go away any time soon.
Gimenez, from whom the restaurant got its now-popular name – Tito Chef was how his nephews and nieces call him – was readily worried about his staff when the lockdown started. “They were very confused initially, since the whole world itself had a hard time wrapping their heads on what a pandemic is and a global one at that.”
However, Gimenez made sure not one employee will be displaced. “The continuity of their salaries as head of families was my main concern,” he said. “We had to quarantine them in house and since sales were virtually on a standstill, provide some of their basic needs [bath soap, toothpaste, rice, canned goods, hygiene products, etc.], so they don’t have to use their salaries.”
Expectedly, the events and reservations scheduled during the lockdown period had to be cancelled. Tito Chef has been usually the venue for intimate “receptions, corporate events and bespoke celebrations.”
Yet, Gimenez remains positive. He knows they all have to adapt and continue doing their jobs to emerge stronger from this pandemic. “The present situation requires that we do creative work scheduling so no one loses his job, but that the company still gets to have its head above water,” Gimenez said.
“We had to be very creative with how we manage our bulk purchases, our labor cost, and expenses.”
EAT IN YOUR CAR
Tito Chef started with merely offering take-out services and “very limited” delivery meals to still get a small stream of revenues even during the lockdown. “We were able to continue grab and go services, as well as curb side dining experience [eat in the parking while in your car],” Gimenez said.
“Now that dine-in is back, we get to do what we do best which is to deliver a very fine and excellent dining experience. And, of course, the staff has a better appreciation of what their job means to their dependents.”
Not surprisingly, diners even outside Paranaque enjoy coming repeatedly to Tito Chef. Mediaman Gerry Lirio, who works in Quezon City and lives in the east, makes it a point to dine at Tito Chef, whenever he is in the area.
Lirio insists one has to really drive down south “because there’s only one Tito Chef in the metro.” To him, accessibility is not a question. “The food, ambiance, enough breathing space, the friendly and helpful staff from the time you arrive until you pull out your car from the parking lot” make him always want to go back to the restaurant.
He enjoys the salads and particularly the grilled salmon at Tito Chef, plus the carrot cake for dessert and his brewed coffee. “I would always prefer a quiet, slow lunch or dinner over noisy meals in malls or busy intersections,” Lirio said.
The fact that Tito Chef is a free-standing dining place is its advantage over mall-based restaurants. “Free-standing establishments have a better chance of adaptation for survival during and after the pandemic,” Gimenez said. “People are your most valuable asset.”
HOME FROM NEW YORK
Gimenez graduated with a Tourism degree from the University of the Philippines in Diliman. He learned more about life and the culinary field with his travels around the world with the UP Concert Chorus. He graduated with high honors at the New York Restaurant School in Manhattan.
“The culinary life has and always been my passion,” Gimenez pointed out. “I have been doing this close to 30 years. Tito Chef was a by-product of a need to have my life vision realized while I am still young.”
After coming home from New York, Gimenez started his professional work setting up food & beverage establishments for other people. That covered restaurants, hotels, resorts, hospitals, research and product development for multinational corporations.
When Gimenez decided to put up his own restaurant business, he worked on it full time and never looked back. “Tito Chef is not hard in the sense since it is my lifestyle as work,” he explained. “I treat the restaurant as a life partner in the sense that I make sure it is always in a state of good health and well-being.”
True enough, Gimenez goes to great lengths in maintaining a restaurant like Tito Chef. Admittedly, it is more expensive to maintain the dining place than having a life partner.
“The hardest part of maintaining a chef-driven restaurant is to continually live up to the standards one sets for the establishments,” Gimenez said. “We do a lot of preparations and repair and maintenance that a lot of other establishments might hesitate to do so.
“We take our pest control maintenance very seriously. We repaint the establishment close to five times per year for a fresh maintained look. We also acquire equipment and things that upgrade the dining experience for clients.
“Our music, our interiors are always refreshed for that lived-in, curated look. Our air-conditioning units are always serviced for perfect ambiance temperature.”
Tito Chef previously had a branch in Quezon City. “That place ran for three years under a partnership with another fine dining establishment,” Gimenez said. “Traffic and logistics became tough for me to monitor both venues in terms of quality and personal presence. We decided to concentrate in the south since we are from the south.”
Close to Gimenez’s heart is Tito Chef Culinary Learning Center, where aspiring chefs start getting serious about their future profession. “I believe that culinary school aspect of the restaurant will always make Tito Chef ‘relevant,’” Gimenez said. “Its existence guarantees that we are always updated in terms of what is relevant in the food and beverage world.”
It is not surprising that Gimenez pursued a culinary career. He disclosed that his main influence in whipping up delicious meals was Nora Daza, the “grand dame” of Philippine cooking.
“Her flair for elegance while cooking and living life to the hilt was and is still very inspirational,” said Gimenez about Daza. “Before she passed on a few years back, I was able to head one of her last tribute dinners for her culinary excellence.”
The son of UP college professor and homemaker Adelina Sobrepena from Silay, Negros and Spanish mestizo Avelino Referente Gimenez from Mindanao, Gimenez believes he took after his parents when it comes to his work ethic.
“My parents were very committed people,” he said proudly. “They have taught me that in this world, the most important trait to survive and thrive was and to be persistent. That lesson has carried me well. In my life, so far.”
Gimenez has apparently proven, time and again, that persistence has carried him through ups and downs in his personal and professional life. Thanks to his parents. And even amid this this COVID-19 pandemic, persistence will undoubtedly help him and his business prosper.