MANILA -- The sound of crackling lechon skin is one that’s dear to the heart of many Filipinos as it heralds of porcine delights to come.
But in this collaboration between Dedet Dela Fuente of Pepita’s Kitchen and Nicco Santos of Hey Handsome, that sound already came near the end of an epic 18-course meal.
If you’re lucky enough to have bagged a reservation for any of the four sold-out excursions to the culinary minds of Santos and Dela Fuente (there's one more on May 2), you’re in for a treat! This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events – a snapshot of where things are culinary-wise for both celebrated chefs.
Dela Fuente is much-loved in the Philippine culinary scene, bringing her stuffed lechon and degustacions around the world, while Santos is the genius behind the highly rated restaurants Hey Handsome and Your Local.
Santos revealed that the original plan was to work together on each dish. But upon listening to Dela Fuente’s ideas, he decided to give her free rein to create.
“She had so many ideas, and all the things she wanted to do were new. So I just wanted to compliment those instead,” Santos said.
“They kept on saying, 'Dedet sige, Dedet sige.' Thank you, ha!” a visibly touched Dela Fuente told Santos during the interview.
So while the flavors ran from hot to cool, earthy to rich, and sinful to simple, this writer most enjoyed the fact that the dishes spoke not only of the chef’s individual histories, memories, and experiences, but also of their mutual respect (and love) for each other, which beautifully came together most especially in their one-of-a-kind lechon.
Here’s what's served at the Lechon Diva x Hey Handsome dinner:
A celebration of the Dela Fuente’s favorite ‘baon’ or packed snacks. Inside a bag are three little buttery pandesals filled with her favorite ‘palaman’ or sandwich fillings—all heightened with foie gras, of course! There’s a bite with pansit canton, adobo, and kesong puti. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
2. STREET FOOD SAMPLER
This was a heavy second course with two skewers of tapa and tocino balls, a little metal pot filled with truffle-enriched arroz caldo, and one of my favorite bites of the evening, a balut yolk-salted egg breaded deep-fried ball -- a yummy intersection of decadence and Filipino flavors.Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
3. SINANTULAN NA SUSO
After the crispy treats of the course before, Santos brings us different textures for the third course. The soft chewiness of snail with luscious rice and barley inside a softened onion slice was balanced with fruity acidity from santol puree, and finished with a briny tatampal (mantis shrimp) sauce. It’s my new favorite way to eat snail. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
Dela Fuente’s grilled stuffed squid dish was chock full of umami with a stuffing of cauliflower and shrimp, on a pool of homemade oyster sauce. The oyster sauce wasn’t your thick dark sauce, but instead harbored the texture of pureed oysters—just brimming with sea flavor. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
5. KROPEK AT TALANGKA
Hey Handsome made a clam cracker and slathered on more ocean essence with talangka (crab fat). It’s a salt-forward dish that gets to its most balanced when you have it with some slivers of pajo (small green mangoes). Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
6. SALAD SURPRISE
Coming in with sweetness and acidity, Dela Fuente’s Salad Surprise refreshes the palate with chewy nata de coco, crisp carrots, radish and lettuce, with different nuts (peanuts, cornick, and cashew). Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
7. BEEF PRESERVE
A lightly torched forcemeat of fermented beef sirloin takes on a pleasing Spam-like flavor, joined with acidity from yogurt, heat from chili, texture from crispy rice, and freshness and sweetness from grape (and carrot powder). It’s hard to describe how much a bite of this dish packs in so much flavors in your mouth—spicy, earthy, fruity, sweet, and sour. It’s definitely a dish that can only come out of Hey Handsome’s kitchen. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
8. GATA BI-COOL
Celebrating Bicolano flavors, Dela Fuente serves up a bowl of noodles flavored with coconut milk and pork bones, topped with roasted desiccated coconut and sliced chilies. Familiar and delicious, Dela Fuente also provides a glass of extra coconut pork broth, if you like it soupy. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
9. INIHAW NA PUSO
Chicken hearts are a delicacy that I usually don’t enjoy much of as I find the texture off-putting — somewhere in between chewy and cartilage. That said, I had never had it so melt-in-your-mouth delicious as I had it in this dish. Chicken hearts marinated and grilled, then served with a tare (a sweet soy sauce, usually used for yakitori), a raw quail egg yolk, some grains, a sprinkling of smoke powder, and some yuzu for acidity. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
10. TUSLOB BUWA
Bringing her version of the Cebu delicacy to Manila, Dela Fuente gives each diner a spicy sisig-stuffed puso (or hanging rice) to be dipped into a sauce of pig’s brain, liver, onions, and spices. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
11. ICE CANDY
Salabat-flavored, these came just at the right time. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
12. HAYOP! Lechon
The Lechon Diva x Hey Handsome lechon was stuffed with burnt coconut rice. This rice with a topping of crispy skin was served with a refreshing mango and cucumber relish by Hey Handsome, and the Dela Fuente’s chili sauce. Now one of my favorite lechons from Pepita’s Kitchen, burnt coconut lent a creamy nuttiness to the rice, with the interplay between the relish and the chili providing a cooling kind of heat in the mouth. A bite was a great representation of this dinner — Santos’s understated flavors balancing the bold flavors of Dela Fuente’s dishes. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
13. Kilawin na Banak
Pickled banak (sea mullet), served alongside carrots and a sweet potato puree, cleansed the palate with acidity. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
If you haven’t tasted this Dela Fuente creation, you’re missing out. Hipon (shrimp) was coated in a salted egg sauce with a lot of garlic. If this wasn’t at the latter part of the meal, I’d have asked for rice. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
15. PUKIS AT DINUGUAN
Hey Handsome serves up pukis (Indonesian coconut milk cake), which differs with our puto as being denser and cake-like, with dinuguan and chicharon. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
From a bowl of crispy rice, Dela Fuente, with a magic word and the swirl of a bowl, magically brings forth champoy meringue—sweet with a hint of salt and sourness. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
17. SUNDOT K!
A play on the sundot ‘kulangot’ treats from the northern part of Luzon, Dela Fuente hid sticky rice inside these little shells for an interactive dessert. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra
End with pasalubong! The packet from Hey Handsome hid a sticky butter-soaked cake, which used tien ob (dried flowers), smoked milk, and lavender butter. Not overly sweet, a very fragrant ending to an 18-course meal. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra