Passion, a healthy appetite for risk, and a ‘just do it’ mindset has enabled young chef and restaurateur Myke “Tatung” Sarthou to carve a niche for himself in the cutthroat restaurant industry
Heirloom Filipino restaurant Chef Tatung’s is located in a remotely visited area of Taguig—in a recently developed community just off the highway and not far from the bustling hub that is Bonifacio Global City. You have to take a series of turns and count six humps on the road upon entering the village gates before you finally see the restaurant, but you’ll see the glow from within before you even enter.
Once in, you will be quickly enveloped by a welcoming, warm sensibility. Chef Tatung’s is a true bistro—unfussy yet dignified, relaxed but sophisticated. The interiors reflect an eclectic aesthetic; mismatched chairs, antique tables, pottery and artwork sourced from all over the Philippines evoke the ambience of a Filipino ancestral home. The music is just at the right volume, so you can actually have a conversation while you eat. The waiters know about the food, and are attentive without being overbearing.
And the host, owner and chef, Myke “Tatung” Sarthou, is a charmer. Born to Cebuano parents and a grandmother from Bicol, Sarthou has been feeding people since he was in the fifth grade. “I’ve been cooking since I was young—when I was in grade 5, I was already accepting orders for cakes, pastries and savories. But cooking as a profession wasn’t something I pursued because, back then, being a chef wasn’t really considered a career,” he shares. Instead, Sarthou worked in the entertainment production industry for a decade, and cooking, then, was his form of relaxation. “Eventually, I decided to take a sabbatical and just do what I wanted. So I traveled, I had friends around and we’d have potluck dinners. And then people started asking me to cook for them,” he shares.
The Business That Word Of Mouth Built
There was no business objective or a grand plan to put up a restaurant, Sarthou admits. “When I started cooking for family and friends, it was really just for fun. Private dining then was becoming a buzzword, but I never really intended to ride on the trend. It just happened,” he shares.
In September 2011, Sarthou finally gave in to the insistence of family and friends and converted his house into a venue for private dinner gatherings. What started as a small outfit that accepted 10 to 25 diners every Friday eventually became an inviting garden café that opened daily. “The private dinners started in my house in Sikatuna Village, and every time there was a challenge, I just responded. It became a very organic business. We made improvements little by little. It was all very crude, but I think people liked the simplicity and the honesty of it all,” Sarthou shares.
Word of mouth about Sarthou’s homespun biz eventually spread like wildfire, and soon aroused the curiosity of the press, as well as influential food bloggers, personalities and even politicians. “It reached a point na dumadami na talaga ang tao, and it was at that point when I really thought that, okay, this is a business,” he shares, adding, “we were thinking na lumipat na lang. If people were coming all the way from Alabang and Makati to QC to taste our food, then we figured we would work even better when we’re in Makati or somewhere more accessible.”
Call it fate or a case of good fortune and timing, but it was exactly when Sarthou was thinking about moving that property developer DMCI sent him a letter bearing good news. “They said their president had dined in our place and liked our food, and they invited me to put up a restaurant in one of their properties,” he puts in.
DMCI initially offered a different location from where the restaurant is now, but when Sarthou told them that his target was to open by September 2013, “they said it wouldn’t work for them, which makes sense, because they couldn’t afford to leave that space vacant for that long. And that was when they brought me to this place, their old sales office and showroom, in Acacia Estates. When I saw the place, the vibe felt right. In just 10 minutes, we closed a deal, and in a month’s time, I opened the restaurant,” he shares.
A visit to Chef Tatung feels quite like a visit to Tagaytay or a quiet hideaway in a nearby province—only this one takes you a little over 10 to 15 minutes if you’re coming from Makati, Fort Bonifacio or Ortigas. “We may be a little far off the main business districts, but I think the golden rule of ‘location, location, location’ applies here. Because in a sense, I have a very good location—where else can you get a resort-like ambience like this anywhere in the metro? The nearest restaurant like ours is probably Antonio’s in Tagaytay. We have the perfect location for a destination restaurant. Chef Tatung is not so far off that it’s hard to find; it’s still accessible,” says Sarthou.
Indeed, Chef Tatung is a destination restaurant where the food is worth traveling for—particularly since there aren’t a lot of places that offer such nuanced heirloom Filipino fare. “Our cuisine is distinctly Filipino, but we’re not your typical kare-kare and crispy pata restaurant. Our food is very regional—we take heirloom recipes from around the country—traditional recipes from the Cordilleras, Ilocos, Cebu, Bicol and Mindanao, and we present them in a new way while staying true to the essence of the dishes,” the chef explains. It’s an array of Filipino dishes from a different perspective. “It’s interesting, very much pinoy, homey and rustic, but it’s not the tried and tested—and overused—best-sellers,” he says.
Much of the items in Sarthou’s menu were created spontaneously. “They’re mostly laro laro lang that turned out really well, and were polished along the way,” he says. “I like to experiment,” he adds, pointing to the hearty dishes spread out on the table—the Chicken Sisig Lettuce Wrap with its tangy mango salsa; the fork-tender Honey Glazed Slow Roasted Lechon cooked in a brick oven for six hours on a bed of garlic and lemongrass; and the Seafood Gising-Gising with its spicy coconut sauce, which goes well with restaurant’s Heirloom Rice Sampler. Classic Filipino desserts are given an interesting twist, too, like the warm and moist Tsoknut Chocolate Cake and the pandan-flavored Pichi-Pichi drizzled with custard sauce and Quezo de Bola brulee.
Sarthou also uses locally sourced ingredients as much as possible; it’s an advocacy of his to support local trade, which in turn supports the economy. “Our food culture has been ruined by commercialism, and as a way to counter that, we have to go back to basics. Slow cooking, but in the Filipino sense. How do you do that? Simple; kantahin mo ang ‘Bahay Kubo.’ Those are the vegetables endemic to us,” he shares.
In the three months that Chef Tatung in Taguig has been operating, Sarthou admits that it’s amazing that he was able to pull all this off considering he’s just a one-man show. “This is a solo venture—I try to do a balancing act from operations to hiring, and I even did the interiors myself. I could always get partners, but for a project like this, I don’t want other people telling me what to do, especially this early on. I don’t really have a template for this business; I just want to follow my instincts now,” he says, adding that in terms of potential, the business’ being located in Acacia Estates will definitely deliver. “In this community alone, there are six villages, and there are 5,000 households. Right now, we’re the only restaurant. Even with that alone, mabubuhay kami. But a lot of my customers now are actually from outside—we haven’t even touched 10 percent of this community because it’s not yet finished, sobrang layo pa, and we haven’t even done major promotions yet. But I think business-wise, it’s a really good gamble. A calculated risk,” he says.
Published February 11, 2013 in the Business Agenda section of Manila Bulletin