Dish is it

Philippine Tribune
Philippine Tribune

Ivory Yat Vaksman Chef

Ivory Yat Vaksman Chef

Ivory Yat VaksmanChef

“I would serve you food the way I would make it at home. It has to be special because my clients also know these things (food). My clients appreciate na hindi ko sila kinuripot.”

AT the happy end of a trudge from Quezon City to Makati on way to a highly technical seminar in an austere government building was the spread of high-end caterer Chef Ivory Yat Vaksman. It was a gray and sodden day, and seminar attendees might still have been wiping the sleep off their eyes.

Coffee piped from the brewer and induced the morning clarity amid the seriousness — before the guests’ eyes were bowls of hummus, Israeli pastry such as cheese bourekas, an assortment of shelled nuts like almonds and pistachios, thick slices of garden tomatoes and fresh basil, warm pita, olives, jars of marmalade and preserves, various cheeses and salads. The Mediterranean extravaganza shushed complaints about the early morning traffic and the unavoidable tedium of technical lectures.

Vaksman understood that an academic affair could best be enjoyed with above par food. She nearly politely declined catering such an event after being offered a budget of P200 per head.

It’s not that she couldn’t work with that amount. “I can easily lay out ensaymada, coffee, for that price, and the guests would be fed,” she started. “But these people woke up early to attend. Tapos bibigyan mo lang ng tuna sandwich?”

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It was not to be taken as a haughty remark since it’s impossible to turn up the snoot when one is aware of the costs of ingredients these days.

Vaksman knows.

The former culinary instructor from De La Salle College of Saint Benilde (CSB) and alumna of Master Chef Philippines is the master of grocery runs and dishes inspired by available ingredients.

She conducts her catering operations over three kitchens, six fridges and a house overrun by boxes of supplies. She scours an average of three stores to stock up for her events.

For more than 10 years in the industry, she has developed produce and brand loyalty for the type of clientele that won’t rehire you for serving tuna sandwiches.

“I would serve you food the way I would make it at home,” she declared in a classically unstinting Vaksman way, candid about her tastes and her criticisms for our culture’s sacred cows — such as Filipino food.

Chef Ivory Yat Vaksman is a former culinary instructor at De La Salle College of Saint Benilde and an alumna of Master Chef Philippines. Contributed photos

Chef Ivory Yat Vaksman is a former culinary instructor at De La Salle College of Saint Benilde and an alumna of Master Chef Philippines. Contributed photos

Chef Ivory Yat Vaksman is a former culinary instructor at De La Salle College of Saint Benilde and an alumna of Master Chef Philippines. Contributed photos

“It has to be special because my clients also know these things (food),” she said. “My clients appreciate na hindi ko sila kinuripot.”

Vaksman has transcended serving catered food. Her spreads are now invitations to taste-making. The latter reflects her true self, which is not the registered nurse trundling patients to sessions of dialysis against the grain of her family’s all-professional, medical background (her father was a doctor who recently passed away).

Vaksman really wanted to be the Nigella Lawson of the Philippines, with the big hair and the pretty face serving thoughtful dishes family style.

The grace of serving food collided with the shadows of a nurse’s life.

She had grown up on the Lifestyle Channel, and her fine palate awoken early.

In her youth, she would put away part of her allowance to buy Teflon pans or the odd saffron in this part of the world. Her supportive father would be shocked at the price.

“But I would tell him, I have to know the taste of saffron!” The late doctor caved and encouraged me.

She could run away with the bongga, the big and the scale with food. But business sense also reels her back in.

“My mother is an excellent salesperson,” she proudly reveals. She’s a Spanish mestiza who, per Vaksman, bestowed her good looks upon Vaksman’s siblings.

“But I got the best part [from her],” Vaksman concluded.

“I know how to make money.”

Adapt, adjust

Vaksman does not need to apologize for the moneymaking.

“I had to man up after the death of my father.”

He was the sole provider of the family; Vaksman is the eldest of the brood. Her younger siblings were still in medical school.

Until now, sticking to “the lifestyle that my father provided for us” lies so secure in her guts that selling down could well be the affront to both her comfortable philosophy and role as breadwinner.

You sense that these comforts, especially for something as basic as food in a country where food production is expensive, are the insignia of respect. She wants the same for her young daughters.

It could not have happened another way without. Vaksman considers herself a caterer in the classical mode, earning her reputation through old school word of mouth more than 10 years ago without the recommendations of social media. Her clients from then remain.

The path was arduous, filled with early signs that she was meant to do this. She was not the flash in the pan — there have been many pans, from as early as her high school days, when peers would join dance contests during school fairs while she set up and manned her own lemonade or pasta catering booth.

She broke into Master Chef, auditioning with spaghetti aglio olio and coming away with third prize and a P300,000 prize money and culinary scholarship under Chef Gene Gonzalez. She fed all that prize money into an unstoppable food showcase — a stove, kitchen appliances, a lamp, table and plating dishes. She hired and trained some of her neighbors to be her cooks and waitstaff.

This bazaar in Mercato Centrale in Bonifacio Global City was practice grounds for the grander table settings. Her friends had all been nagging her to go into catering. In the classic narrative, one big fish and a couple of baptisms of fire steered her that direction.

A friend of hers was receiving a visitor from Japan. The explicit instructions were: “I don’t want to eat normal food” for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Thirty people would partake. Vaksman did not know how to skirt a table just yet. She had to start with her pink bedsheet.

No one noticed.

The pax multiplied in succeeding accounts. Three hundred people? “Yes,” she said, without knowing how. She agrees to every opportunity first then figures it out. This out of whack compass guides her.

“Adapt, adjust!” she would intone during this interview.

No doubt she has given that advice to many of her former students in CSB who still message her for advice about costings and the other practical matters of running a food business.

Mind, these were days the process was a slog on foot. Google Maps did not exist, as did those apps of immediacy — Lalamove and Grab. You booked and paid for a delivery truck a week in advance; you printed out event locations.

Once, her team forgot to bring a set of forks during a catering gig for call center agents in Antipolo. Now, she’ll never stand for seeing diners half-metal spoon and half-plastic fork into her fare again.

Demanding perfection

Yes, she’s come a long way, but her movements and adaptations kick into gear at the correct moments. This seems the payoff of her deeply ingrained, self-actualized tastes in food and lifestyle.

“Now I realize I can afford to make mistakes,” she said with a certain relief. Mistakes such as scrambling to get lasagna to an urgent client event and writing off payments for the freak occurrence of any alien element on the dish (a slight strand of hair, a piece of foil — it happens to the best of them). Her pride in her perfection allows her to put customers first.

Her own tastes also spare her the people- and culture-pleasing. She has things to say about Filipino food that will rub raw onion skins. The largely unacknowledged truth to these criticisms — Filipino food is “not that likable to outsiders” because “it is fatty and doled out by generic chain restaurants” in fast-moving turnovers — might just be the wake-up call we need in food production and quality.

“I am creating the demand for making our produce and local food better,” she firmly declared.

It looks like the grocery stores are listening to her — or the quality of tomatoes and other produce she looks for when she buys in bulk. “They do listen, and they are adjusting,” she observed. “Produce is getting better.”

Take it from the lady who was doing the groceries five days after giving birth to her firstborn.

And who else is listening? Embassies, attendees of food expos abroad and brand sponsors. Vaksman recently won first place in the Las Vegas edition of the International Pizza Expo of 2023, serving tomato-less pizza with dried pineapples and Philippine fruit preserves.

“When you create or demand for perfection, farmers, suppliers [and everyone else in the food landscape] follow!”


Quick questions

What really makes you angry?

People who hurt animals, people who are unkind to others and think that they can get away with it.

What motivates you to work hard?

My job inspires me. I’m in the business of happiness. It’s my pleasure to wake up and do it, but my family, especially the kids and their future, is what motivates me. I want to build an empire. I want to give my children a head start and that they can afford to lose and get back on their feet immediately because of what I gave them.

What makes you laugh the most?

I love watching comedy movies to unwind. And if I need to pick me up, any funny reels will really have me in tears. Also, I love reading comments on some posts. There’s this one post about “tell us your funniest commuting experience,” and I read it in the middle of the night, and I woke my husband with my giggles, and he’s asking me to translate everything to him, and I can’t! Not everything has a direct translation, and he doesn’t know how it feels to commute anyways.

What did you want to be when you were little?

I grew up with my dad being a disciplinarian. In my head, I’ve always known I am being trained to be a doctor. I even wrote it in my yearbook. But I just know, deep inside my heart that I am meant to be a chef. I don’t know how I’d convince my dad back then, but I just know that I will be one.

What would you do if you won the lotto?

First, disappear, cancel all catering and inform clients, and travel! Travel and go back to buy real estate. Then make sure to ensure all employees can maintain their job and upgrade their lives and position by making a bigger and better company.

If you could share a meal with any individual, living or dead, who would they be?

I think I will have a pleasant meal with Ina Garten or Nigella Lawson. Honestly… throw in Gordon Ramsay, and I’m good!

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever done?

Oh, my gosh, too many and shouldn’t be mentioned. But I remembered I was drunk with friends in La Union and I did a headstand on a waiting shed… we took pictures, only to look at it in the morning that I’ve posted it, and my shirt ran down, and my underwear was showing… but since we’re in the beach we just pretended it was swimsuit… I have pride… I don’t delete posts.

What was the last book you’ve read?

“How to squeeze a lemon: 1,023 Kitchen tips and food fixes.” It’s really good… it’s not a cookbook, it’s all about kitchen and home hacks.

Which celebrity would you like to meet for a cup of coffee?

John Cena. He looks big and bulky, but I think he is very smart. He is fluent in Chinese! Accents and all.

What is one thing you will never do again?

I will never, ever try to get myself bankrupt again… but that’s another story… I was young and hopeful, and I thought I could run a restaurant just because I have experience with food… What I don’t have is financial knowledge (I wish they taught that in home room class.) I also thought I could trust people just because I was nice to them.

WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN 10 YEARS?

I am a firm believer of Laws of Attraction and right now I am declaring that in my 40s I will be as good as Margarita Fores, running a series of restaurants while still catering. I would also be owning an event place with my daughters initials carved on the logo V&V… this vision is very clear to my head. I can actually feel the tiles on the walls, the pebbles on the driveway and the kind of flowers that will greet my guests by the door. And I will always have my patrons, and we’ll call each other by our first names and talk about how they’ve supported me since 2013. What I am, what I will be is because of my clients trust and my vision for myself.

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