MANILA, MAY 24, 2008
(STAR) CRAZY QUILT By Tanya T. Lara - Dutch chef Jeroen van Straten has been cooking all his life and this time he’s letting you have your fun by cooking your own food. That’s right, you — the customer, the foodie, the wannabe chef, the food tripper — will get to cook your food the way you want it, and it won’t take more than three minutes to do it.

That’s the concept behind the new casual-dining restaurant Pepper Lunch, located at the Concourse level of Rockwell Power Plant Mall, in front of Rustan’s Fresh Supermarket.

Call it DIY (do it yourself) for foodies or How-I-Suddenly-Felt-Like-a-Chef or Now-I-Can-Make-Chorva-My-Own-Food place, Pepper Lunch is the most creative food concept to arrive in Manila in quite a while.

Jeroen says the restaurant “is all about having fun with food and dining. It’s a fast-service, high-quality restaurant for the whole family.”

Kids will especially love the cooking aspect of the restaurant. Jeroen relates that when he and wife Cecile Zamora-Van Straten brought their two sons — Ben and Markus — during the test run last week, five-year-old Markus didn’t want to eat but when he saw that he was going to cook his own food his eyes lit up and his appetite stimulated.

The DIY aspect of Pepper Lunch is not just a gimmick (or chuvaness); it started as a practical way to serve food fast to hungry customers. The restaurant originates from Japan with its first branch opening near a shipyard in 1964. Founder Kunio Ichinose — an inventor at heart — is a chef who wanted to open a restaurant but found it difficult looking for cooks, so he invented and patented an electromagnetic plate and induction cooker that can be heated up to 270 degrees in a minute and 10 seconds, and can remain hot for 20 minutes even in a cold room.

Thus was born the concept of Pepper Lunch where everybody is a chef. The plate is heated up in the kitchen, the food is put on it, a paper oil ring is put around the plate to protect you from splashes and then brought to your table. And voila! You cook your steak or fish the way you want it.

Jeroen explains that “The hotter it is, the better; 270 degrees ensures the steak or fish is sealed quickly so that the inside remains tender and juicy.”

Fashion designer, sometime-retailer, writer and “Chuvaness” blogger Cecile van Straten, Jeroen’s wife, adds that the original restaurants in Japan were, and still are, “set up as a lonely man’s bar — those places where the Japanese sit on stools and eat alone at the counter, while the tables are limited to only 20 people. The company wanted to target families as well, so the franchises abroad are designed as family restaurants.”

So, why is it called Pepper Lunch? Pepper is a crucial ingredient in the dishes. Jeroen says that diners or kids who don’t want it spicy should inform the cashier upon ordering and they will hold the pepper (actually it’s not that spicy, and anyway there are pepper shakers on the table so you can decide for yourself).

Pepper Lunch’s menu has just the right number of dishes — you won’t get confused by a gazillion choices but you’re still able to order exactly what you want.

The signature dish is the Pepper Steak, which you must try the first time you eat there and then, as Jeroen suggests, “work your way up the menu” on succeeding visits.

Menu items are divided into Pepper Rice (starting at P235), a la carte (P198 up), and combination dishes (P250 up for a la carte and P320 up with rice and drink). The a la carte choices are obviously “perfect for those who are on a South Beach diet” (and who isn’t these days — well, maybe except the men, damn them!).

The combination dishes are for those who can’t decide — or those who simply want more meat in their meal. Choices include cut steak and hamburger, salmon and chicken, hamburger and pork, pork and chicken.

The meats are from the Pepper Lunch “factory” in Japan and are imported from farms in Australia and New Zealand while the salmon is from Norway.

The way to cook and eat Pepper Rice dishes is this: mix everything, season as you like with the table sauces from Japan, and enjoy it while it’s sizzling hot. Pepper Rice dishes come with rice in the middle of the hot plate topped by garnishing and surrounded by thinly sliced beef, chicken, pork or salmon.

There are also two teriyaki dishes on the menu: Teriyaki Pepper Chicken (P255 a la carte, P330 with rice and drink) and Teriyaki Pepper Salmon (P390 and P460).

I tried the salmon and it was delicious! The generous serving of fish came almost half-cooked because they turned it once in the kitchen before bringing it to my table. And because of the nature of the concept, it came fast (under four minutes)! The teriyaki sauce, veggies and rice come on the side and the Norwegian salmon practically melted in my mouth — very tender and tasty.

Cecile’s favorite is the hamburger steak with fried egg. And the salads.

A word on the salads: they’re fun to eat. Called “Shake! Shake! Salad,” they come in transparent plastic glasses with dome lids, the kind usually used for smoothies. You literally shake the glass to mix the greens and the pasta.

“I’ve never seen salad with noodles here,” says Jeroen. “We did many test runs and people loved it. It’s not too big and it will complement your main course, or if you’re looking for something light you can have just this.” (The spicy tuna salad, which I had, is really good.)

All this food chuvaness started long ago for Jeroen; more recently for Cecile, though her family owns the local franchise of Dome Cafe. Strangely, food didn’t play a part in their courtship at all. Jeroen impressed Cecile not with his cooking, but with his love letters. “He was so makulit. He would fax me a love letter every day. I said, ‘Wow, this guy is persistent.’ He writes funny letters.”

Cecile says that until she met Jeroen, she didn’t really enjoy food. “I didn’t use to eat until I was starving. When I met him I gained 10 lbs.”

Jeroen, for his part, had to endure eating tapa every time he visited her in the house. After a month his jaw was hurting from the toughness of the meat and he asked her, “Is there anything else you can feed me?” (In her defense, Cecile couldn’t cook and was at a lost on what to feed a chef. When she found out that he loved tapa, well, she just stuck with it).

So what did she learn about food that she didn’t know before she met him? “Food is good!” she says. For the record, she can cook five Filipino dishes (including sinigang and adobo) today, which she says she does badly; but he says she cooks really well.

Jeroen has worked as a chef and consultant in the local food industry for the past decade with companies such as Dome, Starbucks, Gourmet Café, Pizza Hut, 7-Eleven, Mini Stop, hospitals and supermarkets. If you’re eating a pre-packed sandwich or pasta from a café or convenience store, chances are, Jeroen helped develop the product with the supplier.

Cecile, meanwhile, has been in fashion retail since 1995 with Grocery, followed by D-fect and Store for All Seasons.

The couple was on the lookout for a business when Cecile chanced upon Pepper Lunch at Takashimaya in Singapore. “I was with my sister and we saw this giant screen showing how to cook the food,” says Cecile. “I dragged my sister in and we were surprised at how good the food was. So I took my dad and other people there. After my dad ate there, he said, ‘Napa-franchise ba ito?’ I started thinking about it and went online to research.”

“I still do consultancy but we really both wanted something of our own. I’ve worked for many different companies already and I was always an employee,” says Jeroen and then adds with a laugh, “I wanted that to be the boss this time.”

How does the chef feel about having a menu dictated by a franchise? Doesn’t it cramp his style? Jeroen says, not at all, he likes the challenge of running things not from the kitchen this time. But he did develop the three cakes on the dessert menu of Pepper Lunch. “Filipinos have a sweet tooth; we have to have cakes here. We asked permission from the company and they approved it.” You must try the Molten Milk Chocolate Cake, the Vanilla Crepe Cake and the Matcha Cheese Cake (green tea-flavored) that he concocted and the Pepper Lunch original Kuromitsu soft ice cream.

The couple incorporated Peper Broers, which is Dutch for “pepper brothers,” named after their two boys and started the ball rolling — or more aptly, started cracking the pepper shells — for their first venture and adventure together.

Why food? “I wanted to go into food because I’ve always done retail,” says Cecile. “Food is a good business the whole year round whereas fashion has its low and high seasons. In fashion I have to source zippers, I have to deal with egos and temperaments, and my taste in fashion is not exactly mainstream. Food is mainstream, it’s universal.”

Jeroen adds, “In the local restaurant business, all my colleagues are very supportive. We are excited for each other and send our friends to each other’s restaurants.”

Cecile says, “Jeroen would tell me, ‘Why don’t you just join me in the food industry?’ So I feel that here I’ll be here cleaning tables.’”

The couple is very optimistic about Pepper Lunch and promises that this is just the first of many concepts. “We want to open two Pepper Lunch branches a year; we want the next one to be at Shangri-La Plaza. We have many ideas we want to do and this is just the start.”

Needless to say, you can expect more chuvaness from the Van Straten couple.

* * *

Pepper Lunch is now open at the Concourse level (basement) of Rockwell Power Plant Mall during mall hours, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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