Where were you when enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) was declared?
Chef Ramon Antonio was in Mactan visiting his mother. “I have been visiting my mother in Mactan every month since 2018 (always via PAL for 46 years and counting), [for] at least seven to nine days per month, since that first time she slipped. She lives alone with the house-help and her dog, since my Father passed away in 2010,” he says.
Antonio, who currently consults for various restaurants, hotels, and resorts, started cooking professionally in 1988 when he joined La Primavera, then the Werdenberg Group, where he stayed for 13 years, learning the basics of different cuisines. He would co-helm Les Toques Blanches for 13 years, being the only Filipino on the team for the first 10. He’s worked in various restaurants and hotels and has cooked for royalty, heads of state, and Hollywood stars.
Just a day away
ECQ was declared nationwide on March 15, just a day before Antonio was supposed to fly back to Manila. This was to print the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Borders were closed and flights were cancelled. “I was trapped. Worried about my house and my dog that I left behind. Fortunately, my neighbour fed my dog, visited her constantly, and took good care of the house. But more than five months of being away, missing my dog, and worried for my house about possible burglaries, was weighing me down,” he shares.
“Added to that, [I] was taking care of my bed-ridden mother, who was amputated just a month before lockdown. The three general anesthesia she had in four months also gave her dementia. She was fine before all these, but now she doesn’t know if it’s day or night. She was fervently religious my whole life, now she doesn’t even pray anymore. There are periods when she doesn’t want to eat, and moments when she does not even recognize me. She was a strangely different person, far from the woman that took care of me, raised me. The nurses were costly, especially since I had to let them live with us to avoid the risk of contamination if they were going home [by] commuting every day. That increased greatly the operational cost of the house.”
Locked down, but not knocked down
The chef turned to cooking for comfort. But since he was away from a professional kitchen, he had to make do with what was on had. “My Mother’s house was very bare, it did not even have a proper kitchen. I cooked for everyone, in 153 days, 170 dishes with just one 48-year old kalaha (a Visayan wok), and one blunt ancient knife from the 70s,” he says.
Cooking was my only buoy. I sometimes go to the fresh market, the seafood market, or sometimes I forage around the village for fresh ingredients, just like people did in the old days. I was in charge of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus all snacks in between. [I cooked] for all the people living in the house, all with different dietary (medical and cultural) needs.
He turned out delicious dishes, all of which he chronicled in an Facebook album using just his iPhone and natural light. These include Humba sa Dulaw ug Tangad (Humba in fresh Turmeric and Lemongrass); Tabirak, “Northeastern Mindanao’s turbo-charged answer to Cebu’s Binignit, the Tagalog’s Ginataan, and the Kapampangan’s Sampelot;” and Kinilaw nga Lukot, parisan ug Suwaki (Ceviche of Sea Hare Eggs in Tuba Vinegar).
Antonio was able to get a flight back to Manila in July, 153 days after being locked down in Mactan. “The night before my morning flight back to Manila, excited to see my beloved dog again, I received the news from my neighbour that she passed away. Poisoned by burglars. She was my only companion for 11 years, and I was this close, to seeing her again… and yet sadly, I did not. I was crying for mornings after that,” he shares.
Like everyone, the effects of the pandemic continue to weight heavily on his mind. “No job and income for almost a year already, yet the expenses are still on. I have developed PTSD from all these. [I’m] often angry, sad, worried, [and] scared. I felt betrayed, alone, confused, a mixture that comes and goes every day. Even now that I am back here in Manila. With no one to talk to, as I am living alone again, sans dog. Alone in my house, still suffering from that as I write this,” he says.
“More fodder for my PTSD are when will I be able to get back to Cebu/Mactan and visit my mother? How is she doing? Will I be able to do the every-month flights back and forth again? When will the hotel, resort, and restaurant industry get back on its feet and get me a job again?“
He also wonders when he’ll be able to see his daughter, who lives with her mother in the next village, but who isn’t allowed out of the house because of the pandemic.
Still, he’s managed to find some points of light in his situation. “There are silver linings, I think, in this huge looming 2020 cloud that brought torrents of despair to everyone including me,” he says. “Those moments that I escape, to go to the fresh markets, whenever I forage, whenever I discover new ingredients.”
Here are some of the dishes Chef Ramon came up with while on lockdown, armed with only a stove, a wok, and an old knife. Proof that when creating something, it’s not the equipment you have but the talent you posses that matters.