THE CULINARY wizardry of former Malacañang Palace Executive Chef Aurora “Babes” Austria” has taken the simplicity of Cebuano dishes to a cosmopolitan high.
A former bureaucrat whose culinary calling came in her midlife, Chef Babes could have attained the pinnacle of her government career if she didn’t pursue her first love, cooking, instead. A budget and finance expert, a CPA with a degree in law, she held the post as Finance Director of the Department of Social Welfare and Development under the leadership of then Vice President Gloria Arroyo. Turning down the offer as assistant secretary of the Department of Finance and Management in 2001, she chose to study cooking under Chef Gene Gonzales, enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in California and pursued this love with passion.
A retired executive chef of Taal Vista Hotel, Babes Austria keeps the SM Hotel group a formidable force in the culinary sector of its hospitality business as food consultant. The recent Chef’s Table with Chef Babes Austria at the Feria of Radisson Blu Hotel Cebu allowed a few select media to take a peek into her splendid creations. Her cosmopolitan touch magically transformed the plain Cebuano dishes into a fine dining experience. How she can play up indigenous ingredients into a masterful piece can be quite mesmerizing. For openers, we had Ceviche Trio with three kinds of fishes: mol-mol, bolinao and tanguigue on a bed of crisp pickled mangoes, coconut cream, soured with sukang tuba. The Beef Knuckle Soup or Balbacua is a street food dish I am not too familiar with. The beef knuckles or feet was boiled and simmered for a long time since the skin was rendered soft and gelatinous so the soup was thick spiced up with pepper, ginger, tanglad (lemon grass), salted black beans, tomato sauce and tasted very refined. This was served with a novelty—Utan Bisaya parcels that reminded me of Indian Vegetable Samosa. The first entrée was Sinugba nga Isda with Dinuldog or grilled maya-maya with coconut pumpkin stew. To clear our palates for the next course, a refreshing Pineapple Spiced Sorbet flavored with tuba was served on a thick slice of Ormoc pineapple. The next entrée was so fancifully styled. Goat Meat Stew or Calderetang Kanding was placed inside half a big yellow bell pepper. The caldereta was cooked Spanish style served with mountain rain rice from the uplands.
Chef Babes’ lechon is always something special. She has mastered the art of making lechon from the different regions of the country. Her Cebu-style that evening was bigger than lechon de leche, about four to five months old, oven roasted with the belly stuffed with sibuyas bisaya (native spring onion), garlic, tanglad and salt. The lechon was also stuffed with over a dozen puso or hanging rice, which turned out to be so tasty since the rice absorbed the lechon juices while being oven roasted.
Chef Babes Austria’s table was a fine dining experience indeed.
Dessert was Sweet Rice Roll (suman) served with ripe Cebu mangoes, topped with masareal (ground peanuts with sugar) and a demitasse of local cacao chocolate batirol.