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The appeal of Karen’s cookery

/ 06:41 AM December 07, 2013

KAREN Concepcion Duraliza’s Ilonggo and Cebuano roots are cooking up a culinary storm in Juan Lechonero.

While cruising along Salinas Drive in Lahug on our way back from Zonta Club’s Bazaar, which was raising funds for typhoon Yolanda victims, my friend Selfa Trinidad and I decided to have a late lunch at Juan Lechonero. A no-frills restaurant, Selfa claims it serves a mean sizzling plate of tasty lechon (spicy or regular) and the best chicken barbecue in town.

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While enjoying the sizzling lechon on a hot plate, and the succulent barbecued chicken thigh, Juan Lechonero’s owner/chef Karen got out of the kitchen and joined our table. Her cherubic smile and pleasant demeanor captured our attention and we found ourselves talking like old friends. From were we sat, I could see the lechon being charcoal-roasted outside the dining area. Unlike the traditional lechon, only the belly cut is seasoned with choice herbs and spices, skewered and roasted for three to four hours by a lechonero. Karen named her restaurant after her grandfather Juan, who was a cook in the town of Barili. Her Lolo Juan went from town to town cooking for fiestas and special occasions. Yes, he was a good lechonero.

Karen’s inherited flair for cooking will fire her enthusiasm to pursue a culinary career. As early as 12 years old, she joined her first vocational culinary course in Abellana National School with adults as classmates. Later on, she set aside a Mass Communications degree from St. Theresa’s College and enrolled in Culinary Institute for Creative Cuisine in Quezon City in 1999. Since there were no culinary schools in Cebu City then, she further polished her culinary skills in TESDA and short courses in Caro & Marie. And to gain experience in the service field, she worked in Mang Inasal for a while. Like her Lolo Juan, Karen ventured into catering-cum-wedding planning in 2005. She recalls how challenging catering was when she prepared daily meals for a Dutch company in IT Park that required a healthy menu.

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Prior to the opening of Juan Lechonero a few months ago, Karen refined her Ilonggo cookery with a lady from Bacolod City whose native dishes have been delighting Cebuanos. Karen’s dad, who hails from Dumangas, Iloilo, also greatly influenced her passion for cooking. The dishes in her menu have Ilonggo touches. She uses pork belly and mask (face) in her Dinuguan, cooked well with vinegar and choice spices. Her Embotido is steamed and wrapped in banana leaves. The Bangus a la Pobre sizzles in a special sauce—a trade secret, she claims. Her Halo-halo, quite extraordinary, comes close to my favorite, Razon’s. The crushed ice is just as fine and smooth and all the ingredients are homemade—macapuno, haleyang ube (purple yam), sweetened banana and langka and topped with leche flan and ube ice cream. Her Brownie Cup with vanilla ice cream is just as good.

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