Making a mark

F&B Report | The Restaurateur Issue

Chicken relleno, kare-kare, and adobo anchor the Filipino heirloom menu in the London edition of Romulo Cafe

There are two things that Sandie Romulo-Squillantini and her business partners at Romulo Cafe feel quite strongly about: upholding the legacy of her grandfather, the late United Nations General Assembly President Carlos P. Romulo, and elevating Filipino heirloom cuisine to the world stage.

These two advocacies, rooted in history and fueled by a fierce sense of Filipino and familial pride, finally fully converged last March when Romulo Cafe, now with four branches in the Philippines, opened its first international restaurant in a quiet corner of Kensington High Street in London. Having been long keen on “making Filipino cuisine appear in the global market,” Romulo-Squillantini admits that the move to expand overseas took a while in the making. “Our rule, because it’s our family legacy, is that it has to be a family member who will run the place,” she says. “So it wasn’t until my sister who is based in London retired after being a banker for 30 years that we decided to put up a Romulo Cafe there.”

For the longest time, Filipino food has remained largely underrated compared to its Asian neighbors as Southeast Asia’s cuisine of choice. Lately, however, it has been steadily making its way in the global food scene. In London, which is undoubtedly the epicenter of international gastronomy in Europe, Romulo-Squillantini talks of seeing a growing number of pop-ups where chefs bring in such Filipino delicacies as dinuguan or balut. “But it’s always dishes that are meant to shock,” she points out. “These may all be interesting but not necessarily something you can get foreigners to eat.”

In Romulo Cafe London, one wouldn’t find the ubiquitous balut anywhere on the menu. Instead, there are the same heirloom recipes one would find in a typical Romulo Cafe in the Philippines. From their best-selling Lola Virginia’s chicken relleno and Tito Greg’s karekare, to the deboned crispy pata binagoongan and Romulo’s take on the classic adobo, foreign diners are treated to a crash course on authentic Filipino fare.

While it’s often the key strategy of Filipino restaurants expanding abroad to cater to countries with a huge population of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), Romulo Cafe London takes the road less traveled by targeting the foreign market instead. “When we put up the first Romulo Cafe in Quezon City, it was in honor of my grandfather. We wanted to show Filipinos, especially the youth, that they can be proud of who they are and that there are Filipinos besides Manny Pacquiao who have accomplished things in the world stage,” she shares. Establishing the London branch took things to the next level. “We really felt it was high time Filipino cuisine appears in the global market. We felt that it was finally time to take that step.”

It didn’t come without its fair share of challenges, though. “We’ve had to tweak some things and not all ingredients are available. Our sinigang na salmon there is like real salmon steak. And there’s no miso because the ingredient isn’t available there,” she shares. The same goes for bagoong which they usually make themselves in the Philippine branches (“We’ve had to buy bottled bagoong because there’s no alamang there,” says Romulo-Squillantini) and the adobo is plated differently because the Brits “do not like seeing things swimming in oil so we serve the meat dry and the sauce on the side.”

These nips and tucks, however, are all purely cosmetic as the owners are firm on retaining the authentic flavors of their family’s heirloom recipes. Interestingly, making things more palatable to foreign tastes isn’t anything unconventional for the Romulos. “I’ve always said my grandmother Virginia was ahead of her time because when my grandfather was representative to the U.S. and they entertained guests in their house, she really made it a point to tweak her recipes so it would fit the foreign market,” says the granddaughter.

At the end of it all, it’s that pervasive sense of history that continues to solidify Romulo Cafe’s place in both the local and international dining scene. You see it in the vintage memorabilia set against the warmly lit black-and-white interiors designed by Romulo’s business partner, Ivy Almario (“The interiors of Romulo Cafe is of our old house in Kasiyahan compound where we used to live as a family,” she shares); the partners’ insistence on keeping to the authentic flavors Filipino food is known for (“We’re sticklers to being traditional, so as much as possible we don’t want any kind of fusion or things like that,” she explains); and, at the end of the day, good ‘ol Filipino values. “I think that’s really the key here. In running the restaurant, the secret is really trust and respect for one another. My husband and our partners respect each other’s decisions and that’s how we’ve been able to maintain a good relationship with each other. For as long as there is that trust and confidence, I think we can maintain this harmony.”

Photography by Jilson Tiu