How the young Tatung Sarthou learned to cook 2
Chef Tatung with his grandmothers Natividad Atillo (left) and Juanita Sarthou. Photos courtesy of Chef Tatung Sarthou
Food & Drink

How bestselling author Chef Tatung learned to cook

The restaurateur and cookbook author traces his culinary journey from his hometown of Cebu
RHIA GRANA | Nov 28 2021

Restaurateur and bestselling author Myke “Tatung” Sarthou has written a total of six cookbooks in just the last five years. These include “Philippine Cookery: From Heart to Platter” which was recognized a couple of times at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris, France; and “Rice to the Occasion: Kanin to Kakanin” and “Simpol: The Cookbook,” which were featured in the Frankfurt Book Fair, one of the largest book fairs in the world.

His YouTube Channel called Simpol, followed by over 600K subscribers, has featured over 600 kitchen-tested recipes ranging from the everyday ulam to special occasion dishes, from traditional Filipino fare to trendy global cuisine.

On his social media platforms, he regularly dishes out tips and hacks to empower newbie cooks with culinary knowledge and confidence in the kitchen. And of course he showcases his gastronomic flair by creating concepts and menus for his restaurant Pandan Asian Café.

His extensive knowledge on food, adeptness in cooking techniques, and wide exposure to the dynamics of flavors are the results of a lifetime’s worth of learning, says Chef Tatung, speaking to ANCX from his airy, Spanish-inspired new home in Antipolo. It all started in three kitchens back when he was a child in hometown Cebu City.

Chef Tatung Sarthou
With cousins in Talisay, Cebu. "We grew up with food around," says Chef Tatung.

Flavors of home

The Sarthous were originally from Manila. Chef Tatung’s paternal grandfather migrated in the 1950s to Cebu City. His Bicolana grandmother, on the other hand, moved to Manila, and eventually settled in Cebu. The chef’s grandparents from his mother’s side were also natives of the Queen City of the South. 

Thus, Chef Tatung’s parents—Michael Jr. and Juliana—were products of the coming together of different local cultures. And so was Tatung. 

Even as a boy of five, the kitchen had always been Tatung’s favorite hangout. “While my cousins played around, doon ako sa kusina. I enjoyed helping out,” he recalls. His grandmother, Juanita Sarthou, is the traditional housewife who loves to cook for her apos. She made excellent callos, lengua with olives, bacalao, asado (in tomato sauce) and mechado. “My cousins and I go to different schools, but during lunchtime, we would all congregate at our lola’s place.”

Since their helpers would typically prepare their own food, Tatung would also spend a lot of time in their dirty kitchen. He remembers his lola buying a huge fish and their labandero would get all the innards for grilling. “Sobra akong fascinated na the things we don’t eat inside ay gustong gusto nila,” he recalls.

And then there’s his mother’s family who would usually serve a medley of Visayan specialties: humba; inun-unan (similar to paksiw); nilaga with bamboo shoots, banana and kalabasa; kalderetang kambing; utan bisaya (vegetable soup like bulanglang). They also eat corn instead of rice, their sinigang more sour than the usual sinigang. “At a young age, I was exposed to the nuances of how people enjoy their food,” the chef recalls. 

Chef Tatung Sarthou
Chef Tatung (second from left) on his confirmation. His grandmother, Mama Juanita, prepared a feast the occasion.

Learning to Cook

Tatung describes his mother Juliana as someone who’s playful and creative in the kitchen. “Siya yung nagbe-bake, pa-twist-twist. Mahilig syang mag-imbento. Iba din ang [namana kong] perspective sa food from her,” he says. “Eight years old, I was already baking cakes. Pinapabayaan talaga niya ako sa kusina.” She would also bring him along to Tupperware parties, which usually involved cooking demos.

Chef Tatung remembers his mother having a collection of her favorite recipes handwritten in index cards. She liked to experiment and explore unfamiliar flavors. They would go to his aunt’s place in San Fernando, Cebu, which is three towns away from their place in Talisay, only to learn how to cure hams (she learned the process while living in the US). “After three weeks or a month, babalik kami doon, cured na sya. Then we smoke it in an old refrigerator repurposed into a smoker. Ganoon ang adventures namin when I was growing up.”

Even during his grade school years, Tatung’s mother already let him prepare complicated dishes like chicken galantina. “Marunong na akong magkatay, mag-debone ng manok at that age. Kinakarir ko yan. Kasi every Christmas, may handa kami sa bahay. Ako enjoy na enjoy naman din ako ng ganun.”

From his lola Juanita, he learned the secret to the best kare-kare. “She has this rule: when you cook kare-kare, kailangan kumpleto ang set—yung apat na paa, buntot at maskara,” he shares. “A ‘proper’ kare-kare is rich because of the collagen of the beef and not because of the peanut butter. When she would cook at hindi niya makuha ang isang set, she would never cook it.”

Chef Tatung Sarthou
At Madrid Fusion in Madrid, Spain after his presentation.

Tatung says his lola’s kare-kare has a unique consistency and flavor to it. “Wala pa syang inilalagay, pinapalambot pa lang nya, makrema na ang sabaw.” The grandmother would usually cook the kare-kare on special occasions—and usually there would be callos the following day as there’s always extra meat to cook.

His grandfather, Jose Atillo, meanwhile doesn’t cook. But he had this strange penchant for buying the ugliest looking fish in the market. “Yung weirdest looking na isda, that’s what he buys. I grew up with bakasi because he was so fond of that. Binibili nya yan buhay pa. I learned to cook that as a kid.”

His lolo Mike Sarthou Sr. managed a shipping company which handled imports. So whenever European vessels would arrive, his grandfather would receive gifts such as cheese, caviar, and paté. Tatung was exposed to foreign flavors even as a young boy because there were always these imported goodies in the family refrigerator.

His maternal grandmother, Natividad Atillo, loved making stuff you can preserve. It was from her that Tatung learned to make atchara, bagoong “with so much taba ng baboy,” jam, ham, and embotido.

But one of the simplest and tastiest dishes he loves to eat even up to now, he learned from watching their helpers cooking in the dirty kitchen. “It’s Utan Bisaya, which is a vegetable soup. Sobrang simple lang. Yung pritong galunggong, they remove the tinik. They put onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, malunggay. Then they serve it with kanin na mais.” They cooked whatever was available in their backyard—tanglad, malunggay, coconut. Meanwhile, it was his yaya, who’s from Leyte, who taught him how to make puto.

Chef Tatung Sarthou
Cooking at Club Alard kitchen in Madrid, Spain for the Madrid Fusion, where Chef Tatung prepared a seven-course Filipino degustation.

Paying it forward

Chef Tatung considers himself lucky for growing up in a family with high culinary intelligence. “Ang exposure ko sa kitchen sobrang malawak. So when I wrote my first book, hindi sya based on research. Kasi it was really part of my consciousness growing up. It was part of our culture, preparing food, discovering stuff,” he says.

All these knowledge made available to him was what inspired him to author a series of cookbooks. 

The author-restaurateur is releasing two follow-ups to his bestselling “Simpol The Cookbook.” “Simpol Kitchen Secrets” is a guidebook on cooking skills and techniques. Here, Chef Tatung breaks down the fundamentals of culinary arts for everyone’s easy reference, told through over 100 recipes, 200 kitchen tips, and 600 colored photos and artworks. 

The second is “Baking Simpol,” which has 100 recipes for desserts, breads, and pastries. Chef Tatung, who has earned praises for his innovative takes on dessert classics such as bibingka cheesecake, tsok-Nut cake, and pichi-pichi with torched queso de bola topping, teaches the art, to satisfy everyone’s sweet tooth.

Authoring books is Chef Tatung’s way of paying it forward. “Yung culinary knowledge natin it belongs to the people,” he said in his recent press conference. “Kasi hindi naman orihinal na ideya na nanggaling sa akin. Hindi naman siya kaalaman na ako ‘yung nakadiskubre. Kung ako natutunan ko siya dahil may mga taong nagturo sa akin, may mga taong nag-share sa akin, bakit ko ipagkakait sa tao na matuto din?”

What do you know about food now that you wish you knew in the earlier years of your career?

To cook simply and elegantly. When you’re starting out, you tend to put a lot of things in your dish. You put so many garnishes that are not needed. Sometimes it works, pero hindi sya for everyone.

What was your worst kitchen nightmare?

I prepared a dessert with ice cream. Ang na-drizzle ay sweet and sour sauce instead na caramel sauce. Pero dahil ako ang nagserve, the adults were like, “Chef, it’s a new flavor!” Pero the kids were like… “What is this?!!”

Three ingredients you can’t live without?

Garlic, patis, butter

Chef Tatung Sarthou
Chef Tatung holding his two new books

What’s your favorite comfort food?

Pospas and classic chicken and pork adobo

The dish that best represents you?

Paella kasi andun na lahat. (His paella is also the most requested by friends.) 

What do you consider to be the most underrated Filipino food?

I don’t consider anything underrated. Kasi some people may like it—like buro—while others don’t.

Which powerful men in the world would you like to have as a guest and what would you cook for them?

John Maxwell and Michelle Obama. I would still definitely cook Filipino food like kare-kare, sinigang, adobo.

Your last recipe to cook on earth. What would it be and why?

Paella pa din. But if it’s going to be my last day on earth, I would rather enjoy spending it with people dear to me rather than ubusin ko yun sa pagluluto.

There are countless books out there. Why do you think people need your two new books?

What we did with my two new books is we tried to contextualize cooking in the Filipino setting. It’s not just a compilation of recipes. It’s made in such a way na young cooks will understand the different methods and the dynamics of flavors that could help make them better cooks. In the sidebar, you will find explanations in our native tongue. I explains things like sangkutsa, in-in, gisa. It’s very important to understand the nuances of Filipino cuisine. 

Photos courtesy of Chef Tatung Sarthou