If you are holidaying on a Mediterranean cruise ship, celebrating your winnings at an Asian casino or dining with the president of the US, the chances are a Filipino will be cooking your meal.
Since the 1970s, the Philippines has been known for its mass export of workers, particularly poorly paid maids and construction workers who choose an uncertain life abroad above deep poverty at home.
However, in recent years there has been a trend toward higher-skilled and better-paying jobs, and cooking schools in the Philippines are now churning out tens of thousands of chefs a year for kitchens around the world.
“I’ve always been interested in cooking, especially baking, even as a kid,” former bank clerk Rochelle Evaristo said, as she took a break from making sandwiches alongside other aspiring cooks at a school run by the Philippine government’s Technical Education and Skills Development Authority in Manila.
“I also want to work abroad. My cousin is in Canada and he said they need a lot of cooks,” she said.
In her late 20s, Evaristo is among the oldest of the class of 39 mostly teenaged students at the government-run school.
More than 10 million people from the Philippines work overseas, and maids, sailors and laborers are still the most common jobs.
However, cooks, bakers and pastry chefs are becoming the most sought-after professions, with ships, hotels, restaurants and casinos the main employers, school deputy director for operations Teodoro Pascua said.
Nearly 180,000 Filipinos went to work in ship galleys abroad from 2010 to last year, including nearly 72,000 head chefs, with the rest made up of kitchen assistants, waiters and waitresses, data from the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment showed.
Over the same period, about 65,000 Filipinos went to work in similar catering jobs in hotels and restaurants in foreign countries. Filipinos are big assets in the global catering industry because of their English proficiency, the ease with which they adapt to the host countries, and a resilience that belies their easy-going nature, Pascua said.
“These are soft skills that we have that make us a little more distinct than either our neighbors or other workers all over the world,” he said.
Pascua also said a graduate of the entry-level six-month course at the school would be able to master the basics in any kitchen.
“Your employers will know that you won’t drown in the kitchen. You won’t make a mess of anything,” he said.
There are about 2,500 cooking schools — mostly private, but also government-run — in the Philippines, Pascua said.
The culinary trail was blazed by Pablo Logro, a former dishwasher who rose to become the personal chef of the sultan of Oman.
Logro got his start helping prepare soft buns for a Chinese restaurant in Manila, which gave him a ringside view of its chef’s Asian cooking.
He then got a job as a chef’s assistant at a Manila hotel, where he befriended an Arab guest who offered him a sous chef job in Oman in the early 1980s.
It turned out to be at the Al Bustan Palace, where guests of the sultan would stay.
In interviews with Philippine media, Logro said during his decade-long career in Oman he regularly cooked lamb for the sultan and served visiting royalty and heads of state.
Returning to the Philippines, he became the first Filipino executive chef of a five-star hotel.
He eventually left the job to open his own culinary school and establish himself as a celebrity chef with his own successful television cooking show.
A more recent success is Cristeta Comerford, who began as an assistant chef in then-US president Bill Clinton’s White House in 1995 after working at five-star hotels in the US.
She was then appointed executive chef in the presidential kitchen in 2005 by then-US president George W. Bush’s wife, Laura, a position she carried into the Barack Obama presidency.
Visiting the Philippines last year, Obama highlighted her introduction to the presidential family of two of the better known Filipino dishes.
“Thanks to her, we in the White House enjoy the occasional lumpia and adobo,” he said in his toast at a state dinner, referring to fried spring rolls and meat marinated in salt, garlic and vinegar.
Evaristo, the former bank clerk, has far more modest ambitions, hoping to earn more money than her previous career that paid just 14,000 pesos (US$300) a month.
After on-the-job training at a Philippine hotel or restaurant following her six-month schooling, she hopes to join a cousin in Canada, who is the head chef at a Vancouver restaurant.
“My cousin doubled his salary from his previous job here [as head chef of a Manila restaurant chain],” Evaristo said.
While kitchen salaries vary greatly, virtually all pay more than domestic workers earn. Maids are typically paid about US$400 a month in Saudi Arabia and US$530 in Hong Kong, two of the most common destinations.
Even an entry-level job as a chef’s assistant on a cruise ship pays about US$900, according to industry publications.
However, while earning more money is the main aim for most students, it also allows them to dare to dream of emulating the likes of Logro and Comerford, said Imeldaughter Vera, one of the trainers at the Manila school.
“One of my students has gone on to work in a Middle East palace, cooking for a princess,” Vera said.
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