Saturday, November 10, 2012

Just Desserts

(Published Nov. 4, Sunday Inquirer Magazine)
By Oliver M. Pulumbarit
Photo by Alanah Torralba

He burned the pancake during the second elimination round for “Junior MasterChef Pinoy Edition,” not exactly an auspicious beginning for aspiring chef Jobim Jalbuena.

The dish was simple enough, but he didn’t know how to use the induction cooker, said the 14-year-old, of the appliance that he would wind up endorsing for Meralco as an energy saver in the kitchen.

But life has a way of turning around for this fourth placer in the ABS-CBN reality cooking show who was named after Antonio Carlos Jobim, the Brazilian composer of “The Girl From Ipanema.”

It was his older sister Audrey who had wanted to join the show, but she was overage, Jobim recounted.  So instead, she signed him up online.

Fortunately, Audrey’s interest in food rubbed off on the younger Jalbuena who confessed that he had always wanted to cook and become a chef.

But he had to beg his mother Wendy to allow him to join the contest based on a British game show that in turn spawned an Australian version for young hopeful chefs.

“She knew it was like a reality show and feared that it could change our lives and the lifestyle of the family,” recalled Jobim.

The auditions called for would-be contenders to bring a dish of their choice, and Jobim chose salmon fish cakes with tartar sauce.  The burnt pancakes came next, but fortunately, he was allowed to redo it, said his dad Ricky.

After the audition came the immersion, when a crew visited potential contestants at home to tape their cooking rituals.

“The crew liked that he was so clean,” Wendy said. “He kept saying, ‘Excuse me, I need to have this washed. My mom kasi (expects it)… we don’t have helpers.”

That helped get Jobim in.  Forthwith, he had to be driven from Makati to Marikina several times a week except for Wednesdays when the contestants had tutoring sessions.

“That was very thoughtful of the network,” noted Wendy. “The (production people) spoke to the Education department where they learned that the young contestants were entitled to 40 days of absences.”

Xavier School too was super supportive, added Ricky.  “Xavier has been pushing innovations in education.  It helped us have a more open mind (and see) this contest as an opportunity to learn.”
It was an opportunity grabbed by Jobim’s other siblings as well. “Later, my other kids started watching cooking videos and learning to cook. (The contest) opened our eyes to the different ways you can raise your family,” said the older Jalbuena.

But landing just fourth in the contest was painful for Jobim and his family who admitted to having difficulty adjusting after their long, shared experience.

“After the finale, we told Jobim, ABS-CBN has plans,” Wendy recalled. “But he said, ‘I don’t wanna be an artista!’ He wanted a title. He really takes cooking seriously and it took us months to recover. Jobim felt that he failed the people who supported him.”

Still, Wendy acknowledged that the network was supportive of the young contestants and knew how sudden fame could affect them.  Thrust into the spotlight with their success or failures televised to a huge audience, the young contenders definitely needed professional help to cope with a lot of pressure.

Junior MasterChef Philippines production manager Mercee Gonzales said they made sure they had one. “We have a resident psychiatrist who debriefed contestants after they got eliminated from the show to check their emotional stability and give them counselling if needed.”

The contenders’ passion for cooking apparently stoked similar fires among other chefs.  Wendy recalled how virtual strangers selflessly helped Jobim behind the scenes, including Chef Florabel Co-Yatco, who lent the boy stacks of cookbooks and allowed him to train at her Makati restaurant Felix for almost a month.

Jobim recounted as well what he learned on the set aside from just cooking a better pancake.   “Being on the show taught me to respect the ingredients more,” he said. “I also learned discipline in the kitchen.”

His fellow contestants taught him the biggest lesson he has so far taken to heart: “They remind me when I get mayabang (conceited)!”

But he has remained grounded, he added. “The only reason I like fame is because I can get money to buy stuff,” he said candidly.  But the price—the lack of privacy—is something he is reluctant to pay.  “I can’t do stuff that I enjoyed doing before, like going to malls with family and friends.  And I have to smile (even when I don’t feel like it),” he groused.

Still, the “money to buy stuff” has been very handy, said Wendy.  “Jobim invested in a Mac, treated us to dinner in a fine dining restaurant and bought his siblings clothes. Ten percent went to tithing, for our church’s mission works, while the rest of the prize money we invested in mutual funds.”

But the bigger prize that Jobim got might as well be the hunger to do more and experiment with cooking techniques to improve his skills further: “I want to try molecular gastronomy and use liquid nitrogen. You make a lot of things, like ice cream, in five minutes. It just hit me when I watched ‘Top Chef.’ I find it interesting.”

Agreed Eugene Raymundo, Limone Culinary Concepts’ executive chef and senior food stylist:  “Shows featuring culinary prowess, whether kids’ or adults,’ never cease to amaze me,” he said.  “It just shows that you can create great and innovative dishes even without formal schooling. Shows like these inspire people.” 

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