“In life, when you decide to learn new things, never forget who generously taught you, how you learned it and why you decided to learn it. As my Italian Chef mentor once shared to me, ‘The new things that you decide to learn will be the only treasure that people cannot steal from you. You can either use it to better serve your customer or to further develop yourself so you can teach others. Either way you are blessing the world with your skills and talents’.” Chef Ronnie Cantuba, former Bistro 3846 Chef
Ronnie Cantuba or Kuya Ronnie as his co-workers fondly call him is funny, hardworking and reliable. For the past two years, Kuya Ronnie served as the head chef of Bistro 3846, the food and catering social enterprise of Mano Amiga Academy that focuses on producing nutritious meals and donates all its profits to the Mano Amiga scholarship fund. Kuya Ronnie is also a Mano Amiga parent. His son, Vohnmark, is a Grade 5 student and has been a Mano Amiga scholar since first grade. Kuya Ronnie’s story is a beautiful example of how a person born in poverty can radically transform his situation if you give him access to the right tools and opportunities.
Before landing in a job at Bistro 3846, Kuya Ronnie performed one odd job after another. “I used to be a messenger and a factory worker. Later on, I became a food vendor in one of the cafeterias in the University Belt. I sold mini-pizza and pasta. Even if I am already fond of cooking, selling what you cook is a total different experience.” Kuya Ronnie recalled. “After a couple of years in the food stand, I wanted to learn more so I applied to a fine dining restaurant in Malate, Manila City. The only vacancy back then was a dishwasher. They saw my potential and after six (6) months I was promoted to the butcher position. As a butcher, you wore many hats. I was the messenger, the slicer, and basically the assistant to all the assistants but I enjoyed it. I learned a lot of the basics in cooking. I was the all-around man of the chef. After less than a year, I was promoted to a higher position after another and in six years I became the second highest chef in the restaurant. It was not an easy six years but I learned a lot.”
When asked what motivated him through the challenging years, Kuya Ronnie eagerly shared, “I cannot decide which is harder, waking up in the middle of the night due to the scorching rain that fills your house because of the holes on your ceiling, or trying to catch some sleep knowing that in any minute the bucket that you placed to catch the rain will soon spill over to the bed of your children. These moments certainly served as my motivation to earn more and provide better for my family.”
The search for a a greener pasture led him to apply to Saudi Arabia and to take on multiple jobs. “When I was there, I worked as a chef in one of the biggest hospitals in Riyadh in the morning and a salesman at night. Every weekend, I was a part-time cooker in a fast food. I was very lucky to have stronger body back then. I was never sick so I was able to work more and save more.”
With enough savings in his pocket, Kuya Ronnie went back to Manila to be with his family. Using his savings, he put up a small food stall to generate a steady income for his family. Due to a series of events, including someone close to him running away with their business earnings, Kuya Ronnie found himself again in debt and without enough money to provide for his family’ s needs.
“Luckily, I met Ate Melody, the Bistro 3846 Supervisor and my fellow parent in Mano Amiga. She told me to apply. I got accepted and what followed was the most fruitful and stable years of my life.” Kuya Ronnie recalled. “I have been through a lot in life and the feeling of being reunited with the wok and the stove brough me so much happiness. I cannot imagine doing other things but cooking.”
Under the tutelage of Bistro 3846 co-founder Chef Amelia Alba, Kuya Ronnie learned proper food preparation techniques and an extensive list of recipes from different parts of the world. Kuya Ronnie was eventually promoted to Head Chef, applying and honing further all the skills he learned. “I am very grateful to Bistro 3846 because they expressed their belief in my ability and motivated me to always be better in my craft.”
Last July 2014, the Bistro family received wonderful news. Kuya Ronnie has been chosen as a Chef de partie (CDP), in a 7-star hotel in Jeddah. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for Kuya Ronnie and his family. While the Bistro family felt sad that they wouldn’t be seeing him for a while, they were all very happy and proud of their Kuya Ronnie.
Kuya Ronnie (far right) with his Bistro Family
Last month, Kuya Ronnie safely arrived in Jeddah. When asked what advice he would like to share with other aspiring chefs, he proudly answered: “For future chefs, always strive to give your 100% in the dish that you cook. Think of it as the last meal you would ever eat in this lifetime and make it a point that your tongue will rejoice with the last flavor it will ever taste.”