Cooking it up with Chef J Gamboa

By Ana de Villa Singson

Who among us hasn’t been to Milky Way, a stone’s throw away from Assumption San Lorenzo?
Milky Way is the favorite meeting place for Velada conferences and reunions while Cirkulo,
Tzujiri and Azuthai, all part of the family-owned chain of restaurants, have cult followings. It’s
no wonder that when we announced that the culinary wiz behind all these restos, Chef J
Gamboa, would be the featured chef of the AAA Cooking and Baking Club, the registration list
quickly turned mile long.

We had record attendance in the Zoom cooking session on August 18, reaching 72 participants at one point. Cirkulo is known for its steaming, moist selection of paellas and J was letting us in on the backroom secrets of a paella dish he had tried while travelling with his wife, Maja. On the day’s agenda was Paella Calamares Y Spinacas! Valuable tips were shared that day. He taught us to add saffron, that aromatic wildly expensive yellow spice, only when the broth for the paella was warm rather than boiling hot. Apparently, adding saffron to a boiling hot stock only burns away all that delicious flavor. Another secret is the rice used. He advocates for Japanese rice or Arborio and tells us to stay away from Dinorado, Jasmine and “malagkit”, a big no-no! Another tip is to cover the paella with foil when popping it into the oven. Doing this results in a moist consistency while leaving the paella uncovered, gives us a drier finish. If covering our paella with foil, the ratio of broth to rice is 2:1 while uncovered paella requires
more broth at a ratio of 3:1.

While the paella was cooking in the oven, J demonstrated Azuthai’s Crab Omelette. He
patiently nursed the omelette at medium heat, allowing it to thicken much like a tortilla. I
counted around 7-8 minutes of that mindful patient tending of the omelette before he expertly
flipped it onto a plate, then flipped it back on the reverse side to the pan. And the pan? Non-
stick please or making this omelette will be truly challenging. It was truly fascinating that while
he was tending the paella, the Assumption alumnae network was in full swing. Chef J had
shown us the brand of tinned chunky crab that he used. In no time, we found the sister – in –
law of the manufacturer among us. In no time, we had the entire selection of tinned crab
offerings posted in our club’s Viber thread. And in record time, we had organized orders for
those cans of crab meat! What can I say? Assumptionists are really women of action… we strike
while the cooking is hot…literally!!!

What was truly spectacular was that J had cooked 2 Master Class dishes from start to finish in
40 minutes! That remarkable efficiency and discipline can only stem from Master Chef
confidence and experience! The culinary centerpoint of 4 thriving restaurants which welcome
hundreds of patrons at any given time, Chef J showed us that cooking can be facile,
streamlined, calm and disciplined. He should know. He churns out thousands of dishes every
single day!

Chef J, fondly called J by many of us, hails from a family of beloved Assumption alumnae. His
youngest sister Malu, who merrily greets all of us when we dine in their restaurants was thereto support J, as was Maja, his wife. His other sisters are Assumptionists too. Popsy, the eldest,
is famed for the eponymous store which features Milky Way ready to cook fare and imported
goodies. Gina, the lawyer among them, is a dear dear friend! We traveled to Japan together on
a college student exchange program. And my first foray at cooking adobo and sinigang was
with Gina, in that very same pristine stainless steel kitchen that J had cooked the Paella
Calamares Y Spinacas and Crab omelette in. Truly, in Assumption, it’s a small, small world. We
are all friends and family!

Thank you, Chef J, for that cooking demo! We ‘ll be seeing you soon for sure in Milky Way ,
Cirkulo, Tsujiri or Azuthai!

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