Do you have a clear memory of your childhood? Is it still as vivid in your mind as when you were young?
Most of us dream of great things today because of some peculiar events and experiences we had as a child. And so when the opening lines of a story are ‘When I was young…’ or ‘when I was growing up…’ and it is recounted by someone who has remained humble despite his achievements, we know it is a great one.
Chef Robby Goco, the man behind Cyma Greek Taverna
and Green Pastures
, started his story with those same lines. The friendly chef shared the story of his childhood and life growing up beaming with enthusiasm. Our conversation became an afternoon of looking back and looking forward filled with animated stories intertwined in every answer he provided. Plus, of course, great Greek food.
Check out this video to see how Chef Roby perfected the Opa!:
CHALLENGING MANANG CHOLENG
Chef Robby reminiscing his childhood days in the kitchen with their mayordoma
Before Chef Robby dominated the restaurant scene in the Philippines, competing against big names and even competing against himself, he was first competing with their family’s mayordoma, Manang Choleng.
Chef Robby’s curiosity with food started with his parents even though both of them are not into cooking. His father was a lawyer and has a library full of law books. Unfortunately, as much as he wanted to explore the library, young Robby was only allowed to touch specific collections in the house and that included the Time and Life Cook Books.
On the other hand, Chef Robby’s mom, who’s an educator, doesn’t cook but knows good food. Chef Robby boasted of a childhood where no processed food was allowed and no junk food or even soft drinks existed.
But in all of Chef Robby’s stories, his mayordoma’s name always comes up. Manang Choleng, who was Bicolana-born and Ilocandia-raised, became their family’s cook for 32 years. Chef Robby still remembers how their mayordoma will cook everything from scratch, regardless if she’s feeding the family or 20 more visitors.
Soon young Robby is in the kitchen, correcting and challenging Manang Choleng, creating food based on the recipes he had read, using different techniques, and coming up with great results.
Between concocting recipes and challenging his mayordoma, Chef Robby realized:
“I wanted more! I wanted to see what they are offering in this side of the world.”
CHALLENGING THE FILIPINO PALATE
Chef Robby brought the Greeks’ simplicity even to the table setting.
Chef Robby’s showdown with their mayordoma turned into passion. After studying at the California Culinary Academy and working for a while in the United States, he went home with the desire to open his own restaurant.
A family friend advised him that if he wants to have his own restaurant, he needs to own a cuisine; he took this advice to heart and searched for a cuisine that he can bring to the Philippines.
With his background working in the United States, Chef Robby knew that if a cuisine is popular in New York, Manila will soon follow suit. And one cuisine stood out that hasn’t been brought to the Philippines yet: Greek.
Chicken Souvlaki, Lamb burger, and Lamb Yiouvetsi served at Cyma. (Image: Cyma)
Chef Robby went to Greece to study the cuisine. After months of traveling, and learning their way of cooking and techniques, he saw the similarity of their ingredients and dishes to those of the Philippine cuisine.
“The pattern is almost the same when they cook. Kasi in the kitchen there’s only one language naman eh. But what struck me the most about Greek food is the simplicity of it.”
Guests enjoying the creations of Chef Robby
With the discoveries he made in the different parts of Greece, Chef Robby went home and created his menu. But despite the excitement there was still a little bit of fear that ensued. When asked if he was confident that the Filipino palate would like it:
“I was so sure that they’ll like it but at the end of the day I was still worried that it might not be accepted. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just too confident about it.”
Cyma's first branch in Boracay
Chef Robby took calculated risk and decided to open his first Cyma restaurant in Boracay with two reasons in mind: First, if the Filipinos won’t like his food at least the foreigners would. Second, he dreamt of lounging at the beach while sipping cocktail on one hand. Fortunately, even though Chef Robby didn’t get his cocktail by the beach, both foreigners and locals loved his food. This gave him the confidence to finally bring Cyma to Manila.
Ten years later, Cyma became one of the most popular creations of Chef Robby. It became the standard of Greek cuisine in the Philippine restaurant scene and eight branches later, people are still excited to taste his food.
CHALLENGING THE GREEKS
If you ever find yourself in Greece, you’ll see plenty of tavernas sprinkled around the city. A tavern is a little eatery where locals and foreigners alike gather to have a taste of the authentic Greek cuisine. Chef Robby was able to bring his own taverna experience in Greece to his restaurant through its unique interiors and the food itself.
Chef Robby Goco makes sure that his food is simple but made with the best ingredients he could find.
Greek cuisine is very simple and basic. Greeks tend to use what is abundant in their land and those are olive oil, grains, and wine. Because the country is surrounded with water, you’ll likely see more seafood dishes rather than red meat. But through the years and the innovativeness of the Greeks, herbs, vegetables, cheese, and red meat followed, with lamb being one of the most popular meat.
Chef Robby was able to achieve the authenticity of the Greek cuisine by using their basic ingredients. He sourced his ingredients from different parts of the country and some from Greece itself. He also incorporated his mother’s rule of only using the best products and his mayordoma’s way of cooking everything from scratch.
The fresh Whole Sarangani Sea Bass with simple seasonings, grilled to perfection.
In Cyma, simplicity is seen from the appetizers to the desserts. Looking at their American Style Greek Salad, you’ll find that it’s just a humble bowl of different greens and vegetables tossed together with dolmadakia (rolled rice encased in leaves), but with the use of fresh and prime ingredients, the simple salad is elevated with a burst of flavor in every bite.
If you sample their Whole Sarangani Sea Bass, you’ll notice that the fish is not slathered with any sauce on its skin but rather just with simple seasonings. It’s not even stuffed with anything on the inside other than the lemon slices, but once you take a bite the fish is still fresh without any of that smoky or burnt taste you’d expect. Great food prepared simply.
Chef Robby brought Greek food that Filipino’s can be familiar with like this Lamb Yiouvetsi, similar to the Paella that we know.
The secret to Cyma’s success and why it stood out among its competition:
“You have to remember that at the end of the day you are not feeding Greeks, you are feeding Pinoys… I need to understand how I can tailor-fit my cuisine or that dish of a particular country to the Filipinos. Educating Filipinos more and not imposing on them; offering an experience that we would easily accept.”
And Chef Robby was able to achieve this uniquely Greek experience tailor-fit to the Filipino palate by sticking to a simple technique: using the same recipes but coming up with better ingredients through the years.
CHALLENGING THE NORM
The simple but unique light fixture at CYMA Greek Taverna
When asked why he opened Cyma, Chef Robby has two goals: to bring the Greek experience to the Philippines and to create sustainable jobs. After 10 years, it’s safe to say that he succeeded with both his goals all because he refused to follow the norm.
Chef Robby was able to bring the Greek experience to the Filipinos without being cheesy or over the top. The consistent palettes of white and blue in their restaurants will make you travel to the famous village of Santorini in Greece. The nautical inspiration is also evident in the simple rope accents and overhead lights, depicting the proximity of Greece to the sea.
Chef Robby brought Greece even in the interiors of his restaurant.
Even the staff will make you feel like you’re in Greece. Although they are not dressed in white robes with laurel wreaths on their heads, you might hear them scream “Opa!” from time to time. It only means that a flamed Saganaki (flamed cheese appetizer) is on its way to a table.
Chef Roby knows the perfect balance of being authentic to the Greek cuisine and being authentic to the Filipinos. He knows that if all of his ingredients are sourced from Greece to bring his customers a seemingly “authentic experience,” no one might be able to afford it. So Chef Robby stayed faithful to the cuisine by preparing food the way Greeks do, starting from scratch and without any shortcuts. In terms of the ingredients, he sourced the root ingredients of the Greek cuisine from Greece such as olive oil, feta cheese, and oregano. Other ingredients are sourced locally, but Chef Robby made sure that everything is fresh and organic.
The CYMA Staff at work
His second goal is achieved through his ingredients. Chef Roby makes sure that to be authentic to Filipinos, he needs to buy the best items he could find in the country. He was able to achieve this by creating relationships with his farmers. He makes sure that they are also benefitting from his restaurant and not just the middlemen.
Chef Robby also doesn’t believe in contractualization. He knows that to be able to preserve the standard of the food you also have to maintain and train the people under you, you should not replace them on a regular basis.
“What I’m really passionate about is great food, but then again my real desire here is to create jobs. To have farmers, not only importers who benefit from what I do… for them to be able to produce great ingredients, great vegetables or produce. They’re also profiting from this not just the middleman.”
So the next time you dine at Cyma, you are presented not just a cuisine worth 3,500 years of history but also the best that the Cyma kitchen and all the farmers behind it can offer.
CHALLENGING THE FUTURE
Chef Robby’s passion spills out in every story he shares
With Chef Robby’s story in mind, every bite into his food is a glimpse into his childhood. His creations depict young Robby’s experience with his mother’s principles on food and their mayordoma’s cooking coming to life.
However, each bite also reveals how Chef Robby wants to challenge the future of the Philippine restaurant scene. Growing up with freshly prepared food, saying no to commercialization and adapting the farm-to-table experience are Chef Robby’s dreams for Philippine restaurant kitchens. And these, you’ll readily see in his restaurants Cyma and Green Pastures.
“I’m against commercialization. We don’t operate a commissary. All my restaurants are chef-based, recipe-based. We don’t have anything in a commissary sending us cooked food. We don’t have a microwave in the restaurant. If ever, we use it for the employee’s meals… It’s really about quality. Remember you’re (customers are) paying a lot of money and my responsibility is to give you high quality food, prepped by chefs.
"My wish is...I want kitchens to start cooking and not start assembling.”
Today, what drives Chef Robby is not just passion but desire.
“It’s not really about passion, for me I believe it’s really your desire to come up with food that’s consistently great.”
Cyma's Eastwood branch
And with that desire, he is continually challenging today’s methods and ingredients; challenging the Filipino restaurant scene that it can be organic and sustainable but still produce great food. He is always going back to the values he learned in his family’s kitchen.
Do you have a clear memory of your childhood? Can you still remember it vividly as when you were young? Chef Robby Goco does. He even confessed that at the end of the day, after all his travels and adventures and the different cuisines that he has tasted, he still goes back to his childhood favorites. When asked what his favorite dishes are, they are the simple Filipino food prepared by their mayordoma, Manang Choleng.
Fortunately, his childhood has also inspired him to dream. Cyma Greek Taverna is just one of the products of that dream that Filipinos now enjoy for ten years. Through it, Chef Robby’s childhood and Manang Choleng’s techniques in the kitchen live on.