Growing up, Ralph’s wine stores have been part of every Manileno’s life. (This, for those that don’t know it, is a term given affectionately to the residents of Metro Manila) You can get almost anything that you could think of when you’re at Ralph’s establishments. There is an incredible selection of vinos from around the world, which they showcase in their annual showcase aptly called “The Grand Wine Experience.” aside from that, they also have an astonishing array of whiskeys, gins and beers from Japan, Scotland, and even South Africa.
While it’s unsurprising to think that they would offer up freshly made sushi at their doorstep, it did take a few people by surprise and guess what? It’s pretty damn good. Helmed by Rafa Joseph, Bar Koji is tucked into the premises of Ralph’s store, located in one of the largest financial districts of Metro Manila, Philippines. While having a few drinks of sake, champagne or beer, you can have an assortment of nigiri, tempura, makis, and other Japanese plates freshly made by Rafa.
Rafa’s affinity for the culinary arts stemmed from the family’s love for food, enabling him to pursue a career as a chef. Sleeves rolled to his elbows, a quiet smile on his face, and a baseball cap worn the other way; he exudes a natural ease into what he does, and that’s when the conversation began.
“It was my mom and grandmother who had a lot of influence on me. They would always cook. Every Sunday, we’d have dinner at my grandmother’s house, and she would teach me how to cook scrambled eggs, pancakes and French toast.” A dish that he looks at with fond remembrance is his mother’s lengua, a Filipino dish made out of beef tongue in a light tomato-based broth; when it’s paired with steaming hot rice, it becomes a melt-in-your-mouth amalgamation that you genuinely cannot stop eating.
Since then, he has been able to prosper in the culinary world with a mixture of rebellion and tradition, which is an unlikely combination and with Rafa, it works. His prowess as a talented and creative cook shows through unlimited bursts of creativity in his collaborative efforts, such as his Shining Finger! Four hands dinner, which fused Japanese and Mexican flavours with a surprising twist, would you have thought about having a scallop tostada with Parmigiano Reggiano? But with Bar Koji, it’s a different story since the family asked him to pioneer a concept that pairs well with the business’s latest import: Japanese sake.
” It was more like a why wouldn’t I do this? I love Japanese cuisine, and attending culinary school helped expand my knowledge, so combining traditional Japanese techniques and its unique flavour profile made this an excellent venture to work on.”
Rafa’s can-do and witty attitude is reflected in Bar Koji’s set-up. Decorated with bottles of premium Japanese sake, traces of the chef’s personality pop up with his collection of manga, novelty items, classic books on gastronomy and travel ( Anthony Bourdain’s World Travels can be seen along with Shaq’s Family Cookbook on the top shelf) the latter being an internal joke that only insiders who know the man can understand.
With Bar Koji, Rafa opted to stick with tradition, making a stellar lineup of Japanese classics that is carefully curated from start to finish by using local seasonal ingredients while importing produce from Japan as a way of sticking to its roots while still being able to play around with the elements from time to time. Behind the counter, Rafa pours a glass of Amabuki’s I Love Sushi sake into a wine glass, explaining that it works as a palate cleanser, making it great for a tasting course.
Starting with a glistening piece of maguro nigiri which Rafa expertly prepares, it became the perfect time to ask about his cooking philosophy, ” I’ve always loved the classics and what I will say about it is this: respect the classics before you f*ck with them* While there are plenty of innovative dishes making headlines right now, it goes back to knowing what you’re working with, keeping it simple, enhancing flavor and not going overboard.”
Another round of sake gets poured while he gets to work on another dish. This time, it’s freshly caught local uni from Batangas that he puts on a delicate bed of rice and a shiso leaf for that added an unexpected bite of freshness, which complemented the rich and unctuous taste of the uni. In the meantime, he gets candid about the changing face of Filipino cuisine. In the past 15 years, the local food scene has seen plenty of changes due to the uptick of ideas and concepts making their way to the Philippines. “It’s definitely giving plenty of room for creativity and healthy competition, which I completely support. Plenty of chefs are out there opening fantastic restaurants, and it’s evident that there is more of an awareness amongst the public and acceptance for new ideas.”
While saying this, he excitedly starts to roll up one of Bar Koji’s signature dishes, the spicy maguro temaki, an abundance of tuna and ikura stuffed into a cone filled with rice and meticulously wrapped in seaweed. Like all chefs, Rafa has seen his fair share of challenges, especially since he’s running a part of the family business. He admits where his strengths and weaknesses are: I can be a bit of a hothead in the kitchen, but that’s only because I would get flustered if some things get out of hand.’ He laughs, “Just to clarify, I don’t turn into Gordon Ramsay or Marco Pierre-White when this happens.”
As we were wrapping up, Rafa opened up that he would be starting a new concept centred on a different type of ramen but done with a contemporary twist. It will be a hole-in-the-wall establishment that we will most likely only hear about through old-school chatter and word-of-mouth musings, which is already done.
While being a chef and a good restauranteur have similar traits, there is the undeniable fact there is a difference. Not all can do both jobs with an even temperament. There were notable others who have combined this successfully. But, while it’s exciting to see what the future holds for Rafa, it is worth noting that he exhibits these qualities well by fully immersing himself in the nuances of the day-to-day operations of Bar Koji while entertaining the regular customers who all come from different walks of life that sit on the bar.
VIETNAM / ASIA
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