Region 5’s food needs little introduction, at least in the Philippines. Many have already had a taste of a Bicolano dish, be it Bicol Express or Laing at least once.
But there’s one chef who’s trying to further promote the well-loved cuisine by giving traditional recipes a new twist.
Chef Leandro “Doy” Sto. Domingo’s creative takes on Bicol’s popular dishes has been shining the spotlight on the region’s finest eats for the past 14 years.
The 44-year-old chef doesn’t settle for the usual recipes, though. Instead, he elevates each dish through influences from other cuisines such as French, Thai, Italian, and Malaysian.
This allows not just tourists, but even the locals, to have a better appreciation of Bicolandia’s heirloom recipes.
It was his stint at a pizza parlor that ignited his passion for food.
“I started 1995 or 1996 as a working student at Shakey’s Greenbelt. I was a service crew and was not assigned to the kitchen. One time, one of the chefs was absent so they pulled me in and asked me to make pizza sauce. I was nervous.”
He was handed a knife and a pack of ready-to-heat sauce. “I was disappointed. I thought I’d learn how to make pizza sauce. But after that, they asked me to try making pizza. That made me like the food industry. That’s where it all started.”
Sto. Domingo then had his apprenticeship at Pan-Pacific Hotel Manila under the guidance of Chef Sau del Rosario, a batchmate of his sister.
“I worked there as an apprentice and intern without any educational background (on cooking) because I took up Computer Engineering in college. Pan-Pacific didn’t want non-HRM (Hotel and Restaurant Management) students for apprenticeship, but Chef Sau and my sister backed me up so I got in. When I was there I made pasta and pizza.”
It was also at that hotel where he was exposed to French cuisine at the in-house bistro Le Taxi. “I was fascinated with the five mother sauces and found myself enjoying the culinary world. European, like French and Italian, cuisine was my forte then not Filipino food.”
Sto. Domingo said that when he was younger, he and his sister would cook Adobo at home, putting different kinds of herbs in the process. “That annoyed our parents,” he shared with a laugh.
He also worked at Pagliacci Sappore Italiano and Mandarin Oriental Hotel before his move to Naga.
Move to Bicol
What surprises most people is that Sto. Domingo is not from Bicol. He was born and raised in Santa Ana, Manila.
It was only in late 2006 when he found himself as the consultant of one of the biggest restaurant chains in the region for their fine dining outlet.
The restaurant opened late January 2007 in Naga, but didn’t fare well. “It was too fine dining for the Bicolanos,” he explained, “Not that it was too fancy, but it was too expensive. It was way ahead of its time.”
The owner of Avenue Plaza Hotel, however, liked and bought the concept and hired him as their first executive chef.
After a year and 10 months, Sto. Domingo was able to establish Chef Doy’s Gourmet Restaurant.
Chef Doy’s Gourmet Restaurant
The restaurant started in 2008 with the slogan “Fusion, Flairs, and Twists of Filipino Cuisine.” They served Bicolano and other Filipino dishes with a European twist.
They have, for example, Cheesy Bicol Express (Php240) which has the traditional Bicolano dish baked with mozzarella. They also have Kare-Kareng Lechon Kawali (Php260), Ginataang Pakbet (Php180), and Pancit Sisig (Php220).
Sto. Domingo knew that if they just served the usual Bicolano dishes, locals might not be interested to dine at their restaurant. “Locals won’t be too enticed if we serve them Laing, so we came up with Laing Embotido (Php250) as an example. That’s why we have fusion (dishes).”
“When we arrived here in Naga, at Avenue Plaza Hotel’s Cafe Plazuela, it’s French cuisine which we dabbled in. It was only a matter of time when people started asking where they can find good Filipino food. That’s when a thought hit me—why don’t I put up a Bicolano or Filipino restaurant and make fusion dishes out of what I know.”
This all started at a time when most people were not familiar with fusion cuisine yet. Sto. Domingo then thought of a concept that can cater to tourists, balikbayan, as well as the locals, as there weren’t a lot of choices at that time.
The restaurant’s bestsellers include Batang-Batang Pusit (Baby Squid in Olive Oil and Garlic, Php199), Kare-Kareng Lechon Kawali (Php260), Paella Bicolana (Php340), and Laing Embotido (Php250).
They also serve classic recipes such as Bicol Express (Php155), Adobong Pusit (Php195), and Kinalas (Php110) which are also a hit among their patrons.
Sto. Domingo emphasized, though, that even if the restaurant serves fusion dishes, they’re careful not to stray too far from the original recipes that they lose their essence.
“Maybe that also explains why we’re a hit rather than a miss. Because if the dishes already get lost in the process of fusion they will be a miss. But when you’re able to bring out the best in the dish and whatever twist you added then it will be a hit,” he said.
The restaurant was a huge success pre-pandemic. They had a steady stream of clients both dine-in and for catering.
But the COVID compelled the team to make a lot of adjustments. “We didn’t know what to do. We made use of the restaurant to give frontliners food. We thought to ourselves that this will just pass.”
What they thought to be a two-week lockdown went on for weeks and then months.
“After some time, we transformed it to an intimate gathering place. This is so we can move on because we had many catering services which were canceled or cut down. We catered to only 30 people at a time because that’s what’s allowed by the city. We offered intimate celebration promos to cope with the situation.”
Sto. Domingo and his team made their menu offerings available online and for delivery. They closed down their commissary and cooked at the restaurant instead.
“Unfortunately, we had to layoff some employees but we made sure that we extended help to all our employees. It has been really difficult.”
Nowadays, Chef Doy’s Gourmet Restaurant is back to full capacity and Sto. Domingo can only hope for the momentum to be sustained.
When asked about his creative process, Sto. Domingo enumerated three things as his sources of inspiration.
First is the market. “When I walk around the palengke in the morning, that’s my stress reliever. I look at the available ingredients. When I notice that a certain ingredient is plentiful, I think of the different cuisines where I can use it. For example, Thai.”
Second are the places he’s been. “Sometimes I also imagine myself in a place,” he shared, “For example, if I were in Germany, how would I prepare this? If I were in this place, what could I add to this dish?”
Lastly, he mentioned breaking free from the usual standards and recipes. “For example, they say that one should not use gata (coconut milk) in Kinalas, but it’s possible and it will become like laksa.”
They also have an Italian restaurant which opens the door to other ingredients. For example, Sto. Domingo would grab some manchego cheese, melt it, and use it in place of kesong puti. “The difference between the two is quite big, but it’s possible.”
“There was a lot of R&D (research and development) that transpired, even when I was working as chef at Avenue Plaza (Hotel), I did a lot of research on Bicolano cuisine because I’m not Bicolano.”
He considers his being a non-local and his experiences as a chef as advantages because it equipped him with knowledge on different taste profiles from places outside Bicol.
“I noticed that there are things that needed changing, not because they don’t taste good, but to make sure that they suit the palate even of non-Bicolanos. I tried different kinds of Laing, the kind cooked in different barrios. I went to all corners of Naga to know how Kinalas is cooked in different areas of the city. We did a lot of research. It wasn’t as easy as, ‘Hey, I already know that’.”
The father of four made it his goal to capture the authenticity of every dish which made it to his menu.
After over 16 years as a Naga resident, Sto. Domingo is happy at how the Nagueños have adopted him and his family. He’s become one of the city’s representatives in the food industry.
“I do my best to present Bicolano food as authentically as possible while being careful when we add twists and make fusion dishes,” he says. “We respect and honor the heirloom recipes of Bicol. We’re happy to elevate Bicol food to a higher level than usual and make it known globally.”
Bicol cuisine, he continues, is like Thai and at par with Malaysian cuisine. “It just lacks promotion so we’re thankful to the DOT for helping us promote it,” says Sto. Domingo.
Chef Doy’s Gourmet Restaurant is located at Cereza Compound, Magsaysay Ave, Naga, Camarines Sur.
It’s open from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. everyday. For inquiries, you may call 0992-304 2900 or email email@example.com.
There are two ways you can get from Manila to Naga. Local airlines travel daily to Naga Airport from Manila. Flight time takes about 45 minutes.
If you prefer traveling by bus, there are several bus companies in Cubao and Pasay that have regular daily trips to the province. Fares and travel times depend on the bus line of your choice.
Outsource the Planning
For a seamless trip, you may leave the planning to DOT’s accredited tour operators in Bicol. Click on this link for a comprehensive list of agencies.
Explore Camarines Sur responsibly by making sure that you comply with the province’s health and safety protocols, such as wearing face masks and practicing social distancing.
Ensure that you have acquired travel authority at https://s-pass.ph/ prior trip. Bring a copy or screenshot of this along with your vaccination card and valid ID upon arrival.
For the latest travel information about Camarines Sur, you may visit their official website or Facebook page. You may also review updated safety protocols and requirements on Philippine destinations at www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel.