This was first published in the June 2017 issue of Rogue.
“We still get calls from people thinking we’re still in BGC or some guests would dine here and look for Jordy’s food.”
Chef Patrick Go is between services at Black Sheep along Pasong Tamo, Makati. The same Black Sheep that caught Manila’s attention and appetite back when it was still in a swanky two-story penthouse at the heart of Bonifacio Global City. At that time, the restaurant was known for its tasting menu that featured modern Filipino dishes by Chef Jordy Navarra. Its first incarnation went the way of similar fine dining restaurants: expensive, decadent, and a sort of culinary status symbol. But just as fast as it gained popularity, Black Sheep closed shop as the owners parted ways with Navarra, who went on to start Toyo Eatery.
Go was part of that original team and helped Navarra as a chef de partie. “I learned a lot from Jordy,” says Go. “He taught me how to value produce, etcetera. It was fun and I learned a lot of modern techniques. [He] influenced me the most. [Sa kanya] ko nakita kung paano mag-operate ‘yung restaurant. Tinulungan niya ko kung paano mag-lead ng tao, how to communicate to people the right way.”
But as the early and sudden end of Black Sheep proved, there were a lot of issues amidst all the acclaim. “I think the problem before was that people were looking for something more, I guess,” says Go. “They were looking for something different all the time. The menu didn’t change that frequently. We were open for, like, two years and the menu changed only once.”
It’s been a little over a year since Go headed this second incarnation of Black Sheep. Now in a more modest, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it location (2230 Chino Roces Avenue, UPRC1 Building, Bangkal, Makati City; 744-1569), the restaurant has traded the pomp and circumstance of the original for something more manageable. “I told myself that I wanted to do a different version of Black Sheep but maintaining the brand. Black Sheep has to be outside the box but still appealing to the people.” Go took inspiration from Navarra’s own philosophy of cooking from your roots and decided to turn the new Black Sheep from modern Filipino to his own take on Filipino-Chinese cuisine. “I wanted to infuse my roots. I’m half-Filipino, half-Chinese.” But like most things, that proved easier said than done.
“Actually when we started, medyo hindi ko pa siguro mahanap yung sarili ko. Especially the first two months. It was totally different,” admits Go. Call it the necessary birthing pains but getting his first crack as head chef (not to mention being a partner) provided even more pressure for him. “The first month, the menu was parang multicultural. I was pushing for a multicultural thing where there were influences of Western, European, etcetera, etcetera. And then I felt na hindi na siya nagwo-work. I learned I wanted to represent myself also.”
After a rough first month, Go took it upon himself to not only hone in on his roots but spend more time researching and relearning the cuisine he grew up on. “I just studied all the flavors that are familiar to Filipinos, kung paano nire-represent ang Chinese cuisine in Manila. I went around Manila and checked out more Chinese restaurants. Ano ba appealing sa mga tao? Ano yung alam niyo na Chinese food? When I talk to people kasi I tell them na parang Filipino cuisine is very broad. I can say 50 or 60 percent of Philippine cuisine is influenced by Chinese cooking. Like soy sauce. Soy sauce is not Japanese. It’s not Filipino. It’s Chinese.”
As he refocused his menu, Go learned another problem he needed to solve. One of the biggest critiques of Black Sheep during its first few months was that its pricing was too high for such small portions. And considering that Filipino and Chinese cuisines are usually served in large, family-sized portions, he knew he needed the restaurant to adjust as well. “Most of the items are bigger now to cater to families or big groups. Most of the a la carte dishes now are good for sharing. Like lauriat style, in a way. But we try to make it more defined and unique pa rin.”
The son of an Ilonggo mother and a Chinese father, Go spent his childhood with an appreciation and an abundance of food. “My mom loved to cook. So I was exposed to different Filipino dishes, like the Ilonggo tinola, batchoy, etcetera. Sa Dad’s side, we’d go to Peking Garden or Jade Garden or we’d go to Binondo also. Binondo food, I think it’s a version of Chinese. It’s the perfect interpretation of Filipino-Chinese cuisine. They try to make it as authentic as they can but they cater pa rin to Filipinos.”
The product of all of this is Go making the most of his culinary heritage, combining Filipino-Chinese flavors and techniques to offer something both familiar but refined at the same time, such as Black Sheep’s Salmon Charred-Sui.
“It’s our take on pork asado,” says Go. “We marinated the salmon in the pork char siu sauce and we grill it then smoke it. And then pair it with our house made X.O. sauce rice, instead of bagoong rice. It’s very hearty. It has both modes of Filipino and Chinese and it’s good to share. Everyone loves it here kasi you have the Asian-y component of the char siu and you have that Filipino-flavored rice. It’s a crowd favorite. I guess ‘yun yung best na nagre-represent ng Black Sheep now.”
“Before kasi when we started, [our dishes were] like, all ‘sparkly’ and very pretty. It was totally different,” describes Go. “Nung nilabas ko siya and all the reviewers came, iba-iba yung review. May okay, may hindi, ‘di ba? As a chef, it hurts but you have to still push [yourself] and your philosophy. But siguro, I realized you have to listen to other people also. Some chefs I know kasi, they’re very stiff. They’re pushing for only what they know. But the market is really important rin. So I have to listen to them and to those reviews also. It helped me change the menu and [refocus] the philosophy.”
After about a year and half of operation and a revamped menu, it seems Go and Black Sheep have finally found their footing, but the chef admits it’s still an uphill battle. “It’s very hard for everyone na magsta-start ka ng sarili mo. It’s very hard to think of a concept that would really stand out, ‘di ba? It’s either you follow the trend or you go out of the box and fight for what you believe in. That’s what we’re doing here right now and, yeah, it’s still very challenging.”
“To be honest [the market] is pretty slow pa rin but it’s gradually picking up,” says Go. “Right now, we want to reintroduce Black Sheep as, not like a fine dining restaurant anymore. We want it for big groups, for families. Just represented as a very accessible restaurant. What I like about it now is it’s very fun. The food is very fun. Very playful pero very familiar pa rin. I’m trying to pick up what the market wants now. I’m trying to balance it. And then slowly incorporate it sa menu. It’s about trying to find the right balance.”
Another issue he’s still trying to address is the misconception that Filipino and Chinese food are “cheap.” For Go, the challenge is to showcase the cuisine as more than just the usual fare. “For a lot, it’s more of like a casual thing. Parang ‘di siya tini-take very seriously. It’s like ‘gutom ka ba?’ ‘Kain tayo Chinese food? Chowking or whatever.’ Parang ganun. And even Filipino food eh. Like before, it was just kung nagugutom ka or wala kang makainan, kain tayo sa carenderia. Yun yung mga misconceptions. It wasn’t really presented properly. It wasn’t given that recognition. Filipino food kasi is very flavorful. It’s not simple at all. A lot of people are saying it’s very simple but it’s not. It has to be cooked well, [has to] taste very good. The misconception is that it’s very casual or it can’t be upscale. That Filipino food can’t be fine dining. Well, look at Jordy now. Look at Toyo. Look at Vask. They’re infusing Filipino.”
Despite less than five years in the industry, Black Sheep has garnered a controversial reputation in and outside of the kitchen. But for Go, he understands that it’s all in the past and says he still maintains a healthy relationship with Navarra. “It sounds complicated. I don’t know. I visit him sometimes, we’ll be talking. I don’t know kung ano rin interpretation ng mga tao eh. I’m just working here. I’m working the restaurant. For me, it doesn’t matter. If it’s gossip talaga, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter to me.”
For Go the focus is on not only making Black Sheep his own but making it successful amidst Manila’s oversaturation of restaurants. “It’s been a year and a half and, well, I know a lot of people hindi pa rin alam na nandito kami [in Makati]. I’m not sure why.” He says maybe it’s an issue of proper marketing. “Yun nga, some of the people, when they call, they think na nasa BGC pa rin kami. I don’t know kung bakit ganun. Sobrang daming restaurants now. Siguro walang soul, walang story or walang background. Like, yung mga gastropub, business side lang talaga. I understand rin naman their side. As businessmen, mas gusto nila kumita ng pera. It’s understandable. But I think it’s better if you also represent something greater. Like for us chefs, we want to prove something. We want to represent something greater than money. Like ako, I just want to make people happy. You know what I mean? People come back when they enjoy the food, when they enjoy the entire menu. Yun lang. I don’t want to be a celebrity chef. I don’t want to be famous. I just want to feed people.”
Go has a lot of good intentions and the skills to back them up, but he also knows that it’s a tough business with all the expectations that come with running a restaurant. “It’s hard. This year, next year, you really don’t know what’s going to happen, kung paano magre-react yung market. Next year baka iba na naman yan. Baka ‘di na nila type yung ganitong concept. Baka gusto na nila mas casual. So I’m trying to balance it out para kung ano yung gusto ng market [we will cater to it] and still represent myself and Black Sheep.”
The name might be familiar but after several months of ironing out the kinks and refocusing the menu, Go is achieving what he set out to do in the first place: to make Black Sheep feel entirely new and inspired again. No matter the baggage of its past, Go is now carrying the restaurant on his shoulders and only time will tell if Black Sheep can establish itself once again as a must-try destination or if success lies in greener pastures.