This was first published in the April 2017 issue of Rogue.
“Some people say I sold out.”
Chef Bruce Lim sits behind his desk in his office on the second floor of one of two warehouses that contain the operations of Mise en Plus Foods Inc., a food manufacturing company that provides, among other things, frozen and ready-to-eat meals for convenience stores, bread and pastries for hotels and restaurants, and in-flight catering. The name is a direct pronunciation of mise en place, the French culinary term for “everything in its place.” Lim’s office is small and neat, filled with an equal amount of paperwork and figurines from pop culture and anime.
It’s been about five years since he closed his last restaurant, five years since he packed up his chef’s whites, disappeared from the dining scene, and moved into the mass production of food. Lim hasn’t changed. He’s still bald, still hefty, and still swears like, well, a chef. He doesn’t see his career shift as selling out. “I try to uplift the standard of food that’s being sold in convenience stores and in-flight catering. For the longest time, a lot of them have been given shit,” he says. “I make sure I know that if my kids go to any convenience store or whatnot, they’re getting good food. It’s not 100 percent processed, it’s not bits and pieces of meat that have been glued together.”
Lim’s story is dramatic, with enough ups and downs to make a compelling novel. Raised in the US, Lim graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, worked his way up the ranks in some of America’s finest restaurants—at one point working under Gordon Ramsay—before deciding to take a break in Manila. “I got burned out. I’d be lucky if I got a day off in two weeks. And you’re working at minimum, 16 hours a day… I got into a big fight with the GM at the time and he told me, ‘If you don’t do what I tell you to do, you might as well resign.’ So I said, ‘Okay. Fuck you. I’m going to do what you told me to do. I’m going to resign.’ So I resign. I call my parents, ‘I’m going to take a few days off, come home for a bit.’ So I come here. I was here for about a month or two months, then I got into TV.”
His first stint was a cooking segment for Umagang Kay Ganda. Later, he co-produced Tablescapes, a food magazine show on cable that he co-hosted with Angel Aquino. He lost money on the venture (“The first partner ran off with the money so I had to pay for everything, and then the second one, instead of getting money in, it was all done in x-deal so I wasn’t earning anything”) and decided to go back to his roots, cooking. He started hiring himself out as a chef for private dinners. His success led to the opening of modern Filipino restaurant Chef’s Table in the then barely populated Bonifacio Global City.
Chef’s Table was a hit at first, a destination restaurant that reached at least 80 percent capacity every night. Lim says that he stretched himself too thin, that he was juggling a TV show and couldn’t be at the restaurant as much as he wanted to.
Running a restaurant isn’t easy, and there are less who make it than those who don’t. There’s more to a restaurant than its chef, even if he’s a well-known one. You have to match the menu to the market, and you have to match the market to the location, and you have to match everything to the price point. Everything is a delicate balance, down to the management of egos—the chef’s, his partners’ (if any), the staff’s, and most of all, the clientele’s.
In the end, it took just one bad night to send everything crashing. “One of my cooks didn’t do a line check correctly. He didn’t taste a piece of tuna and it went to somebody who started tweeting and bitching about it. Then this chef jumped on the bandwagon and started blasting me with tweets. It’s like, ‘Okay, you haven’t been to my restaurant, you haven’t even tried my food, and now you’re going to blast me with tweets because he’s your friend?’ That entire circle of friends just stopped coming. It was just done.”
It didn’t help that the restaurant was basically in the middle of nowhere. The boycott, plus the lack of foot traffic, meant he had to close. “My biggest mistake on that one was the location was too big for the capacity that I needed to operate. Operating expenses were too high.”
“My thing is I always tell my clients, ‘If you want quality food and you want it right, get it from me. If you want the cheap shit, go to the other guy.’
In what he admits was a newbie move, Lim opened another restaurant to compensate for his loss. “It’s the worst thing you could possibly do,” he says. He opened Hyphy’s, which served SanFo-Philippine cuisine, in Robinsons Galleria’s now closed Veranda. The restaurant didn’t do well. Lim was accused of mismanagement, but he says that location had a lot to do with the restaurant’s lukewarm reception. “We didn’t get any foot traffic. Nobody was there. The only one who I think had a lot of money was a beer-drinking place. All the other people in that area also gave up,” Lim says. “After we left that company, my partner’s partner put up another company and they opened up another restaurant there—a pretty well-known chain restaurant—and it didn’t do well either. I think he kind of realized that it wasn’t all on me and it was about the location. So he kind of cut me some slack after that.”
The there was Chef’s Lab, which he opened with “a person who until now still hates my guts.” The restaurant was located in the then new Burgos Circle, which Lim says was not the best. “Parking was insane, and we couldn’t get the office and call center people because it was kind of too far for them.”
Lim has a point. As New York Times columnist William Safire said, location, location, location is the most important tenet of real estate. To an unbelievably large extent, this goes for the majority of the restaurant industry as well. In contrast, Lim’s current place of work is in the middle of an industrial park. Not that it matters; he’s still proud of what comes out of his kitchen.
The thing about Mise en Plus, he says, is that it’s run his way. “It’s a corporation so we do have partners, but it’s not that heavy. Every joint venture I had with partners always ended up so badly because a lot of them become experts right away. They throw in money, so everyone’s an expert, pretty much, and I hate that shit.”
The company started, essentially, because Lim was broke. “I went bankrupt. I pretty much had P50,000 to my name.” He was still, however, Brand Ambassador for Lee Kum Kee. Part of his work involved pitching to clients, one of which happened to be a convenience store. “They said, ‘This is really good, can you make this for me?’ And with my back against the wall, knuckles bleeding, no choice, I said, ‘Yeah, I can do it.’ I said yes without thinking about it and it was tougher than hell. Everything that you would do with dough—I didn’t know that there were machines that would roll things for you, so my wrists were black and blue from manually rolling these things.”
It didn’t take long for Lim to learn the ropes of food manufacturing, though he says there’s always something new to learn. “I started to pay off my debt really quickly, and then I learned that there is a market for this. So what I would end up doing, because I didn’t have any money, I would x-deal a lot of my demos. I would go to different suppliers and say, ‘I’ll do a demo for you, just pay me in kind, x-deal.’ I started doing that until I was able to pay for everything,” he says. “So even if people think that I sold out, I don’t care. It’s because I had to do what I had to do to survive.”
There is a surprisingly long list of things to take into consideration when preparing food on such a massive scale. Food safety is one of them. Extending shelf life is another. Lim’s goal is to produce food that’s as close to fresh and additive-free as possible. Stuff he wouldn’t be afraid to serve his family. “There’s a lot of crap that you can put in. You can put in what they call anti-amag, you can put in extenders, you can put additives or flavor. I’m proud that I don’t do that. I know what food should be and I want to take it to the next level. I’m sure my competitors aren’t so happy about it because I make better-tasting stuff than they do because I make quality, not so much price; they think about price more than they do quality, so it suffers and shows,” he says. “My thing is I always tell my clients, ‘If you want quality food and you want it right, get it from me. If you want the cheap shit, go to the other guy.’ I think my moral compass is pretty straight and narrow. I don’t want to compromise because my kids eat this food. If I can say I can feed this to my kids and my kids will eat it, I’m cool. If I can’t eat it and my kids can’t eat it, then I’m not doing the right thing.”
One has to admit that convenience stores have upped their edible fare since Mise en Plus opened. “I’m not saying I’m the one who made them do that, but I can say I raised the bar and people are chasing after me and they’re probably pissed off that I did it and I don’t care. I think that we’ve been gearing more to what the Japanese are doing in their convenience stores. If you go to Japan, you get everything at a convenience store. It’s cheap and it’s good. That’s what I want to do. So I said, ‘We’re not going to cut corners. We’re going to think about food safety. We’re going to think about health,’” Lim says. “Now, if you look at all the other convenience stores, they’re starting to uplift their image on food. They’re starting to get better. It’s really a constant battle to make sure that you think of things that are great.”
Lim talks about his strategy. “What I tried to do was I tried to look at it from a restaurant point of view, and I think that’s where I became successful. So we take more pride in what we do. We have smoked ham or a farmer’s ham, or instead of it just being regular processed cheese we use Gruyere, Swiss, Havarti—we up the ante a bit and we make sure it’s affordable so everyone can buy it,” he says. “A lot of the convenience stores I supply to, they’re a lot cheaper than a lot of the high-end coffee shops that have sandwiches, and I’m sure that my sandwiches are a lot better than theirs.”
He also makes sure to update himself on what’s going on in the industry globally. “A lot of times, where we were in the convenience store scene was so far from what the world is doing, say Japan, Taiwan, or the US. I’m fortunate that I can travel around, that I can look at the other places and I see what they’re doing. It’s more than just a sliced piece of cake. Now we think about different types. Instead of just regular banana bread, we have chocolate chip coffee banana bread. We think about so many things and flavor profiles that we can do and we make it so it’s convenient for people to eat.”
We make a lot of the fried bread that I mentioned and people don’t realize that Chef Bruce was the one who conceptualized it. So it’s kind of tough, but I’m proud that I don’t compromise on anything that I put into my food. That’s the proudest thing for me.
Is he glad to be out of the kitchen? Yes and no. “I’ll always be a kitchen guy. Do I miss it? Hell, yeah,” he says. “It’s a different pressure now. It’s about how we can do things, how we make things better. We have to be innovative, but I don’t have to worry about how many covers I’m going to have to do tonight. How many reservations do I have? Am I in a good location so I can get walk-ins? It’s not a problem. I get a PO, I get paid in 15 days, 30 days the most, I don’t have to worry. I just produce it and I’m done. So as far as pressure goes, big relief. But to get to where I am now, it was freaking tough. I’m not saying you have to sell your soul, but you have to understand what the client needs, and you have to do it.”
The relative anonymity of being in the manufacturing industry is a godsend as well, especially for someone who has suffered his fair share of trolling on the internet. “I don’t have to be in the public eye, I don’t have to take fire for anything. I’m making money, my clients are happy, the only thing I have to worry about is if I get my deliveries done on time and if I need another oven because I need to have the capacity going. It’s really just fun. I still know a lot of the chefs in the industry and I still supply them. Some of the chefs in the different hotels and casinos, I do supply.”
He hasn’t entirely left the restaurant scene, either. Rustique Kitchen, his restaurant with Tony Boy Cojuangco on A. Arnaiz Avenue (formerly Pasay Road), Makati, is under renovation, though Lim says that it too has a location problem, citing traffic as one of the factors that make it hard to get to, as well as the presence of big-name restaurants that are more top-of-mind. “But Sir Tony is a very cool man,” he says. “He’s a very easy businessman to deal with. I’ve never had any issues with him. He’s really a down-to-earth guy, which is amazing, when you think about his position in society. I think out of all my partners, he is the easiest and the nicest one to be around; and to think, he’s probably the richest of them all. I’m lucky enough to work with him and do things with him.”
Despite Mise en Plus’ success, Lim does admit to missing the limelight. “I’m not going to say we’re a covert ops or anything, but my team, we make a lot of things that people eat and they don’t realize that we make what they’re eating. We make a lot of the fried bread that I mentioned and people don’t realize that Chef Bruce was the one who conceptualized it. So it’s kind of tough, but I’m proud that I don’t compromise on anything that I put into my food. That’s the proudest thing for me.”
Bruce Lim has gone through a lot in a short amount of time. Would he change anything? “I never regret anything I do in my life because it shapes me to be the man I am now. Am I unhappy about it? Hell, yeah But I don’t regret it because if I didn’t do that, I might have done something else and I wouldn’t be where I am now.
“I run it like a kitchen. Bar none, everyone in the kitchen gets to eat for free. We do have events. I try to do as much team-building things as I can. I train people, especially my R&D team. Last year, my R&D team won gold, silver, and bronze in Philippine Culinary Cup. I think we were the only commissary kitchen that went in and we beat some of the hotels. I think that was one of the best things that my team needed because we do a lot of work for different hotels and when you look at us, we’re a commissary kitchen. I tell them, ‘You guys are good cooks. You just don’t realize what you’re doing. Let’s join a competition so you guys can see that you can make this.’ They knocked it out,” he says.
“I love the kitchen, I love the restaurants, I would definitely do it again”—he says, takes a deep breath, then continues—“when I don’t need the fucking money.”