Chef Jayme Natividad: Taal Vista Hotel’s world-class culinary whiz

You mention a world-renowned chef to him, and most likely, Taal Vista Hotel’s Chef Jayme Natividad had collaborated with them or had encountered them in New York’s top restaurants where he apprenticed or worked.

In my recent weekend stay in the most enduring legend of a hotel that overlooks Taal Volcano, I had the privilege of enjoying the culinary specialties of Jayme who shared with me his storied journey.

The list of those he had worked with or cooked for is quite impressive, starting with “Martha Stewart at Balthazar and Lupa where the entire kitchen would stop just to make the orders for her table.

“And then, there were Donald Trump, Katherine Zeta Jones, Leonardo Di Caprio. Sarah Jessica Parker and husband, Matthew Broderick, who were the first celebrities I made food for when I worked the cold kitchen at Balthazar.

“IM Pei would go to the open kitchen at Gramercy and talk to me and Liz Magampon (my Filipino cook friend) as we cooked his food.

“I’ve cooked for a Saudi prince, Senators Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi and a number of Forbes-listed CEOs when I worked for Wolf Gang Puck at Postrio in San Francisco.

It was challenging as I had to make sauces with no wine or alcohol. They enjoyed it and were very gracious and thanked us after.

“There’s Meryl Streep, Liv Tyler, Keanu Reeves, Rite Moreno, Michael Jordan, Donna Karan. Chefs Daniel Boulud, Anthony Bourdain, Jean Gorges Von Richten, Eric Ripert, among others. Cooking for these famous chefs was very fulfilling for me.”

Jayme’s rise in the chefs’ hierarchy had been gradual, one that saw him painstakingly sharpening his skills through hard work, dedication and patience.

“After my internship at Balthazar in New York City, I was hired as a prep cook,” he related.

“There I rose from prep cook to line cook working salads or cold station, hot apps station, the grill, fish station, and sauce or roast station which was the highest position for a lead line cook.

“I moved to Gramercy Tavern, a fine dining Restaurant. After that, I helped open Otto Pizzeria of Mario Batali. Then I moved to Lupa, one of his other restaurants.

Then to Fiamma, a 3-star Italian Restaurant with Michael White. My next stop was Fiamma in Scottsdale, Arizona, and finally, Posytrio of Wolf Gang Puck which closed down during the recession.

Family that loves to eat

Indeed, it had been a long way for the boy from San Juan who, “while I was growing up, was helping in the kitchen and watching my mama, Lola, and Yaya, all good cooks, whip up a dish or two.”

Theirs was a family that loved to eat. He recalled, “We ate home-cooked meals for the most part. Sunday lunch was at my Lola’s house in the company of cousins, Titas and Titos present. Also, every now and then, we would eat out after mass on Sundays.”

His childhood memories include dining in Kimpura in Greenhills, Golden Unicorn, McDo, Big20 Burger, and Cookie Monster, “a variety of restaurants that allowed me to enjoy a wide range of culinary specialties from fast food to traditional specialties.”

A big treat for him was when “we used to go to the public market where I enjoyed eating Pancit Bihon, or Pancit Luglog, and Special Halo-Halo with Ube Ice Cream. I also loved street food like Fish Balls and Mangang Hilaw with Bagoong.”

Although early on in life, he already wanted to be in the hospitality industry, “maybe because our family loved to eat, and so I was toying with the idea of a career in hotel and restaurant management or the culinary arts, I instead initially took up Human Resources Management at the College of Saint Benilde.”

Learning the French technique

But his love for cooking remained. “I would cook when my schoolmates and I had to work on a project in our home,” he recalled.

“Finally, I enrolled at the International Culinary Academy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There I learned the classical way of cooking which is the French Technique.”

He was lucky to have “my parents backing up my choice. They understood that I did not want a regular desk job. In my heart, I dreamt of working for famous chefs and restaurants, ones that would last long. In time, this became a dream come true for me.”

He was lucky to have met top Filipino chefs Romy Dorotan and Amy Besa of Purple Yam in Brooklyn. “They used to have Cendrillon in SoHo and that was where I met them. They were pioneers of Filipino food in New York City and the United States and had been there for over 25 years when I met them. I put Romy as my reference when I was applying for my internship. He gave me a good recommendation. That’s why I got into some of the hottest restaurants at the time.”

Creating Taza’s menu

With the recession, though, he decided it was time to come home to the Philippines. Besides, he had found out that the culinary scene in Manila and the Philippines had revved up.

He soon worked in several restaurants and it wasn’t long before he was offered a job with the SM Hotels properties. First, was Park Inn Davao, followed by Pico de Loro in Batangas.

And finally, at the Taal Vista Hotel. “I was interviewed by the GM who flew in from Davao and asked some technical questions about operations on top of the other usual questions. He was satisfied with my answers. Then I cooked for Chef Leah Magallanes, the Vice President for Food and Beverage. She enjoyed the Sunburst Salad, Seabass with Tomatoes and Sweet and Sour Shalots, Crushed Olive Potatoes and Lechon Pasta.”

It has been 10 years since he joined SM Hotel Properties. This is in his eighth year at Taal Vista Hotel. “I’ve had a wonderful and fulfilling career here with the help of my team, without whom I could not have done it. We conceptualized and created the menu for Taza Restaurant. We served APEC & ASEAN dignitaries. I was also invited to Madrid Fusion and got to cook for the Head of the Madrid Fusion when they visited Tagaytay. Jayme has since received citations, including the Taza being named to the Tatler Best Restaurants Guide.

Among his numerous concoctions, he recommends “Bulalao, Tawilis, Pininyahang Manok, Kare Kare and Buko Paradise at Veranda. At Taza, he suggests Tomahawk Pork Chop, Porterhouse, the Pastas and Mezzes. At Alta, the Mixed Grill Platter and the Glazed Ribs.” Of course, whipping them up is all part of his day’s work. “There are no secrets in this day and age,” he explains.

“Almost everything is out there. Although I try to make a certain recipe my own by adding something or changing something. Which is common for chefs. “Otherwise, we have a standard recipe -yes, it sounds so corporate- but it has to be done for certain reasons, and you really need to love and enjoy what you do or else it won’t be fun. I don’t think I’ll excel if I don’t enjoy what I am doing. Cooking gets so routine and there are lots of mundane tasks involved like peeling potatoes and chopping garlic if you do this day in and out. But when it comes to the actual cooking you need to feel the excitement of putting and mixing ingredients together and make it delicious and look nice and appetizing on the plate.”

Fulfilled by mentoring As head chef, he focuses as well on “sustainability and waste management. I hope that what we are doing will be beneficial.”

When asked what he would want to be recognized for, he said, “Hopefully by those who I have worked with in the kitchen, that I trained and mentored, that they become good at what they do and become successful. “I encourage my staff when they have job offers abroad to take it if it’s any good. Sometimes, when they’re there already, they message me asking for career advice. I am happy to see them doing well when they post about their latest successes on social media, or when they message me when they get a raise or promotion.”

Another big high for him is “working in Tagaytay, which is nice and peaceful. The air is fresh and there is no traffic like in Metro Manila.”

During the pandemic, he stayed in Tagaytay even when the hotel was closed. “Like the majority, I found it a challenging time. I kept busy by cooking at home which I rarely do in normal times. And since I cooked a good amount I shared some with the kasambahay who helps me take care of my dogs, the security guards, and some neighbors. Then when we opened the hotel for quarantine, we cooked for the OFWs.”

As he looks back now, he is happy with his decision to return to the Philippines. “There’s so much good food out there now. Lots of young and talented chefs!”

Finally, as to how he would want the government to contribute to the betterment of Philippine culinary arts, he recommended, “Focus on bettering our agriculture so that the country has sufficient produce and livestock. So that the basics like rice, onions, garlic, fish, and meats are affordable.”

Well said by a Filipino who chose to come home and share his expertise and dreams with his countrymen.