Since the onset of 2012, my days are always full of joyful surprises. Last Friday morning, I received an invitation from an organizer of a cookfest that I will be judging their cooking competition. Little did I know, my younger brother sent a suggestion to have me as one of the judges to his fraternity brother in UP whom I happen to know personally through media events. As I began to digest everything, the organizer sent me a twist to this cooking competition. Instead of what I thought as a cooking event at a hotel or a mall, I was told that this cooking competition will be inside New Bilibid Prison! Not only is it in New Bilibid Prison, it is inside the Maximum Security Area. When New Bilibid Prison is mentioned, our mind usually plays with sinister portrayals of jail riots and killings inside the prison walls from movies of yore. Knowing very well that this does not happen anymore and that Evangelical Christian ministries inside prison already is thriving, I readily accepted the invitation.
On the events day, Iron Bar Chef Host Zeno Martinez drove me and co-judge, Chef Mark Zafra of Chateau 1771 to New Bilibid Prison. Just as we were processing entrance procedures to the prison complex, we were joined by another co-judge, Executive Chef Mike Crisologo. After layers of security checks, we finally caught a glimpse of the life inside the Maximum Security Area. Unlike the movie portrayals of Bilibid, we did not see people holding out on prison bars. In the contrary, we actually stumbled upon a vibrant community, a town within fortified walls. Along the concrete walkways, we passed by rows of restaurants boasting their specialties, café’s with their pastries and bakeshops smelling good with freshly-baked bread. Churches from various Evangelical Christian denominations also lined up the prison walkways and hails as a testament of success for various prison ministries. The escort of prison guards and designated inmate auxiliary security personnel led us to the prison covered court.
In the covered court, we were welcomed by the quadrant commander and our gracious inmate hosts who were just too happy to accomodate us. Some of the inmates sat with us and enjoyed panini over a cup of coffee while having a warm conversation with us. The image of supposedly hardened criminals that the society outside portrays people inside suddenly crashed down. No longer did I even think of what their past can be or what cases they are facing but the fact that they are already reformed or continuously being reformed inside the prison walls. After all, they are just human like you and me, some may have made mistakes while a number may have just been tagged as an accomplice but what matters is the new life they have found inside prison, the second chance that they and even all of us deserve. Our long conversation was cut short when the media arrived. I was expecting newspaper journalist to arrive but instead, reporters from ABS-CBN, GMA7, TV5 and Reuters with each doing a feature of the event!
The arrival of media representatives was the signal for us to settle down and get our acts together as judges for the event. Even as TV crews and cameras got me excited and a bit shaken at the same time, it was time for me to do the task I am supposed to do. After all, not all bloggers are given a chance like this one. While the tv cameras are being set-up, we were served with complimentary grapes, a bottle of pineapple juice and a can of yet another pineapple juice. I guess the grapes and all these pineapple juices were there to aid with digesting all the good food that the inmate chefs are thinking of cooking. With everything set in place and a few pleasantries from the prison warden and the quadrant commander, the cooking competition started without further ado. Each of the teams were given an hour to prepare three course meals of appetizers, main course and dessert out of a few ingredients placed inside a white box. No other ingredients aside from those inside the box can be used for the competition proper.
While the three of us expected good food minus the decorative relishes, the inmate chefs surprised us greatly. As soon as the timer was set, their skillful hands immediately worked their way through the ingredients like professional chefs. My chef co-judges were themselves amazed at the knife skills of the contestants. Though we marveled at the skills being shown by the inmates chefs, we were also amazed at the amount of ingenuity placed in creating or should I say, improvising the kitchen stadium. Chef Mike was awed by the improvised water tank and waste water catcher made from big empty margarine containers. Even with the limited supplies they have inside prison, the inmates had an awesome creative minds to deal with what they lack. This reminds us that prison is never a condemnation but a form of reformation. Indeed, with a discriminating society we have against ex-convicts, skills they learned in prison will help them in having a new life outside the walls.
The white box revealed a variety of ingredients from fishes (tilapia and dalagambukid), meat products (chicken, beef and pork), vegetables (carrots, eggplants, cauliflower, cabbages, sweet potato tops, swamp cabbages, red spinach and celery), and fruits (squash, apples and oranges). Condiments like salt, soy sauce, pepper and even curry powder was provided in the common area. Checking the inmate chefs’ profile, these guys have history with cooking after all except for some who had to learn from scratch. Nevertheless, the inmate cooking school program has their fruits in these handpicked gentlemen. There is much skill involved in the way they prepared their meals, some even ways of cooking unknown to many except for the chefs. Lack of ingredients called for ingenuity like the cabbage wrapped siomai which uses cabbage leaves instead of the usual rice flour-based siomai wrappers. While there was no steamer, inmate chefs made ingenious ways of steaming fish.
As the prepared dishes are taking shape, it became evident to us judges that we are going to have a hard time deciding on the winner. Far from our meager expectations, everyone fared well impressively. The one hour given time, boiled down to 30 minutes, 15 minutes and 5 minutes as the inmate chefs are setting up plates and garnishing the dishes. The looks of the dishes got even Chef Mike excited to try out the dishes. All the dishes look aesthetically good but the judging now boils down to the actual taste of the dishes. The consequence of having constrained time in preparing the dishes is that there will be some evident cooking “flaws” but understanding the situation, we categorically decided to set aside the non-essential “flaws” in judging the dishes. As the last two minutes ticked, the host told the inmate chefs to finish garnishing their dishes to get ready with what we are here for, to judge which one will stand out as the Iron Bar Chef. As the last second drained, everyone dropped from work and cleaned their stations.
Tasting six different sets of food is no easy task too. There are lots of flavors playing in our mouth and different cooking styles too, not to mention, with characteristic regional variants too. Even with my chef co-judges, the inmate chefs all did a good job, unique food items in themselves. The apparent lack of ingredients made a way for these talented hands to create new recipes in themselves that is worth taking note and even write in cookbooks. In order to making judging easier, we took note of each team’s specialty which will be the benchmarks of how we will declare the winner. While we are all very much knowledgeable with tastes and whats in cooking, it was Chef Mike who acted as the spokesperson from among us judges. His years of experience as a chef was valuable in getting things into order. Not only did the inmate chefs got a wonderful piece of culinary advice, I learned much from him and Chef Mark too. After a heavy deliberation, we decided it is a tie between Team Planet and Team Uban.
Team Planet’s fish fillet in tartar sauce was an instant hit for us especially that the tartar sauce in itself is flavorful, borrowing from Mike Enriquez, I’d say “sauce pa lang, ulam na!”. For a fanciful dish, the fish used for fish fillet was just your average tilapia which is pretty much ordinary, right? But how they turned something so ordinary to something extra tasty is a feat in itself that I commend them for. The flavor is a perfect match for their cheese on steamed broccoli appetizer and their Hawaiian coleslaw. The artistry involved is not very much surprising since their team leader, Bienvenido Diaz, had much experience in cooking special dishes for functions in the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Silangan Reception and Dining Hall, most of which are VIP’s and occasionally, guests from the various diplomatic corps. For a finishing touch, the squash-orange jam was a winner for us. Though it was meant for bread products, Chef Mike suggested to turn it into a fruit dip and it was gastronomic wonder with apple slices.
Team Uban’s eggplant ensalada with egg curry is what tickled our taste senses. Ensaladas are one of the dishes that needs a balance of taste. Most ensaladas I tasted are either too sour or too sweet but this one strikes the much sought balance. The curry egg spread on top is a monotony breaker too and provide a slightly spiced kick to the dish. What also fascinated me is the Chinese-style steamed tilapia. Even with just an improvised steamer, they were able to steam the fish into perfection, not too munchy, not too soft, just the right texture. Their Hainanese Chicken was just right, thoroughly cooked yet retaining the redness of the marrow. Team Planet’s artistry and Team Uban’s culinary skill won the day. They were awarded PhP 15,000 which would be equally divided but the rest of the contestants are not in a losing end for each of them received PhP5,000. Everyone was thankful for the event and the media people had fun with tasting the dishes too. Smiles overpowered the fact that we are inside a prison facility.
After everyone has been awarded and thanked with, we were led to a private dining area where all the judges and media were treated to a simple yet more abundant meal of chopseuy, grilled yellowfin tuna and lechon manok. Even with the former deathrow facilities just in plain view, the room was full of smiles and laughter as stories from work and the competition added an air of joy inside the room. I even discovered that one of the reporters, Ma. Bulaklak Ausente, is an Ilongga and once worked in the Regional Network Group of a rival TV station before being assigned in GMA7 here in Manila. After the meal, we were give giveaway packs of assorted pastries like fruit cakes, food for the gods and walnut bread from my kasimanwa JV Medalla’s QS Café inside prison with a matching wooden box. We were able to get out of New Bilibid Prison by 3pm and it was a bit emotional for us but a warm hug from us gave them an assurance that they are much appreciated and remembered outside prison walls.