Bruce Ricketts isn’t one to blow his own horn. He’s quiet and kind in the kitchen. Contemplative, even. Here in the kitchen, he’s putting the finishing touches on a plate of tender hamachi with almost humble devotion, before the flame-kissed mackerel is whisked away across the copper inlaid pass. “We store our fish for twelve days at one degree Celsius to allow its flavor to fully develop.” He may be an international culinary luminary, but when he says it, his eyes light up like he’s just seen Santa Claus.
Mecha Uma, in Manila’s pompous banking district, is known as the Philippine capital’s sushi Mecca. Its Japanophile owner and head chef, Bruce Ricketts, has been a successful restaurateur here since the tender age of 27. At least, other people would call him that. He himself is way too modest—he just says he’s been really lucky. And if you didn’t know his long list of accomplishments, you might even believe him. These days, the intuitive master sushi chef is part of a proud generation of Filipinos who are helping the country’s haute cuisine develop a reputation far beyond its own borders. In addition to his gourmet flagship, Mecha Uma, Ricketts also runs three other restaurants here in town. But it wasn’t all that long ago that, if you’d told him he’d end up as a culinary shooting star in his home country, he’d probably have looked at you like you had two heads… because Ricketts is actually a trained martial-arts professional, just like his father was before him. A real-life Ninja Chef, you might say. Ten years ago, father and son even moved to the US together, to work for the US Army as hand-to-hand combat trainers.
Back then, young Bruce didn’t know the first thing about cooking. His whole life was about katanas, knives, and landing the right punch. But a tragic twist of fate forced the now-27 year old to reevaluate his life: his father suddenly lost his battle with cancer. “It all happened really fast,” Ricketts says. To keep his head above water, he started moonlighting at a California restaurant as a dishwasher. “Somehow I just loved being in the kitchen from the very beginning, even as a dishwasher,” he recalls with a grin.
And so the seed was planted: Ricketts was fascinated by the culinary creations around him, and he decided he wanted to work his way up through the kitchen hierarchy.
“Becoming some big famous chef was never my dream. I just wanted to learn all the techniques they used at each station, to soak up all that knowledge. My plan was to establish Californian cuisine—with all of its Spanish, South American, and Asian influences—here in my home country.”
The newcomer got a little help along the way from none other than California star chef Jason Knibb, who acted as his mentor during his formative culinary years. “He helped me see cooking in an entirely new light. He changed the way I think about it, and changed the way I work with products—and more importantly, with producers.” After learning the trade on the American West Coast (and pimping out his resume on the side with a Culinary Management degree from the Art Institute of San Diego), his main goal became opening a restaurant in his homeland.
At first, though, nobody in the Philippine megalopolis was all that interested in Bruce Ricketts and his exotic food. “So I had to come up with a new plan. I basically had to develop a new, working concept out of thin air.” But what? The sushi craze had just reached Manila and was spreading like a virus. “It was something new and different, and people here just went crazy for it.” The only problem? He barely knew anything about Japanese food. “I read books, watched videos, whatever I could get my hands on that would give me a good basis.”
And as it turned out, that crash course in Japanese cuisine was a meeting with destiny for this cooking Karate Kid. “I just threw myself into it, because I felt this really strong connection to it, and that feeling has never left me.”
A phoenix rising from the ashes
By November 2012, Ricketts was ready to rock. He opened up Sensei Sushi, his first Japanese restaurant—serving omakase-style, as befit a master sushi chef with class. Naturally, he imported his hamachi, bluefin tuna, and the like straight from the Land of the Rising Sun. Besides dishing up classics like sushi and sashimi, he dazzled the Manila fine-dining community with now-legendary dishes like Matsusaka beef with charred eggplant, wasabi, spring onions, and ponzu. His signature toro sushi and his imaginative fusion creations soon became the talk of the town. But the restaurateur and chef, then 23, wasn’t satisfied yet. A change of scenery was in order.
To help his high-end restaurant reach an appropriately high-end (as in “well-heeled”) clientele, he packed up shop and moved to the ritzy district of Taguig City, a jungle of skyscrapers populated by bankers, brokers, and politicians. He also gave his place a new name: Mecha Uma—Japanese slang for “absurdly delicious”. The techniques he uses are too complicated to allow him to open for lunch. The meticulous chef even refuses to use a fish scaler. “We shave off the scales with a sharp knife, because after the fish ages, the meat is very soft. An ordinary scaler would affect the texture too much.” His obsessive love of details and the exceptional quality of his products have made the honorary Japanese chef one of the best in his entire country.
At age 27, he already operates four restaurants and he’s near the top of his field, so is he ready to rest on his laurels? “No,” he says. “Fine dining in Manila is still in its infancy. We want to help establish it more. And we need to incorporate more regional products in the future, so that we can all keep growing together.” When asked whether he plans to hand over the cooking reins to others in the future so that he can concentrate on his little restaurant empire, Ricketts smiles and shakes his head. He loves being in the kitchen too much, finding new ways to challenge himself day after day.