“I think that if you use the right ingredients, the right cooking method and the right serving technique, that’s enough. You let the food speak for itself.” J. Gamboa has remained down-to-earth and modest. The likable chef from Manila would have every reason to develop an ego based on his achievements. He learned the culinary arts at the world-famous Culinary Institute of America, and achieved a Bachelor of Science in hotel, restaurant and travel administration from the University of Massachusetts.
International recognition for Filipino cuisine
Chef J. Gamboa will go down in the gastronomic history of the Philippines, in particular as founder of the LTB Philippines Chefs Association, a non-profit organization which aims to bring together Filipino professionals from the gastronomy and hotel industries for the first time, while also helping them to develop an international standing.
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As a member of the World Association of Chefs Societies, the Filipino hospitality experts have a stable position among their international colleagues – thanks to Chef J. Gamboa! The chef also led the LTB Culinary Team through numerous competitions, promotes Filipino cuisine abroad and is a sought-after panel member for national and international culinary contests.
Filipino chef – Spanish restaurant
1995 Gamboa also demonstrates his practical skills as a chef on a daily basis and manages several restaurants. Cirkulo, a Spanish restaurant he founded in 1995, which he runs with his sister Malu, is particularly close to his heart. He still runs his own modern and smart kitchen in this establishment to this day. “During a visit to Madrid, Malu fell in love with the tapas concept and decided to open Manila’s first tapas restaurant,” the restaurateur explains. The young woman hired Spanish designers and furniture makers and launched Cirkulo in 1995. When she needed help in the kitchen, the brother got involved.
The restaurant won the Bonlac Great Chefs of Asia award for the Philippines just one year after it opened. Cirkulo has won the hearts of countless fans with signature dishes like Paella Montaña with portobello mushrooms, asparagus and roasted garlic. And J. Gamboa is always inspired to develop new creations on his travels!
J. Gamboa was born into gastronomy
“This was the first restaurant we managed all by ourselves – with a lot of help from our mom of course!” says the restaurateur. Speaking of the family: “My three sisters and I really grew up in gastronomy,” says J. Gamboa, whose full name is J. Jose Leonardo A. Gamboa Jr. “As the name is so long, they probably had to shorten it a bit,” he assumes. “My mom says the J. comes from Jude, the local patron saint of hopeless cases. My parents most likely prayed to him that they would eventually get a boy – and then I came along!”
But let’s go back to the beginnings. His maternal grandfather acquired the Milky Way Ice Cream Factory in 1962 and encouraged his children to open ice cream parlors selling ice cream and popular snacks. The Milky Way coffee shop chain was born – and was a real family affair right from the start! “My mother managed up to 15 Milky Way restaurants,” recalls the famous chef. “When she started, we lived right above her first restaurant, on the ice cream factory premises. We all grew up there.”
Milky Way cafe: Ice cream and burgers with a sixties flair
And today, 60 years later, the tradition lives on in the two Milky Way cafes run by J. Gamboa together with his sister Malu. In addition to Filipino specialties such as the mishmash dessert Halo Halo, there are also burgers, hot dogs, milkshakes etc., which reflected the America-influenced society of the sixties and are still trendy today. “The Milky Way cafe offers the typical range of hotel coffee shops, but without 5 star prices,” says J. Gamboa, describing the concept. “The Milky Way Halo Halo and our homemade ice cream are a must!”
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To this day, the stores stand out with their nostalgic atmosphere. The dominant element is always a huge, well-stocked counter with all kinds of snacks and delicacies. The traditional brand fills an entire building in Manila. It not only contains, besides Cirkulo, the specially designed Milky Way branch opened by J. Gamboa to mark the company’s 40th anniversary in 2002, which perfectly radiates the typical nostalgic charm of Milky Way with its granite counters, narra wood walls and black and ivory-colored floors. The restaurateur actually runs two more restaurants in the building!
Tsukiji and Azuthai – 2 restaurants offering the finest Far East cuisine
Founded in 1989, Tsukiji offers authentic Japanese cuisine by chef Toshiro Okajima, with sushi, sashimi, Wagyu cooked at the table and more. Since 2008, J. Gamboa has also been running Azuthai. Chef Watee from Bangkok celebrates authentic Thai cuisine with unique signature dishes such as crispy duck salad, crab with salted egg yolk sauce or boneless Angus ribs with tamarind sauce. Oh, and by the way: J. Gamboa is also one of the top 20 Best Chefs of Instagram in 2022.
When asked how he has managed to maintain his high quality for decades, the exceptional chef smiles: “I turned my hobby into a career!” Coming from the friendly Filipino, a line that would sound like a platitude from anyone else is instantly believable! But wait, there’s more: “I just enjoy cooking and serving our guests. I want them to experience what I experience when I discover new dishes on my travels! And I want our profession and the Filipino chef community to keep on flourishing!”