“IT’S FUNNY, BUT after a year of being open, whenever we were there on Sundays, it came to a point where we just felt redundant,” Jae Pickrell of La Chinesca says matter-of-factly, adding: “which is a good problem to have.” In April, she and her husband, chef Bruce Ricketts, will see their fledgling taqueria joint go from beloved, not-so-secret hole in the wall in BF Parañaque to the heart of one of Makati’s most prominent shopping malls. As part of the illustrious roster of local chefs selected for Power Plant’s elevated food hall concept, The Grid, Ricketts sees this second branch as a way of providing La Chinesca fans far and wide the gift of accessibility. “I think what’s exciting for us is that we finally get to bring our food closer to our customers who travel all the way from Quezon City or Greenhills—and hopefully, that means they get to see us more often,” he says.
How does he feel about making such a drastic shift, going from the self-professed “freedom of falling on your face in BF” to the confines of a major shopping center? “It’s actually a luxury!” Pickrell admits. Ricketts agrees, adding, “We don’t consider it a restriction because you have to understand that at The Grid, while we’re working with a similar floor space, the entire 20-square-feet is our kitchen. At our original branch, 18-square-feet was the whole restaurant. So imagine what we can do with that space—how much further we can go. To actually build a professional kitchen that complies with a mall’s requirements is an advantage for us. It’s the first time we’ll actually have our own tortilla machine.”
He goes on to reveal that the backbone of his confidence in their latest plans for expansion owes to none other than La Chinesca’s staff—many of whom have worked behind the counter with Ricketts for years, some even as far back as when he first opened Sensei Sushi. “Working with a team like that makes it so much easier for us to expand, especially from a palate perspective, because they truly understand the nuances of how I work. From a craftsman perspective, they’ve been seasoned with years of service. For me, it’s like going into battle knowing someone has your back.”
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING
With an eye for expansion, a lot is riding on La Chinesca’s team and the staff seems to be ready for the challenge. “They don’t need him or me to hover around and teach them things anymore,” says Pickrell. Chicharon Taco, Lamb Barbacoa, and Campechano Taco.
“It’s like going into battle knowing someone has your back.”
Because Bruce taught so , they can everything themselves,” Pickrell concurs. “They don’t need him or me to hover around and teach them things anymore.”
“Which was the whole point of it,” Ricketts chimes in. “For me as a cook, the idea was to first train all of them and then let them do their thing, so that eventually I learn more about the whole process from them as the craftsmen. I’ve seen our chefs go from working a tiny griddle to being able to handle 20 tacos at the same time. I find myself watching and just being really impressed by them. You end up emotionally reminiscing about the days when they weren’t at that level yet—when they were just cleaning the vegetables or scrubbing the floors—and next thing you know, I’m the one who has a question for them!” he relays with a laugh. “To have that relationship with cooks that you’ve worked with from the bottom up is such a genuine experience. You’ll get teary-eyed. It’s given a deeper meaning to things.”
Ricketts also maintains that it is because of this fundamental trust in his staff that, despite its new residence at a bustling food hall, La Chinesca’s second branch will continue to serve up the sort of à la minute style of cooking that he has become famous for. “The way I see it is, our staff allows us to be hands-on without being physically present all the time,” he says. “I can be there physically, just when people aren’t around yet: making the long stews, seasoning the meat, making the masa, really touching the dough. That’s the beauty of Mexican cuisine: the longer you let it brew, the tastier it gets. It’s one of those things where we knew from the get-go that I don’t have to be the one to make thousands of tacos, but there will be someone from my team who will do that one million times better than me.”
“I think for Bruce, ultimately, when you’re talking about the staff and how he’s nurtured this culture within the people he’s worked with, it really goes beyond the food. The food just happens to be the product of that,” Pickrell says. “But I mean, it doesn’t hurt that it tastes so good.” ■