Think of it as a business built with bricks of airy and fluffy butter cake – the kind only Vargas Kitchen can make. “It all started out with Lola Trining giving out presents to her friends,” recalls Chef Inez Javellana-Gamboa.
Fondly sharing some of the history behind Vargas Kitchen, as she prepared some of the cafe’s bestsellers, Chef Inez divulges that her grandmother Carmen Vargas, aka Lola Trining, originally gave away as gifts, Chocolate Icebox Cakes — confections made of chiffon cake, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream created in an era that preceded the modern refrigerator.
When Lola Trining’s kids grew older, she sent one of her trusted helpers to a culinary school where she learnt the butter cake recipe, which was subsequently tweaked by the matriarch and Tita Nena Vargas-Tantoco. Friends and family members were among the first to taste the Vargas butter cake, and they soon started talking about it.
From one simple dessert, the offerings expanded to Brazo de Mercedes, salads and even dishes that were served at the Vargas family’s dining table. “Whatever you see in the menu is what we used to eat when we were younger,” Chef Inez says, smiling affectionately at the memory.
From Lola Trining’s domain, Vargas Kitchen products found a wider audience at the Salcedo Saturday Market. After family members attended entrepreneurial seminars and drew up a business plan, Vargas Kitchen eventually launched its commercial operations from Glorietta 4 in 2006.
Transitioning to ready-made products, after years of being used to taking advance orders, the business needed to ensure the consistent delivery of quality,standard products. But careful research, collaboration and consultation helped address these challenges.
A true reflection of a family business, its members serve as key stakeholders — finance consultants, advertising and business management experts are all from the Vargas family who collaborate to help the commercial aspect of the café.
Chef Inez believes that her family plays a big part in addressing the challenges, seeing it as advantageous for the business. She states: “Family businesses can take advantage of the core competencies of the family members. It is nice that you have people you can go to, and you can be very candid [with them].”
And just like any startup, it wasn’t a bed of sugar flowers for them despite an established name. “When you join the bazaars, it is just a small group, but when you go commercial, there is a bigger competition. You have to be innovative because there is a wealth of choices to choose from,” Chef Inez admits. Challenges keep them moving, learning a bit more about the business each day, and continuing to innovate in order to give the best products to their customers.
Chef Inez describes Vargas Kitchen’s products as simple, from their basic ingredients to the food preparation, with readily available ingredients. “The best food is what you grew up with. It is not a one-time experience, but something that you can enjoy eating for the rest of your life.” What makes them stand out is their stance on delivering fresh products to their customers, eschewing the use of preservatives. “We want to make sure we give our customers the best. We are constantly making new ways to make our products last better, last longer, without adding artificial ingredients.”
As she dusts confectioner’s sugar onto a flourless cake, Chef Inez’s culinary flair and dexterity are evident. Serving her guests the Tapadera with Roasted Tomatoes and Baby Green Beans, she radiates the warmth and hospitality the Vargas ladies still retain many generations over.
Over a hearty meal of flavorful, delicious, and tender adobo, Chef Inez talks about the Filipino market and the future of the Vargas Kitchen. With a more sophisticated market, thanks to social media, more food choices and globalization, Filipinos are now better exposed to different flavors and have become more health-conscious. With these facts in hand, how will the business retain its edge in the market?
“We are experimenting on less complex flavors and sticking to home. We like to keep it simple. Everybody is going the route of being sophisticated. Whatever the customers love about us, we want to take it to the next level,” Chef Inez shares, adding that there are still various secret Vargas family recipes that may become available. Another offering that’s being planned: a dessert buffet, where customers can experience pieces of different cake varieties.
Clearly, Vargas Kitchen traces its core values to their family, taking care of their own. And like any good host or parent, Vargas Kitchen cares for their employees and customers – by treating them like family and ensuring they always get the best they can give.
Continuing a tradition, her way
Chef Inez proudly admits that the Vargas butter cake put her and her siblings through college. Having studied business management, her childhood fascination with the alchemy of flavors,texture and ingredients led her to take courses at the Center for Asian Culinary Studies
For this feature, she prepared the bestsellers from Vargas Kitchen: Cannelloni Pasta, Russian Salad, Tapadera and Adobo. The cannelloni is a whole new experience for pasta lovers, being meaty without the runny sauce. The Russian Salad balances the flavors of chicken and beets with the right amount of dressing, accompanied by the perfect-bite consistency of its potatoes. The tapadera is a continental meal experience, with baked fresh tomatoes and crunchy green beans. The tender meat slices and mashed potato combination, an indulgent escape from the usual rice meal, that still retains its Filipino flavor. The Vargas Kitchen version of our country’s soul food, adobo, will make you fall in love all over again with a dish that’s perfect on every occasion.