Serving Old World charm and slow-cooked cuisine, the award-winning restaurant occupies one of Baguio’s most storied structures.
In 2009, Roebling Hotels was awarded the building and property that used to be the Casa Vallejo Inn. The previous occupant was the DENR, which moved in after the family of the late Salvador Vallejo vacated the premises and the main building containing the Casa Vallejo Inn was left unused for more than a decade.
The DENR offices occupied the “newer” annex where Mt. Cloud bookstore, the North Haven spa, and the Cinematheque are now located. With plans to restore the
building and put up a 24-room hotel, Roebling invited Mitos Benitez Yñiguez, of Mario’s fame, to run the restaurant. She named it “Hill Station” for historical reasons.
Baguio was built at the turn of the century as a hill station for R&R for the Spaniards who had planned it and then for the Americans who would build it. The Casa Vallejo is one of the few remaining original buildings left in Baguio, so Yñiguez is rightfully thrilled and proud to be in this beautiful, special place in the middle of a changing city.
Their look is just spot-on: old and rustic yet elegant and historical (colonial even). According to her, the hotel and the restaurant are “connected at the hip”. Though they have separate managements, they are symbiotic in that they help each other with promotions, such as discounts and packages for conferences. The breakfast for hotel guests is served at Hill Station.
“I was scared,” confesses Yñiguez when asked about how she felt establishing Hill Station on her own. Although she had helped her parents run Mario’s all her life, she had never owned one herself. From the time she opened, it was “about a year before the dust settled and the war dance became a ballet”. Yñiguez just put out ads in the local paper, since she wanted only local, homegrown people like herself. “I didn’t care if they came from some ihaw-ihaw bar down the road, I just wanted to know how hard they worked. And I could sense if they were hard workers, I could teach them anything.” Whether her employee is old (since day one, that’s the majority), new, or an OJT, she gets involved with them on a personal level. “Sort of like a mother giving advice whenever I need to correct or explain why it’s this way or that way. Whether it’s fine service or how to clean a bathroom properly.”
Yñiguez considers her staff — from the managers to the dishwashers — the key support to her business. As for service, it’s also old world. The staff greets you by your name once they recognize you, and they even know what you’ll order before you even say it.
Such collaborative efforts, among other things, have resulted in accolades. In 2012, on its second year, Hill Station was recognized by the Miele Guide. Yñiguez had no idea who they were or how they got to know about the restaurant. After she received several emails, she called their office up in Singapore and said: “Is this a hoax?” And so she and manager Pia Salazar went to the gala dinner in Singapore and found themselves in the midst of all these great chefs and restaurateurs from all over Asia. Yñiguez was incredulous.
If the award felt too good to be true to her, the food is too good to be false. The Hill Station cuisine is a reflection of the old style of cooking from her lola’s days: slow-cooked, local produce from the market down the road; nothing canned, homemade everything, from tomato sauce to sundried, pickled, handmade, home-smoked sausages, hams, bacon, smoked fish, homemade breads, desserts, salad dressings, jams, chutneys and savory stuff that they bottle, too. For Yñiguez, the Baguio market is tops. Sagada is also a key supplier, from kumquats to etag to pottery. She goes to Ilocos for vinegar, garlic, shallots, bagnet, and even as far as Tuguegarao for longganisa. “I love travelling in the north and I visit their markets and establish connections with the best there is from their region,” she adds.
A few years before Hill Station, Yñiguez left Mario’s (for the umpteenth time, she says) and started doing a home catering/dinner by reservation only at her house. She recalls, “I loved it! I cooked whatever I wanted to, from Moroccan dinners, to Indian, Sri Lankan, Thai, Italian, whatever! I mix-andmatched my menus so it all fit in. I did everything from appetizers to dessert and was just enjoying myself completely! I hired my neighbors — the wives — in my barrio and taught them to serve. They helped me chop, stir, whip things up all day until the guests arrived. Then I’d give them an hour break to eat, freshen up, put on uniforms, while I had a good stiff drink and then my whole aura would change when the guests arrived. It was like hosting my own parties every time.”
This penchant for the culinary arts began early on. “I was always looking for ways to support my personal habits and capriccios since high school. My mom was very strict and didn’t give in to capriccios.” For example, she liked riding horses, scuba diving, travelling in the Philippines, and any adventure she was not allowed, being the youngest and only girl. So she rebelled and made her own money to indulge her whims. She baked, supplying heraunt Leila Benitez’s coffee shop in Rizal Theatre with apple pie, chocolate cake, and cheesecake while she was finishing up high school. Her mother taught her about food costing, markups, profit margins.
She goes on: “Then when I left home, ‘on my own’ at 21, Boy Yñiguez, boyfriend/still my partner in crime/husband till now haha, and I were starving to death so I made all the jams, chutneys, fruitcakes, food for the gods and whatever every Christmas, and sold them so we had Christmas money. So I’ve been doing this racket for a long time. I’ve never been to cooking school, but I give credit to good genes, both from my mom’s side (Villarreal) and my dad’s (Benitez) where there are good cooks in our lineage. My mom Nenuca Villarreal Benitez is one of the best!”
Having grown up in Baguio since the fourth grade, when her family moved up, Yñiguez calls the city home. She had moved back to Manila at least four times, for high school, college, then back, had kids, went back to Manila, and then finally came back for good. She has always loved the art scene in Baguio, which is why she moved back here at 21. And perhaps the secret ingredient to the success of Hill Station? “I love the people I work with, play with, love the Cordillerans, the mountain provinces, this is the real deal. And one can be oneself up here. It’s a simple life, it’s a small town and I love it! I think the cool mountain air breeds cool heads. And I think the vibe in my restaurant reflects this feeling I have for Baguio.”