Ferdinand "Budgie" Montoya, owner of Sarap in London, didn't plan on opening a restaurant months before a global pandemic. The 38-year-old, who was born in Mindanao and lived in Australia between the ages of 5 and 30, spent years developing his brand through pop-ups, supper clubs and residencies before moving into a space in Brixton Village at the end of January — less than two months before London entered lockdown March 23.
Montoya is luckier than many other restaurateurs, financially speaking. He won his location through the competition and incubator programme Brixton Kitchen, which granted him a rent-free period until October, so he didn't have to rush to reopen when restaurants were allowed to do so July 4. But that grace period is coming to an end, and in mid-September the British government hinted that they might again close restaurants "for a few weeks." We spoke to Montoya soon after the government's plans were made public.
Why did you decide to start a Filipino restaurant?
I guess I sort of started missing home and started missing my mum's cooking, and … her celebrations and things like that. … Coming back to London from a visit to Sydney, I wanted to look for some Filipino food, and I found a few little places, but nothing really stood out for me, nothing really satisfied that craving. … I wanted to create something that was somewhere I would like to take friends and colleagues to be proud of Filipino cuisine.
Before the lockdown, what kinds of dishes did you serve?
Our hero dish was … a lechon belly, with all the trimmings: atchara, with our version of the liver sauce, spiced vinegar. … One of our most popular dishes is … roasted celeriac kare kare, which is extremely popular, especially for people that have no idea what kare kare is. … We're very much led by cooking with charcoal, so trying to incorporate … open-fire cooking in our cuisine.
What have you been doing since the shutdown began?
Initially, I was obviously trying to test out whether we could do food delivery … but it just wasn't viable for us in terms of the size of the kitchen and in terms of storage and things like that. So we stepped away from that, and essentially been trying to negotiate our lease agreements. …
We really are, at the moment, planning for a brand-new opening, because we're going from what we were, which was a sit-down, sharing plate type concept, to a more fast-paced (concept). We're going to start looking at doing rice bowls, pulutan, snacks and things like that, and then also lechon as well. … We're changing our name from Sarap to Sarap BAon, just to create that more casual feel to the whole business model.
How would you describe the vibe that you want to create?
I've always kind of wanted it to be the feel of someone's house … a typical Filipino household. Lots of music, lots of the sound of people talking, and sort of that whole communal vibe. … Because it was such a small space, it being so cozy was part of the vibe. But obviously now, with social distancing and things like that, it's very much a totally different vibe. But with the whole counter seating arrangement, where people will sit around the kitchen … it kind of still creates that vibe of being in somebody's house. You're (sitting) in front of the kitchen, so you're looking at us as we do our work, as we cook your food.
How do you see the Filipino food scene in London changing right now?
It's definitely still very much in its infancy. … I look at places like America, and they're very much well ahead of us. But … it almost feels like a changing of the guard, if that makes sense. You've got a lot of younger Filipino entrepreneurs who are taking pride in the cuisine and taking pride in the knowledge that they can present the food to not just Filipinos, but to everybody else. …
I'm always seeing, quite regularly, new supper clubs, new street food-type or food hall-type businesses opening, new pop-ups and things like that opening all the time. … I've noticed in London there's a lot of Filipino chefs that work in kitchens, but (don't) necessarily have anything to do with Filipino cuisine, and now that they have some downtime, they're not working in their current restaurants or whoever they're working for, they go back to sort of what they know best, which is Filipino food, and add their professional experiences to it.
What are your ultimate goals for your business? Do you want a larger location?
I definitely want something bigger, but at the same time I think staying in Brixton is something we'd like to do. … The minority matters in Brixton. It's a place where there's a (large) Afro-Caribbean community, and it's a community-based area. … I (also) want to simplify our offerings and focus on the things that we're really good at, like the lechon and our pulutan dishes, and simplify it with our silog or rice bowl dishes, and try to create a network or a chain of accessible Filipino cuisine throughout London.