Bridging the culinary culture between Los Angeles and Manila

(Originally published on December 22, 2015, “Bridging the culinary culture between Los Angeles and Manila” by Christina Oriel in Asian Journal’s MDWK Magazine,

Walter & Margarita Manzke bring accessible dining to two different settings

AJPress photos by Ding Carreon

On an unusually warm fall morning, the scene at Republique — a French-leaning eatery in Los Angeles — captured that quintessential laid-back aura familiar to those who frequent cafés across the city. Natural sunlight penetrated the glass windows and shone down the open-air atrium, as the rustic communal tables filled up with an assortment of patrons either shielded behind their laptops or engaged in discussions with one another.

Dishes like a Shakshouka (fried egg, stewed tomatoes & peppers, black kale, yogurt, cilantro, baguette), a slab of French toast, and pork belly adobo fried rice exited the kitchen and made their ways to patrons who had a moment to dine leisurely. Earlier, as what typically happens every morning, a line formed for the newly baked, aromatic pastries (anything from a pecan sticky bun to a flaky chocolate croissant) graciously arranged behind the glass counter.

The casualness of it all felt more like a Saturday around brunch time, rather than during the middle of the week.

By 6 pm, the service transitions into a relatively more refined, sit-down setting where decadent items like caviar, escargot and foie gras are on the menu, as are dry-aged and braised meats and dishes with cross-cultural elements. Yet, absent are stiff, white tablecloths or rigid dress codes that need to be followed in order to dine there.

The dualism — literally night and day — of the space is the brainchild of chef Walter Manzke and his wife Margarita (or Marge, for short), alongside restaurateur Bill Chait, as a way to make a dining establishment accessible for any meal of the day, while still delivering quality ingredients and dishes.

Since 2013, the restaurant/café/bakery/wine bar has inhabited the walls of a historic, Old Hollywood building conceptualized and built by Charlie Chaplin in the 1920s, which later became the joint site of fine-dining restaurant Campanille and city-favorite La Brea Bakery. The building has since been restored for Republique’s purpose, using Yakal wood for the furniture and thousands of tiles imported from the Philippines, where Marge is originally from.

The daytime concept was an undertaking pushed by Marge, who heads the pastry department; however, it wasn’t initially well-received.

“When we opened at dinner, it fell into place quite easily. But this whole concept of breakfast and lunch was a huge challenge. Most of our clientele didn’t accept the idea of doing this counter service. They wanted it to be a restaurant and not a café,” Walter said. “When we opened, Marge was here at 4 in the morning baking pastries and filling up the cases, only to sell five of them and watch the staff eat the rest.”

But, being open throughout the day resonated with those who want to nosh while doing work or have a decent meal in the middle of the day.

“It really paid off because it is an important and successful part of this business. It makes it two restaurants — we have people who come here every day and go through dinner sometimes, those who only come in the day [and] people who only come at night. We definitely have two restaurants with two different clientele,” Walter said.

In creating the dinner setting, Walter synthesized his previous culinary experiences by taking elements of French cuisine and fine dining, as well as the cultures of those working in the kitchen. Drawing from Asian influence, dishes are served in more generous, family-style portions, enabling diners to taste a little bit of everything and not be limited to the parameters that come from a fine dining establishment.

“All of that is blended together as a restaurant that is young, vibrant, has energy and is most importantly, very easy and unpretentious,” he added. “I always wanted Republique to be a place where you could come for any reason at any time. It’s as important for me that it’s a place that when you’re driving by and you look into the window that you’re draw in and you just want to come into the bar and have a drink. You can come by during the day, have a cup of coffee and work on your laptop, just like it’s any other café. You can also come here for a special occasion, and everywhere in between. It’s a place where you should be comfortable to come for any reason at any time.”

In just two years, Republique has won over critics, topping best-of lists, including Los Angeles Magazine’s ‘Best New Restaurant’ for 2014. Forbes has named it a restaurant slated to become an LA classic. Marge’s pastries have garnered her the title of LA Weekly’s Best Pastry Chef for 2014 and a nomination for Outstanding Pastry Chef by the James Beard Foundation earlier this year.

A culinary power couple

Chef Walter Manzke and his wife Margarita (Photo by Michelle Park)

Walter and Marge respectively grew up with a love for food. In San Diego, he was surrounded by seasonable produce in his family’s backyard and went on to study business and restaurant management before going on to famed kitchens, such as Patina, El Bulli and Le Louis XV in the Hotel de Paris, Monte Carlo under Alain Ducasse.

In the Philippines, Marge grew up in the kitchen at a restaurant in Quiapo and at White Rock Resort, a hotel and restaurant outside of Manila, both of which were owned by her parents. She studied pastry at Le Cordon Bleu in London, then received a degree in culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America in New York.

Their worlds converged in Los Angeles, where Walter returned after working in Europe and where Marge began her career at Spago and Patina.

“We met at the kitchen at Patina. I was the chef du cuisine there and Marge, most of the time she was there, was working at the fish station. Then when we started dating, I was the manager and that’s really not the right thing to do so she left and began working with a friend of mine at? Mélisse [a Michelin-starred French restaurant in Santa Monica] and became the sous chef there,” Walter said.

The couple worked together again when they moved to Carmel in 2002, where they spent five years at places like Bouchée, Cantinetta Luca and l’Auberge Carmel. At Bouchée, Marge developed her pastry skills by baking bread and other pastries by scratch.

“We wanted to leave Carmel [and] felt that it was time to open a restaurant. We knew Carmel was not the place to do so because it was a little too sleepy,” Marge said. “But it was a long road before we even opened [Republique].”

Added Walter, “there was something that steered us back to LA. Going from working as an employee to opening a restaurant is difficult for anyone — it’s a huge step. It’s a whole new set of skills and everything. We decided that in order to do that, we had to work for somebody to get to know people and LA again because we had been gone for five years.”

In 2007, they re-opened Bastide, which lasted for two years, and went on to work at Church & State, where Walter was the head chef and Marge was a server, and later pastry chef. The first conceptualization for Republique was planned for a location in Downtown’s Arts District, before it had developments like today.

Bringing the brunch culture to Manila

AJPress photos by Ding Carreon

In between talks about their own restaurant, the couple experienced a period in which they described what seemed like “everything in the world was going wrong for us.” Then, Marge’s sister, Ana De Ocampo, approached them about a restaurant project in Manila.

By 2012, the couple, along with Ana and Church & State’s former sous chef Allen Buhay, opened Wildflour Café + Bakery in Bonifacio Global City.

“We got more and more involved in that and decided to be partners. My sous chef from Church & State, Allen Buhay, was interested in moving back to Manila, where he is [originally] from,” Walter said. “Now he’s our partner and he runs the day-to-day operations in the kitchen, while Ana runs the majority of the business and operations. They’re the ones there doing most of the work.”

Opening the restaurant was a challenge because, at the time, that part of Fort Bonifacio didn’t get a lot of foot traffic. The slow business almost made the Manzkes tune into the criticism and pack up back to Los Angeles.

“Everything about Wildflour, people criticized. When we opened up, we had these black stenciled, barely visible signs on the window, which we still have, and people were saying we had to put up big signs. Everybody thought the decor was bad. All we heard was every reason why we would fail. It was just kind of doing what we knew and liked here in LA and it all fell into place,” Walter said.

But after a few food bloggers posted about the restaurant, tables were constantly filled within the week, to the point where people would walk out because of the slow service.

“We went from one extreme to the other and we hadn’t planned for that. But every day after that going forward, Wildflour, especially during lunch, has never had a slow day,” he added.

The couple calls Wildflour, “an accessible middle-class restaurant” and Republique’s counterpart in the Philippines, crediting its success to Filipinos’ connectivity to overseas food trends and more disposable income from the younger working generation. Essentially, they want what people here in other big cities are eating, and have the spending power to get it.

A lot of similarities can be pointed out between the two restaurants: an open kitchen floor plan, wooden furniture, exposed brick walls, cases with pastries baked in house and brunch items, from the signature Croque Madame to kimchi fried rice.

Those dining there won’t feel as if they’re in Metro Manila, but rather catapulted into the middle of the brunch culture in a city, such as LA or New York.

“As far as restaurants in the Philippines, with the ambiance of Wildflour, I don’t think there’s anything like it. It’s very much like you can take the restaurant and put it in LA or San Francisco or New York. People like to feel like they’re in a different place. When you enter, you feel like you’re not in the Philippines,” Marge said, also emphasizing the ingredients used to prepare the dishes.

Wildflour is also famous for replicating Dominique Ansel’s “cronut,” during the height of the trend, branding it a croissant-donut that attracted hordes of customers, only to be sold out in just a few hours.

“The cronut trend is definitely the thing that made me believe and confirm what I’m talking about: Filipinos have a close eye on the rest of the world and when they see something, they want it more than anybody and are willing to stand in line and fight over it. They literally will do anything to get it. I think that what Marge did with the cronut was us feeding Dominque Ansel’s PR.? It started when he started it and died [for us] when it died for him,” Walter said.

Marge continued, “even with the cronut, if we didn’t make our own croissants, we wouldn’t have been able to do it…We can make a lot of things and not just get stuck with what we can get from others.”

To date, there are four Wildflour locations at the Podium Mall and Makati’s Salcedo Village and Legazpi Village, and there are plans to open more. Next to the location at Fort Bonifacio, the team recently opened Farmacy, an ice cream and soda fountain, where they make their own ice cream flavors and cones.

But in the coming year, the couple is most excited about importing Pink’s Hot Dogs to the Philippines, once the construction of the Shangri-La Hotel in Fort Bonifacio is completed. Richard Pink, who came into Walter’s other restaurant Petty Cash (a taqueria) for dinner one night approached him about bringing Pink’s to Asia, which was always a plan for the iconic hot dog stand.

“I’ve been told the people there love everything American. It wouldn’t surprise me to have to tailor to Filipino tastes a little, but our menu will have that Pink’s style everyone’s familiar with. We are even importing the hot dogs,” Pink said in an interview with The Daily Meal.

Patterned after an “LA-style Biergarten,” the Manzkes shared that it will have a bar, picnic tables, stands for hot dogs and hamburgers and ice cream from Farmacy.

“It’ll be a fun place [and even] more accessible than Wildflour. We’ll keep the same formula of Wildflour in that we’ll bake all the bread, make all the fries from scratch — it’ll be quality ingredients,” Walter added.

As for the future of Republique — despite its praises — the Manzkes said that it is continually a work in progress, and it never feels like the restaurant is fully opened yet.

“All of this exists because of Marge’s support. For me, the most important restaurant is in the Philippines and it’s maybe, who knows, where our future is. But we’re very fortunate to be at both places and I’m very honored and humbled of our success there. I have a lot of people to thank for it. We’ve provided great jobs a lot of people in the Philippines,” Walter said.

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