Playing Favorites with Chef Nico De Asis Millanes

Before we enjoy our meal in our favorite restaurant, it goes through a long process of selection, from the ingredients that comprise the dish, to the technique of cooking that was used, to the style of presentation.  

Just how easy – or difficult – is it for a chef to make choices? We had a chance to find out when we chatted with Negros’s very own Chef Nico De Asis Millanes.

“My first experience in cooking is pretty funny because it was disastrous. Our family cook would chase me around the kitchen. I was hanging out there and he didn’t want me there, because I would pester him. But I was very curious when it comes to the kitchen and I would make stuff up that I saw on TV. But they didn’t turn out well.”

Just like most chefs, his love for cooking came from the food he grew up with. He shares, “My early influences in my cooking were my family, my mom, my grandma, and also my uncles who are all good cooks. And as my career progressed, I was fortunate to be mentored by a lot of good chefs who, up to this day, mentor me.”

Chef Nico's take on the Negrense classic, the Chicken Binakol.

After earning his degree in International Hospitality Management with Specialization in Culinary Arts at the Enderun Colleges, he spent his internship in Paris at a 3-Michelin Star restaurant headed by Chef Alain Ducasse. And his experiences abroad widened his insights on our own culinary scene.

“Abroad, it’s very different because of the workload and the standards we have to keep. It was a 3-Michelin Star restaurant in a hotel in Paris. The pressure was immense. I lost weight without even trying. I learned so much, though. You work with the very best people, but it was a very demanding job. It breaks you in in so many ways but then you come back stronger. And what you learn in that kitchen you can use for the rest of your career.”

Chef Nico and his innovation of the Chicken Binakol.

Chef Nico De Asis Millanes tells why we often hear the phrase, “Yes, Chef”, in cooking shows we watch on television. “The French kitchen brigade is modeled after the military, and respect for hierarchy is paramount. You can never answer back your superiors except to say,‘Yes, Chef’, and that’s all you’re supposed to say. Whatever the Chef commands, you have to do, and do it well, which means do it faster and better.   

“It was a very rigorous kitchen. It’s a very demanding job. It has immense pressure and it teaches you how to work fast and manage your time to multi-task, and see the bigger picture. Aside from the work that you do, you have to see the whole operation. It was a life-changing experience.”

What is your favorite part of cooking?

“I’m excited to work with new ingredients. I don’t even consider menu planning work. I enjoy the thought process, figuring out what people want to eat. And in my case, what I want to eat influences what I think people want to eat. I believe I serve the type of food that I want to eat myself and I enjoy it very much.”

There are special challenges, the chef admits, “like when they asked us to do the Negros Trade Fair, which I was fortunate to be invited to. The theme is always pushing Negrense cuisine forward. I spent sleepless nights literally thinking of dishes, of ways how to interpret dishes that are original.” This is where love for the thought process becomes a big advantage.

Hand-in-hand with menu planning is the task of purchasing, and we’ve seen chefs prepare menus while at the market seeing what’s available. “I enjoy scouring the market, checking what’s new, what’s in season,” says Chef Nico.

But of all, Chef Nico’s favorite post is in front of the fire. “I like roasting meat in particular. Although, back in Paris, I was fortunate to be given one of the most important stations in the kitchen, which is being the saucier, or the one who makes the sauces for the meat. So up to this day I enjoy that a lot because the smell of butter and fat and meat really liven me up.”

Of all your creations, which one is your favorite?  

“That’s like asking someone to choose a favorite kid. I don’t have kids yet. I can imagine that’s how it feels. Once I put my food out there, I let the people decide. Once I put my menu out there, it belongs to the people and they decide. You can talk all you want, what your specialty is, but at the end of the day it’s the result that will be judged and the people will make their judgment on what they like best about your cooking. The most that I will admit saying is, I have a few dishes that I think are original – my original interpretations.

Chef Nico's second iteration of the Chicken Binakol.

Chef Nico fondly recalls the Pancit Molo dish he made where he transformed the dumplings so that the soup is inside. “Once you bite into the dumpling you get an explosion of the broth. My concept is inspired by the xiao long bao dish of Taiwan.”

Once, he also transformed the Negrense barquillos into what he called quartillos. “We made foie gras, or French duck liver, into a mousse and then stuffed it into barquillos from Sugarlandia – I’m not promoting but I love their barquillos. So imagine barquillos stuffed with duck liver mousse, and then we made bignay wine jelly to cut the liver fat. So, those dishes are some of the few things I’d like to think are my original interpretations of Negrense cuisine.”

And here’s another one, the Chicken Binakol. Watch his full interview and his interpretation of this Negrense heritage dish here.


Text by: Flo Reyes
Videography by: Grilled Cheese Studios
Photos by: Stephanie Lindaya

Fresh coconut water defines the uniqueness of the Chicken Binakol.

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