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Afternoon tea and dreamy Christmas pastries in Kabankalan? You bet!

Kabankalan City is right at the ankle of the sock-shaped Negros island, connecting the sugar-rich provinces of Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental. It's just the right spot for Chef Kaye Bello's pastry shop called Kalamay, the Hiligaynon word for sugar.

Pastry Chef Kaye Bello, 31, brings home to Kabankalan her magic with desserts and fine sweets, the fruit of a decade of training in the UK’s most illustrious kitchens.

Watching the UK-trained Kaye Bello mold chocolate bonbons is already a treat in itself. With a deft hand, she tempers the chocolate to a velvety finish, casts the bonbon shells, and pipes in a special filling. For today, Chef Kaye is making something so special they're not on the menu: chocolate piaya bonbons with a muscovado center exclusively for the Negros Season of Culture.  A major ingredient is couverture chocolate, a type that is processed to contain more cocoa butter so it achieves a high-gloss coating for truffles, bonbons, and similar confections. Bite into Chef Kaye’s piaya bonbon, and it reminds you of the classic Negrense delicacy, this time enrobed in fine chocolate.

On ordinary days that don’t call for piaya bonbons, Chef Kaye starts early in her immaculate white pastry shop and makes cupcakes, which she tops with swirls and peaks of botanical buttercream icing. Scones, cucumber sandwiches, and blondies served on a three-tiered cake stand adorn the counter, and one cake on the menu, the dark chocolate entremet, is a conversation piece. It is no less than Chef Kaye’s own recipe that was once her entry in the International Chocolate Chefs’ Competition, popularly known among bakers as the C3, in France.

Kalamay is located on Lirazan Street, right at Chef Kaye Bello’s family home in Kabankalan.

All these treats that you wish for on a Christmas morning are available in Chef Kaye's quaint Kalamay Artisan Patisserie – in Kabankalan, in its quiet confidence, which the chef vowed to come home to since she was young. She moved to the UK with her parents when she was 10, but would constantly spend summer breaks in the laidback city in southern Negros Occidental, and realize that her fondest childhood memories “were surrounded by my grandparents”.

Having her dear cousins help out at the café makes Chef Kaye relive her happiest childhood memories in Kabankalan.

The 31-year-old courageously steered her life to open up shop here in the midst of a pandemic – quite an unusual decision while everyone else scrambles to work abroad; and certainly mind-boggling, what with her impressive track record of apprenticeships in some of the most illustrious, Michelin-star restaurants in UK.

Her career as a pastry chef had been accidental. Back in Oxford where they live in the UK, she decided to buy time while waiting for medical school to open by applying in a two-week course at the culinary school just right across. But the path to being a doctor got sidetracked when Kaye discovered that her experience at the culinary school became “the best two weeks” of her life. 

Chef Kaye’s botanical cupcakes. Take a deep breath, and slowly savor the rich buttercream, the fluff of the cake, the sweetness of Negros sugar, the blessing of home, bit by bit.

Her dad would drop her off thinking she was still attending medical school, until he found out she had been crossing the street, eyes peeled for her deepest culinary passions. Despite her parents’ initial hesitation about her going off the beaten path of Medicine or Law, Kaye stood by her decision. Admittedly stubborn, she has since she was 16.

Chef Kaye’s grit seems to have been the thread that runs through and strings together the spate of good luck she has had, from her stints as a pastry chef in the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal, Waldorf Astoria Hotels, among others.  In these busy, humid kitchens that are oftentimes filled with hotheads, Chef Kaye shares that the gift that she brings as a Filipino is her optimism, and a ready smile on her face. As Filipinos, “we don’t take everything seriously in a positive way; I think we always try to find ways to make the best out of any situation.”

Chef Kaye is pretty pleased with her Basque Burnt Cheesecake, a top favorite among her repeat customers.

Once, the Negrense pastry chef emailed William Curley, a prestigious chocolatier, if she could work in his shop for free. She did for a year and a half, and she would get chocolate as payment – contentedly.  Chef Kaye would also hold on to the advice that her former boss, acclaimed UK pastry chef Raymond Blanc, had imparted to her: with passion and enjoyment in the job, money will just flow.

Even with all these years of world-class experience under her belt, the allure of Negrense culture still pulls Chef Kaye closer to Kabankalan. Her parents were quick to instill this, with the Hiligaynon language as their currency of exchange in their Oxford home, and KBL, a heritage Negrense soup dish, as their weekly staple. Her older siblings back in Kabankalan also deliberately check on her, lest she gets “whitewashed” by British culture.  In fact, her favorite pastries in the Kabankalan of her childhood were boat tarts, which she would remember every time she made frangipane tarts as a pastry chef. The frangipane filling is a pasty mixture of butter, eggs, ground almonds, sugar, and a bit of flour, but take it from Chef Kaye – “boat tarts are 10 times better!”

Chef Kaye prepares the muscovado for her chocolate piaya bonbons. Too bad, these are not on the Kalamay menu.

This new pastry shop on Lirazan Street is thus named “Kalamay”, because Chef Kaye wants it to sound proudly Ilonggo, even as her menu is filled with British and European treats. “Kalamay is the core ingredient of pastry,” she explains. “It’s humble, easy to say, easy to remember; if it’s something English or French, it’s just not me.” She also wants people in Kabankalan to feel comfortable in the café while enjoying the best of the world, especially at a time when it’s difficult to travel about. The last thing she wants is for people to feel intimidated by a fancy name.
Blame it on Bridgerton, but if you’re craving some crumbly scones and butter dribbling down your chin, head straight to Kalamay.

Every day, Chef Kaye adds something new to the menu, exploring and recreating heritage sweets and European classics.  She is always on the lookout for produce of local farmers and small sellers, and has also started to grow her own fruit trees, like avocadoes and golden coconuts. This, she expresses, is not just for a steady flow of fresh ingredients, but for the solace she finds in the “mindful, slow, and meditative process” of planting.

Chef Kaye plans to keep Kalamay small-scale, focusing on quality and never on mass production, so this artisan pastry shop doesn’t lose its personal touch.  She came home well prepared anyway, armed with a business plan, her dual citizenship secured, and a vision for Kalamay to be known in Asia someday, as the distinct Hiligaynon term for sugar, and as that pastry shop in Kabankalan. In all her gentle boldness, Chef Kaye maintains that Kalamay “is for Kabankalan.” When asked if they deliver, the Kalamay’s Facebook Messenger chatbot breaks it to you gently: “Unfortunately, we don't have deliveries and we don't see possibility of deliveries in the future.”

And rightly so, lest Kalamay lose its character, like the fate of many shops that decided to branch out. “If people want to experience Kalamay, they have to go to Kabankalan.” For chocolate piaya bonbons (if you're lucky!) and that prize-winning pastry, who wouldn’t?

Thanks to UK-trained pastry chef Kaye Bello, the closest you can get to an authentic English afternoon tea experience is at Kalamay.

Text by: Kimee Santiago
Photos & Video by: Bakunawa Films

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