A quick scroll through the Instagram feed of Bamba Bistro is enough to get one’s mouth watering. While there are the usual shots of fantastically plated dishes and descriptions to set any foodie’s heart aflutter, there is something unique to Bamba’s feed that sets it apart from the social media accounts of many restos in Manila’s crowded scene. It comes through in the videos honoring Bamba’s hardworking staff, and the posts sharing handwritten notes and drawings from loving customers. That “thing” unique to Bamba is the heart of its executive chef and owner Tina Legarda.
The life path of a chef
“I pretty much grew up surrounded by people who love to eat. Food was always taken very seriously in our family. In fact, I thank my mom for memories of my 8-year-old self spending summers in cooking school,” shares Tina when quizzed about what set her off on the path of a chef and restaurateur. After studying hotel and restaurant management with a culinary arts track at De La Salle College of St. Benilde, Tina was lucky enough to secure a practicum spot with Chef Jessie Sincioco—the woman behind Le Soufflé and Manila’s original celebrity chef before chefs becoming celebrities was a thing.
Chef Jessie believed in Tina so much that she hired her fresh out of college to help open a French café, and what followed was a whirlwind of dream jobs, working with renowned chefs whose passion for their craft would leave their mark on her. She learned to love Italian food from Chef Moreno Mattei of L’Opera, and it was under Chef Billy King at his French Corner in Alabang that Tina was first inspired to open her own restaurant.
But realizing that passion alone isn’t enough, she put that dream on hold and flew the nest to gain valuable experience by working for famed chef Mario Batali at his Osteria Mozza in Singapore. “I’m a true believer that experience is the best teacher, especially in this business,” she stresses.
From pop-ups to Bamba
After returning home, Tina tested the waters before fully diving into opening her own restaurant. “When I moved back, I opened Tina’s Table, a private dining concept I did inside my home where I’d do pop ups and also accept intimate weddings. A year after this, I opened Bamba.” Finally.
A little off the beaten path from Manila’s well-worn foodie circuit, Bamba is among a group of small businesses that turned the southern suburb of BF Homes Parañaque into a dining destination.
Family is what seeded her love of food, and is the lifeblood that runs through the veins of her little dream-come-true bistro. It’s in everything from the cozy dining space, which many liken to dining at someone’s home, to the way photos of Tina’s parents will grace a special Valentine’s menu, from her carefully prepared staff meals, which she documents under the hashtag #bambasundayfamilyspecial, to the resto’s name.
“It’s called Bamba from the song ‘La Bamba.’ When I was little, my dad used to play his guitar and sing that song to me when I wasn’t having a good day,” says Tina. “It would make me laugh instantly, like a comfort song.” A comfort song to inspire her comfort food. That comfort food is as delicious as it looks in photos, as countless reviews and articles will attest.
However, in the punishing food industry, that isn’t always enough. The restaurant business is known to gobble up and spit out the hopes of many a talented dreamer. Yet Bamba is still going strong four-and-a-half years after opening, despite other promising restaurants in the area closing down.
Keeping things exciting
What’s the secret to their lasting success? “We also have our good and bad days, don’t get me wrong,” demurs Tina. “I think most restaurants everywhere have them. The key is to keep it interesting, not just for your guests but for you and your team as well. Create things that will make your guests come back and make you and your team inspired to wake up and go to work every day. Also, my mom was the first person to show me how to cook with heart. She owns a 30-year-old catering business.”
While Bamba has popular menu fixtures that can be ordered all year round—such as the Mussels in Chorizo Cream and Tindahan ni Maria salad—Tina keeps things exciting by tinkering with seasonal menus and specials.
“Being my first restaurant, I always told myself that when I do finally open my own place the menu has to somehow reflect me. I wanted a place that people would keep coming back to—both because it’s food they could relate to, but also food they’ve never tried before,” she shares.
She is able to keep her well of creativity full by living a balanced life that often takes her away from her restaurant to participate in food expos and go on food tasting adventures of her own. “I believe it’s the kind of job that requires you to be inspired all the time,” Tina says. She knows that this balance can only be achieved with the support of those around her, her restaurant family. “I’m proud to say that most of the people who helped me open Bamba are still with me today. They continue to help me keep the quality of service consistent, especially when I’m out doing other things.”
After all, we all get by with a little help from our friends … and family.
55 Aguirre Avenue corner Arsenio Luz Street
Parañaque, Metro Manila
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All photos courtesy of Bamba Bistro.