Chef Francis Lim: Uplifting Classic Dishes

The innovative chef behind Nav Thai and Tipple & Slaw relies on his flair for experimenting to keep his menus hip, relevant, and unexpected

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Chef Francis Lim

“Traditional recipes must be treated with respect,” says Chef Francis Lim. “You have to do them well first; then from there, you can innovate.”

He should know. After all, Chef Francis masterfully mans the kitchens of fan favorite restaurants Nav Thai and Tipple & Slaw (plus a couple others that are being developed and still under wraps).

It’s Chef Francis’ knack for innovation that keeps his restaurants full. And it’s all thanks to the popular chef’s early cravings. “I had no idea how to cook [when I was younger], but I really enjoyed eating,” he says. “I became curious [about cooking] because of my random cravings. Eventually, I enrolled in culinary school.” When he started cooking, he focused on Asian cuisine—his favorite.

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Elevating the basics

Throughout his young career, Chef Francis has worked mainly with Filipino, Chinese, and Thai cuisines. His varied culinary interests are what fuel his many kitchen experiments. “I believe in using a little bit of everything to help innovate individual recipes.” He explains that he can adapt a technique from one cuisine, add an ingredient from another, and use the presentation of a third one.

Obviously, Chef Francis is all for experimenting. He never takes any ingredient—no matter how common it is—for granted. “I like working with underrated ingredients and using what’s available,” he says. “With added flair, these usually go beyond the expectations of the people you feed.”

Indeed they do. The growing—and, at times, highly critical—foodie community in Metro Manila approaches new restaurants armed only with expectations supplied by social media. And apparently, judging from blog posts and Facebook updates about Chef Francis’ establishments, diners’ expectations about his food are pretty high. Each one is met, thanks to people’s openness to new tastes.

“The local food industry has changed a lot in the way that people are [now] more inclined to [try] food outside the comfort of familiarity,” says Chef Francis. “It’s really nice to be able to translate [my] vision onto plates.”

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Spicy kitchen

Underlying Chef Francis’ love for innovation is his passion for elevating even the most humble and classic home recipes. So he was in his element when he came up with easy, quick-fix recipes for Avida’s cookbook. He goes on to share the few go-to ingredients that he relies on to deliver the punch in any dish.

“I always have hot sauce and chili pastes [at home],” he says. “They work well as condiments, but they can also be used in cooking to give your dishes some lift.” Also, these can be easily stored in any pantry, with a long shelf life. Having, at different points, lived in a house, a townhouse, and a condominium unit, Chef Francis knows well how different home kitchens should be stocked, and which ingredients will last long at home; in his case, hot sauce and chili pastes.

It’s no wonder, then, that sisig is the Filipino dish that the chef is most proud of. Its spiciness knows no match, even in international kitchens. Chef Francis believes sisig’s many versions will win over any international foodie. “Sisig’s different styles will always produce a unique identity if compared with dishes [from other countries],” he says.

For someone’s first try in the kitchen, however, Chef Francis suggests they start small and gradually work their way to world-class dishes such as sisig. It’s just like what he shares in Avida’s cookbook, where he offers tips for aspiring cooks and newbie homeowners. “Everyone starts out by saying they can’t cook. I couldn’t even turn on a gas stove before I learned how to cook,” says Chef Francis. “[But you have to] start somewhere like everybody does. After all, you can’t accomplish something you haven’t begun doing.”

Photos courtesy of Chef Francis Lim