Karla Mendoza has spent the last 25 years chasing her culinary dreams. Late last year, following several successful stints at the helm of kitchens from New York to Los Angeles and Singapore, she returned home, ready to make her mark on Manila’s burgeoning food scene.
1. I have always been inspired by women in the kitchen.
Nancy Silverton, Anita Lo, and my grandmothers are my greatest culinary influences. I grew up watching my grandmother going to market every single day to buy the freshest ingredients for our meals. When I lived in Bangkok as a teenager, I saw how many women were in charge of running the hawker stalls in the streets. When I moved to the States, I came upon a restaurant in Seattle that was run completely by women. At Anita Lo’s Annisa in the West Village, I was the sous chef of a team of five women and the wine list was almost exclusively composed of women winemakers. Lo was the first female chef to compete in Iron Chef America and this is where our team beat the one of my would-be boss, Mario Batali.
2. I was part of the opening teams for both Tabla and Eleven Madison Park.
This is where I learned the true meaning of hospitality and attention to detail— and what getting a four-star review from The New York Times really means. I also worked at another Danny Meyer restaurant, Gramercy Tavern. I quickly figured out that fine dining does not necessarily mean stodgy service and white tablecloths. This restaurant also introduced me to the concept to farm-to-table cooking; what we bought at the Union Square Market in the morning was what we served in the restaurant at night.
3. I was working at campanile in Los Angeles when Nancy Silverton first offered me the job at Mozza.
It was my first big-time job and I was responsible for the food of the hottest restaurant in town. Working with a James Beard Award winner (we had three working side by side simultaneously at Mozza) also paved the way for my biggest break yet: the executive chef position at the first international Pizzeria Mozza in Singapore. Doors opened very wide with this opportunity and it definitely showed me who I am and what I am about.
4. After 25 years of being away, I reached a point when I thought I had just one more restaurant opening in me, and this time it better be mine; it was time to do something for myself.
I plan to set up shop in Manila this year. Right now I am doing private dinners and the response has been overwhelming. Feedback has been good so far, so I’ll keep doing it while working on the brick and mortar.
5. What strikes me most about the local scene is the camaraderie between the chefs.
Everyone wants the others to succeed. There is this great synergy because it pushes everyone to be better and lift the standards. The farmers are also being challenged to provide produce they otherwise have not seen in the past. And because of that, the community is challenged to be better. I love the energy and passion. I’m also loving the emergence of restaurants that have a more focused menu using ingredients that are thoughtfully sourced. It is so refreshing to see the cooperation and the generosity of the Manila chefs and farmers.