Food & Drink

How Wildflour Won Over Manila's Dining Public

Ana Lorenzana De Ocampo and Margie Lorenzana Manzke’s Wildflour Group, which includes Farmacy, Pink’s Hotdogs, and of course, Wildflour, hasn’t had a not-busy day in five years.
IMAGE JOSEPH PASCUAL
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Wildflour culture is an entity in itself, one which spread like wildfire across the metropolis in 2012. Every other third-wave coffee shop seemed to adopt a particular look—warmly industrial, authentically rustic— which Wildflour might not even have originated itself. Five years later, however, the Wildflour group is the most strongly associated with the aesthetic, perfecting it across five, soon to be six branches, all held together with a light magical dusting of flour and icing sugar.

Let’s go back to the second half of 2012, when Wildflour first opened on the corner of 26th Street and 4th Avenue in BGC, which back then, was still a quiet street, not the busy, traffic-clogged intersection it is now. The first few evenings—they started first with dinner service—were not spectacular. There were hardly any customers, and the waitresses even had to stand outside to hand menus to passersby. But within just a week or two, it was packed.


On Ana: Mary Katrantzou top and skirt, Univers, One Rockwell, 553.6811; Aum by Paul Syjuco earrings and ring, The Peninsula Manila, 812.3456; On Margie: Mary Katrantzou top and skirt, Univers, One Rockwell, 553.6811; Aum by Paul Syjuco earrings and ring, The Peninsula Manila, 812.3456

Obviously, word-of-social media had gotten around, and the FOMO foodie netizens of Manila just had to check this place out. The hook, for me, was the kimchi fried rice with steak and eggs, which friends whose taste buds I trusted were raving about online. I don’t remember what day it was, or who I was with—maybe I was even alone, and decided to have brunch—but I came in for a serving of that goddamn kimchi fried rice, and I was an instant convert to its spicy, pickled wonderfulness (the dish, which is essentially a staple of Korean comfort food, has changed since the first time I tried it. As with the rest of the menu, Wildflour keeps striving to improve their offerings).

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Once Wildflour became the little corner hotspot, it hasn’t had a not-busy day in five years. In the beginning, service couldn’t keep up with the demand and there were a few unkind reviews. “We weren’t prepared,” says Ana Lorenzana de Ocampo, Wildflour’s co-owner. “We were just expecting neighborhood people, office people.” They certainly weren’t expecting lines that practically went around the block.


On Ana: Her own dress and shoes; Aum by Paul Syjuco earrings and ring, The Peninsula Manila, 812.3456; On Marge: Zero+Maria Cornejo top and skirt, Univers, One Rockwell, 553.6811; Aum by Paul Syjuco earrings and cuff, The Peninsula Manila, 812.3456

Before Wildflour’s seeds were sown, Ana began with a small idea. A little coffee shop, with a few pastries and sandwiches, on a quiet street corner somewhere that was not a mall. She was always a baker, and had attended Le Cordon Bleu in London with her younger sister Margie, taking up restaurant administration. Afterwards, Margie went to the United States; Ana came back to the Philippines to work for the family business. While she was scouting for spaces for Office Warehouse, which at the time her family owned, she came across the space on the corner of the Net Lima building. She called up her sister, who was in Los Angeles.

She makes it sound so easy. But Margie seems like an easy-going, unpresuming person, the opposite of the temperamental chef archetype, much less an L.A.- based patissier who just happens to be a finalist in the recent James Beard Awards for Most Outstanding Pastry Chef.

Margarita Lorenzana Manzke and her husband Walter were still working on a deal for a space in a historic building along La Brea Avenue built by Charlie Chaplin, and for 23 years inhabited by the venerable Campanile restaurant. The new spot was to be Republique, their first restaurant as husband and wife after many years of working together in kitchens around California. “Ana called me up and asked if I was interested in opening something with her in Manila,” Margie says. “Walter and I were just waiting at the time, so I said, yeah, why not?”

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At Republique in Los Angeles

She makes it sound so easy. But Margie seems like an easygoing, unpresuming person, the opposite of the temperamental chef archetype, much less an L.A.-based patissier who just happens to be a finalist in the recent James Beard Awards for Most Outstanding Pastry Chef. “I didn’t know it was such a big deal until going there to Chicago!” The pastry chef of Daniel in New York bagged the title, but being nominated is already a great honor. If this was a beauty pageant, the Filipino public would surely have heard more about this and celebrated. After all, she is a Filipino chef, born and raised in the Philippines, representing her own restaurant in the cutthroat culinary environment of the West Coast.

Wildflour was in operation for a whole year before Republique opened its doors, so which actually came first is an interesting, chicken-and-egg question, because the identities of the two are inextricably linked in spirit, menu, and design. “With Walter’s input it became a more complete restaurant,” says Ana. It started to resemble, in fact, what Walter had in mind for Republique. “They tested their ideas here.” Margie confirms, “We learned a lot here from opening Wildflour, what worked and what didn’t.”

The crowd-favorite kimchi fried rice was actually developed for Wildflour and brought over to Republique. Ana had a Korean friend whose mom showed them how to make proper kimchi. Walter was initially opposed to putting anything with rice on the menu, the cafes being French-leaning and all, but Filipinos want what they want. So frying the rice with a spicy condiment was a way of getting around that, offering a rice dish without having to serve steamed rice. As we all know, it became their best-selling item.

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Wildflour Cafe+Bakery's branch on Rada Street in Legazpi Village

Walter was also very hands-on in the renovation of the La Brea space. He shipped a 40-foot container from the Philippines containing 5,000 tiles, 12,000 feet of yakal wood, and various pieces of wrought iron, as he tells eater.com. There was a lot of carpentry and masonry work he had to do to restore and preserve the integrity of the 1920s building. I’ve never been to Republique, but I imagine the closest a Wildflour comes to capturing its ambiance is via the Legazpi Village branch with its brick walls, high ceilings, and long communal tables.

“We get a lot of people from Manila that go to Republique and approach me or Walter and say they’re big fans of Wildflour,” Margie says, amazed. Customers have also come up and told them about a restaurant in Manila that’s so similar—before putting two and two together. Republique, on its own, has attracted loyal clientele and enthusiastic reviews, and perhaps the couple never envisioned their French bistro would come with a built-in Filipino fanbase, but being sister restaurants (also literally), the two establishments are conquering the East and West one baguette at a time.

About the baguettes—maybe you came for the kimchi rice, but you return for the bread. Before your meal at Wildflour, you are served a mini baguette fresh from the oven with a pot of the most delicious French butter you will ever have at a restaurant. You will find yourself finishing that baguette before you even remember you're supposed to be on a lowcarb/keto/paleo diet. “There’s no secret to the bread or pastries,” Margie insists, but I’m still doubtful. “It’s definitely the technique, and the ingredients are a big part of it.”

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Ana is more expansive about their bread journey. “Margie gave me a bread recipe and I tried to do it here. It was the exact same recipe, but it didn’t turn out right. Maybe it was the water, or the oven, but it took six months to perfect. We had to make adjustments to everything, the water, the temperature, the flour. When we changed our oven, it got better.” Today, both restaurants use the same top-of-the-line baking equipment, Bongard ovens from France.

Like the ingredient-driven menu at Republique and New California cuisine in general, Wildflour’s philosophy is also to begin with the best. “Margie, Walter, our chef Allen Buhay, and I believe that nothing should come from a bottle. Everything should be fresh, and we make everything on our own without opening a bottle or can.” Walter, a native of California, grew up around phenomenal seasonal produce and is very particular about his ingredients. Since there are no seasons per se in the Philippines, having a varied selection of fresh fruit and vegetables is more of a challenge, but they still work with what’s locally grown as much as possible.


At Pink’s Hotdogs in Manila; Little Flour, a soon-to-open concept

This honesty with ingredients also extends to the materials they use for building their stores. The tables are made from real old wood, graphic tiles from Machuca are handmade. Wildflour’s signature style is a result of a collaboration between Walter and architect Lara Fernandez Barrios, as well as Allen Buhay, who helped design the kitchen layout. The group’s other establishments—Farmacy, Pink’s Hotdogs, and the hidden Hotel Bar behind it, also exude a warm, old-timey vibe without veering into kitsch territory. From the cozy cafe that brought the cronut craze to the Philippines, to a restaurant empire that now includes a cocktail bar/speakeasy, the Wildflour group somehow manages to anticipate what the market needs. Little Flour, a 24-hour cafe serving Wildflour’s bestsellers, is the next kid on the BGC block.

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Wildflour BGC was Ana’s first restaurant. It was also the first time to work with her sister, but you could say it was a long time coming.

“If you don’t work hard, you don’t get anything,” says margie. Ana adds, “We were eight kids, so we were all on our own.”

Ana, Margie, and their six brothers grew up in the restaurant and hospitality business. Their grandparents founded the Lorenzana Food Corporation (famous for its patis), their parents owned the White Rock resort in Subic, while their maternal grandmother, Amelia Gordon, ran the Admiral Hotel in Olongapo, which had a very well-known bakery. “That’s where Margie and Ana were first exposed to pastries,” their youngest brother Paolo, a magazine publisher, tells me. “Not long after that, they bugged my mom for an Easy-Bake oven.” The sisters were always in the kitchen, learning from their mother and grandmother. They tested out their creations on the resort guests and employees, honing their baking and entrepreneurial skills.


Sari Sari Store at Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, Walter and Margie Manzke’s latest venture

Ana recalls the one summer when she tried to sell scrambol, a shaved ice concoction, at the resort. She got the idea from a popular vendor there who sold this treat she loved. “My ingredients were so clean, but nobody bought from me. They still bought from him. I think that was my first failure,” she says, laughing. “You have to be original.”

When Margie was in high school, she ran a small Food for the Gods business right out of her bedroom, crafting the packaging herself with paint, ribbons, and little decorations. “We tried to be creative. We worked for money to save up for the rest of the year,” she remembers. “At least for me, it taught me good work ethic. If you don’t work hard, you don’t get anything.” Ana adds, “We were eight kids, so we were all on our own.” Their father always encouraged his children’s startups, giving them many opportunities to launch their own businesses, and from childhood until Wildflour’s beginnings, he also helped out financially if he thought it was a good idea.

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Mr. Lorenzana is also known to be very vocal about what he doesn’t like. “He comes to Wildflour and calls me when he sees something wrong. ‘There’s something wrong with your burger!’ He’s very straightforward,” Ana acknowledges. “The first time he came to Pink’s, he had a whole list of things to change.” She takes his comments seriously, though, and addresses most of his concerns. “Nobody else will tell you these things except your parents.”


Farmacy in Manila; Margie and Walter Manzke

Paolo agrees that a lot of honesty goes around in their family. “We’re not very touchy-feely, but we show our love by helping each other out in businesses.”

After Le Cordon Bleu, the sisters went their separate ways, with Margie taking up further studies in the Culinary Institute of America in New York, then moving to Los Angeles where she met Walter at the restaurant Patina. She transferred to the pastry division at L’Auberge Carmel when the restaurant lost its pastry chef and she happened to be the only one who knew how to turn out desserts. Now at Republique, she heads the pastry department, getting up at 4 a.m. every morning (at least until she had her second child) to get the dough rolling.

“Putting up something together was always in the backburner,” their brother says. “Ana and Margie were always buds when it came to going to different countries and trying stuff out, investing all that knowledge in their memory banks. When they felt that Manila needed something new, they sprung brunch culture.” For their part, Margie believes that they didn’t think about it in terms of what they thought Manila needed: “We just wanted simple food done really well, with good ingredients.” As a rising pastry star, would she try to invent the next cronut? She demurs, saying she’s not into putting wild or weird flavors together. “I love the traditional stuff. I just love a great croissant.” And because of Wildflour, we do too.

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About The Author
Audrey N. Carpio
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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