How This Chef Survived in a Testosterone-Fueled World
It’s been six years since Bamba first opened its doors. The restaurant remains busy even on weekdays. The menu still reflects the fun, creative personality of its chef. Sure, there are patrons now, and many guests have secured their personal favorites. But what’s new?
“I decided that we needed a little change,” says Tina Legarda, a little sheepishly in fact. She had just closed a deal to move Bamba to a new location: “It’s a little bigger, much bigger than this [current one], but still along Aguirre. My heart is really in BF. And Bamba’s heart is in BF.”
Yes, she’s deciding whether to bid the original space farewell or whether it will be transformed into a new concept. The plan was never to have a lot of Bambas, but to have just one; one that functioned properly and served generously. There’s no denying that in those six years, Legarda has achieved that. She’s even made a name for herself because of it. But the chef admits that it wasn’t without hiccups along the way.
There have been many challenging days for her in the kitchen: “It’s when you get reminded that not everybody thinks like you.” There have been days when guests complain and send a dish back. “Not because you did something wrong, but because their palate is not the same as yours. It can be frustrating, especially when you get comments that something is not edible or that something is gross.” She respects their opinion, of course, but admits to getting affected by it.
She feels worse when her team hears about it and takes it personally. “There are those difficult days with the team also,” she says. “Sometimes you feel they run out of inspiration.” The challenge falls on her, their boss, “to find ways for them to come back to life and realize that they’re good at what they do.”
This is no easy feat, especially because she’s already formed a closer relationship with her team. They are family now. “When I opened, I was so nervous to be a boss, to be calling the shots, to be expected to inspire these people,” she says. “After six years, I was able to find a way to do it. They respect me but also see me as someone they can run to. That’s family. I found a way to naturally show that I’m that person.”
Like a doting mother and a supportive sister rolled into one, Legarda leads by example in finding ways to have fun. Once every year, she allows her team to transform Bamba into their own restaurant. They’re divided into teams that choose specific themes and conceptualize their own menus. “It becomes like a competition where I get to sit down as a guest. They get to build on their teamwork. I force them to bring it out their creative juices.”
On Sundays, she and her staff also have what they call Bamba Sunday Family Special, where they get to enjoy a meal that’s very different from their menu. It’s a way for them to discover a cuisine that they don’t do. Sometimes, someone cooks Japanese or Korean. “I also sometimes pick one of them and ask that person to cook something from their province.” She’s also gone on food trips, like to Pampanga or Ilocos, with them.
How does one get to join Legarda’s team exactly? “Humility. That’s the beginning,” she says. “As long as you have heart and you show me, even just in the manner of speaking, that’s good for me. It’s easier to teach the skill part. It’s really hard to find someone who would love this business as much as you. I’ve been really lucky since a lot of them have been with me since the beginning, and have shown that sometimes they love Bamba more than I do.”
Humility has also helped Legarda keep grounded in this industry. “You’re really forced to find yourself here,” she says. “I can say that because of the number of hours I’ve worked here. I don’t think I’ll be half the person I am without those hours.” She recalls the days when she was still working for other chefs and finding her way around the kitchen.
“When you’re shouted at, when a fish is thrown at you, when a plate is tossed because you did something wrong, you either grow up or you quit. But you know that when you quit, it’s going to hurt and haunt you.”
Quit, Legarda never did, despite all the emotions thrown around the kitchen. “No matter how strong you are, you’re going to experience it. One hundred percent. And it’s up to you how you’ll let that mold you.”
It didn’t help that she was a woman in a testosterone-filled world. She recalls starting at a time when it wasn’t common for women to lead. She remembers how clannish it was inside, especially if one didn’t show others that they can handle the pressure.
“I’m really just going to say, yes, that it would have been easier for me if I weren’t a woman.” Yet that never stopped Legarda from trudging on and eventually empowering others in the industry.
There were three women in her life that paved the way for her to succeed as a female chef. She considers her lola an awesome cook, who would prepare a delicious spread for Legarda and her 49 cousins every Sunday.
Then there’s her mom, Bettina, who’s been in the business for over 30 years. “I feel like she put me in this path without my knowing,” she says. “When I was a kid, she’ll make me try things in the kitchen. She really inspired me to be able to open something new and be confident with myself. It was an easy path for me to follow because I had these women to look up to.”
The third is chef Jessie Sincioco, who mentored her for a considerable time. She was astounded at how people were scared of the esteemed chef. “There were macho guys who would fight in the kitchen, but when she entered, everyone would just keep quiet. It’s inspiring that she demanded respect [like that].”
It was also Sincioco who taught Legarda to find time away from the kitchen. “She said, ‘if there’s one thing I want you to know, it’s to work hard but do not forget yourself.’” Legarda’s taken this to heart, and to this day, she makes sure to do something that makes her happy on days off. This could be traveling to some new place abroad or in the Philippines or visiting her favorite spots in Japan. Sometimes it’s simply eating a basic noodle dish or tapsilog or siomai.
Again, humility. Even when it comes to competition, Legarda remains unfrazzled and focused. “It’s so much more fun if we’re friends,” she says. “There’s really no need to be mayabang [arrogant]. Being humble is number one. Never lose that! If you lose that, that’s the start of the end.”
Three things keep her going: When guests come back for another visit to Bamba, when she’s validated by her family, and when she sees her team happy to still be with her. “These are three things that make me sleep better at night,” she says. And when she gets up the next morning, she’s ready again to work on that relocation, or relaunching her apron line, or planning for two new concepts. Or happily leading as a woman in the kitchen.