Yes, Chef! EJ Lagman of Filipino Experimental Restaurant Makan at Eliseos
October 27, 2023
Asia is one food-crazy continent! We take great care to pick restaurants based on culinary vibes, rankings on international gourmand guides, mentions in magazines, Instagrammability, and added hunger. Yes, Chef! features the region’s chefs’ stories of love and labour in kitchens that have made some of our restaurants the next big thing in Asia.
Nestled in the heart of the surfing capital of the Philippines, Makan at Eliseos emerges as an experimental Filipino restaurant masterfully helmed by Chef and Creative Director Eliseo “EJ” Sabater Lagman Jr.
Currently based in San Juan, La Union, Chef EJ embarked on his culinary career on an unconventional path. Initially, he pursued an engineering degree but transitioned to a 14-month vocational course as an alternative to traditional college. Encouraged by his family, he later finished a formal education in culinary arts, marking a significant turning point in his journey. Starting out as a novice and struggling even to wield a peeler effectively, Chef EJ eventually discovered his deep-seated love for culinary craft.
The Beat Asia spoke with Chef EJ, and he gladly shared his story from being an aspiring engineer to a culinary artist. This decision paved the way for the birth of Makan at Eliseos, a testament to his unwavering dedication and passion for the art of cooking.
How would you describe your unique cooking style and approach as a chef?
I believe I got it from skateboarding — that “keep trying until you get it” sort of mindset really helped me learn. The way I compose dishes also feels like I’m skating: different tricks = different produce, different obstacles = different cooking methods, and putting it together to complete a dish gives me the same satisfaction and joy as landing a bunch of tricks in line or in a sequence.
Can you tell us about Makan? When was it established, and what makes it known as an "experimental" restaurant?
We started off as a reservation-only, tasting-menu-type spot. We wanted to blur the lines between courses and use Filipino flavors in ways we’ve never had before. We still try to do that now by putting fun spins on dishes we’ve had growing up but in a more casual and shared experience. What also added to it being experimental was that I wanted to test different temperatures and textures while mixing sweet and savory flavors to make dishes that invoke a sense of both curiosity and nostalgia.
Among the dishes offered in Makan, what is the bestselling dish? What do you think makes this particular dish so popular among your patrons?
I guess that’d be our Dinakdakan — originally an Ilocano dish using various pork head parts with the brain as a sort of sauce. We use an inside skirt steak and instead of brain, we just go with a charred eggplant aioli. It’s pretty much on every table during lunch service.
What's one thing about you that most people don't know yet, and how has this experience or aspect helped you achieve where you are right now?
I was pretty spoiled growing up — but I mean that in the best way possible. I just have really supportive parents and grandparents; I feel like that [has] allowed me to be more creative and, I guess, fearless when it [comes] to doing things. Now that I’m older and trying to make it on my own, those qualities stuck and turned into this confidence that I feel fuels me to give back and make my family proud.
How do you balance your creative culinary vision with the practical aspects of running a successful restaurant or food business?
Good question. Hehe. In the beginning, I thought that looking at the numbers would only distract me from my creativity. I thought if I just kept cooking new stuff, everything else [would] fall into place. Now that we have a lot more on our payroll and even more serious responsibilities, I feel like I’ve streamlined my process, and now the margins feel less like a constraint and more of an inspiration to cook better with less but at the same time not bringing down the quality of the overall dish.
How do you handle the pressure and stress that come with the fast-paced nature of the culinary and restaurant industries?
Remembering to take a step back to breathe. I feel like sometimes my mind thinks I can keep going, but my body’s already tapping out — or vice versa. Getting some space for myself allows me to compartmentalize the problems and take them one step at a time.
In the ever-evolving world of food and dining, what do you see as the most exciting or challenging trends or opportunities for chefs and entrepreneurs in the future?
Everyone’s gotta eat, right? I believe the most exciting part of it is [that] there’s always going to be a mouth to feed. You just have to figure out what to feed it.
What's the greatest lesson you can share with those who aspire to build a culinary career like yours?
Don’t try to cook for everybody. Think about what you want to cook (and eat) and just go with that. If it’s good, people will come. If not, get back in the kitchen and try again.
Enjoyed this article? Check out our previous Yes, Chef! profiles here.
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