DO YOU ever wonder where great chefs are born or where successful restaurants take its root from? Not in the culinary institutes and business schools but way before that—the mother’s kitchen.

One’s love for food always starts at home and our kitchens are our mom’s domain. In her apron, she’d systematically prepare all ingredients— freshly picked from the market just before the break of dawn. Then, toss it in one, two, or even three different pots cooking at the same time.

It’s a wonder how she can juggle her attention from one pot to another and manage to create delicious dishes.

Someone from her brood is by the counter, standing on tiptoes, and wide-eyed in amazement, and volunteers to help. Mom hands the lightest chore and explain her recipe and patiently teaches her young apprentice how each ingredient is important and how each makes the dish taste best.

In the kitchen, cooking secrets are revealed and this is passed from one generation to another.

Café Laguna’s story is no different.

Perhaps what makes the Filipino restaurant attractive is the diners’ familiarity to its food. Everyone yearns for mom’s cooking and familiar flavors we grew up with— and Café Laguna delivers it on the Pinoy’s palate.

“We love recipes according to what it is. We don’t want to be known as a fusion restaurant. Café Laguna serves no flair, old fashioned food and we stick to the discipline of preparing each dish. No breaking of recipe, we just enhance the flavor,” said the corporate chef, Rocky Urbina, citing the all-time favorite Kare-kare as an example, “We’re proud to say we make everything from scratch. We make our own paste from scratch with no use of thickeners. It’s mom’s original recipe and I added my own refinements.”

The recipes he speaks of he refers to as “heritage recipes,” to which he’s now the heir of. Rocky must have been the wide-eyed child in his mom’s kitchen to which Julita Urbina, the founder and CEO of the Laguna Group (of restaurants), passes on the cooking torch to.

Café Laguna’s legacy started with a small turo-turo type of eatery with five tables annexed to the family’s Cebu residence back in the 80’s. The backyard business’ earnings would contribute to the family income after the family emigrated Laguna due to the patriarch’s military assignment.

Tagalog cuisine was served, a novelty in Cebu back then, with Kape at Puto Bumbong the bestsellers. The food earned a following and the clientele increased. Soon the food orders came and a new business venture was offered—to run the canteen of a beverage plant. She took the challenge.

If you build it, they will come. So in 1991, Julita decided to open the first Café Laguna in Lahug, on the same spot where the family first moved in (which would become the company’s commissary building and corporate office).

Not long after, in 1994, the restaurant opened in a major mall in Cebu. The major breakthrough paved the way for the Tagalog restaurant to grow beyond its birthplace. From 2003, it opened its franchised branches in Cagayan de Oro, Dumaguete, General Santos, Davao and Ormoc.

Davao had its feast of the cuisine when in 2011 at the Abreeza Mall, but closed in 2016 due to issues with the franchiser. This did not deter Julita to reopen Café Laguna recently in a new location and run it themselves. The new 120-seater Davao branch at the Azuela Cove is the Laguna Group’s first company-owned restaurant outside of Cebu.

With Davao quite familiar with the original Café Laguna’s cuisine, perhaps it will take little effort for the resto to earn the foodies’ nods again. With the knowledge that the 8th branch in country is run by the owner’s able hands, the food quality will be consistent and the service will be uncompromised.

What to expect at Café Laguna? The “heritage recipes”, “mom’s cooking” and the good old bestsellers that has become synonymous to its name—the Puto Bumbong, Karekare, Crispy Pata, Fresh Lumpia and Palabok Tagalog with baked and shredded Tinapa Flakes.

Look out for dishes that will highlight the local ingredients as well. The chef said they will be adding to the menu specialty dishes using with Malagos Farmhouse Cheeses, bihod, and the Durian, and these items will be exclusive to Davao.

Now, time to enjoy the food we missed conceived from “mommy Julita’s kitchen”— plus a few more. Malinamnang pagbabalik sa Davao, Café Laguna!

Under the Laguna Group are the restaurants Café Laguna, Lemon Grass, Ulli’s Kitchen and Parilya.

For more photos about this feature, visit ofapplesandlemons.com.

For travel stories, visit jeepneyjinggoy.com.

Email me at jinggoysalvador@yahoo.com