FOOD enthusiast Jigs Arquiza spends time in the kitchen with a culinary expert who’s finally come home.

Ma. Dominique Mabugat considers herself a spiritual Cebuana. “I’ve come home,” chef Nikko (as she is called by her students) exclaimed, explaining further that one day while spending her vacation here, she just decided to stay for good.

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“My lolo is Cebuano, but I grew up in Manila,” Nikko says, adding “We used to visit Cebu every year when I was a little girl.”

Growing up in Manila wasn’t enough, as it happened. After taking up Family Life and Child Development in the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, she discovered that something was still lacking.

Because her mom exposed her to good food, she realized that she was in love with cooking. “It’s probably in the genes,” Nikko wonders, “because I heard that my lola used to have a restaurant. I guess the love for food runs in the family.”

Pursuing her love for food led her to New York and the Culinary Institute of America. An externship at trendy restaurant Bouley run by renowned chef David Bouley contributed towards her education in the culinary arts, but Nikko had a few misgivings though, because of all the hard work a chef undertakes.

Quitting her job at Bouley, she decided she still wanted to work in a restaurant, becoming restaurant manager of The Leaping Frog Café in Central Park Zoo, but soon missed the kitchen environment: the aromas, the clashing of pots and pans, the shouting of orders.

Once again going back to the kitchen, she became a line cook at Moderne, the restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art. Though considered one of the most prestigious cities to work in as a chef, New York was never considered a “home” by Nikko. She was there to work, and according to her, “At the back of my mind, it was always about going home.”

Going back to Manila, she became an instructor at the Academy for International Culinary Arts. Teaching at the school since 2007, she jumped at the chance to live in Cebu when she heard that they would be opening a branch at The Gallery in Mabolo.

“We hope to open in mid-April,” Nikko says a bit apprehensively, and goes on to say that she and her partners hope that the school does well. As the school director for ICA, Nikko is encouraged by the fact that a lot of Pinoys now have an interest in the culinary arts, although she does disapprove of some of the reasons why.

“I don’t want our students to leave the country,” she declares, asking rhetorically “how many restaurants here are run by Filipino chefs?”

On cooking, she insists, “You have to love the craft. Passion is not something I can teach my students.” Chef Nikko adds “You have to do your job well; your emotions carry over onto your cooking. If you are happy, your dishes turn out great. If you’re in a bad mood, your cooking probably won’t taste as good.”

On eating, chef Nikko accedes that “Growing up is the biggest influence on your palate. At the end of the day, eating is a preference.”

On learning to cook, Nikko advises students to “Get as much experience as you can. If possible, get a mentor. The learning does not end in the kitchen. And most of all, find out ‘What is my food?’ “

On her favorite food: “Home cooking is the best becasue it’s done with love.”

How to live life? Chef Nikko declares: “You have to love what you’re doing. Most importantly, live life to the fullest.”

If the saying “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” is indeed true, then this lady’s definitely got it made.