Meet Jay Poblador, a top Filipino in the international food industry
NEW YORK, USA – The restaurant staff at The Lamb’s Club gathered for their regular pre-service meeting, standing in a loose circle. A discussion on the evening’s menu specials led to deliberations on the pronunciation of saltimbocca. The sommelier introduced the new cocktails for the restaurant’s marketing promotion with Campari. The maitre ‘d reviewed upcoming reservations, sharing quick backgrounders on each of the expected patrons. A few household names dropped – a leading US politician, a world-famous magazine editor, a media mogul.
The restaurant’s general manager, Jay Poblador, turned to me to explain, “We get a lot of VIP regulars here and factor their dining requirements and interpersonal dynamics into our service.”
Tall, with the beginnings of charming smile lines and an easy manner unruffled by celebrity clients, Jay made the exacting work of luxury dining look easy. I had reached out to him to help me understand what in Filipino culture drew so many of us to work in the food industry, and what led to success.
If there was such a thing as being born for the food industry, his was such a case. His mom was a restaurateur who had the habit of turning her kitchen into a classroom when her children were on summer vacation.
“I thought it was normal to spend summers in the kitchen with a notebook, writing and trying recipes, critiquing my siblings’ cooking and being critiqued as well,” Jay mused. Going for an Associate degree at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) was a natural next step.
While at the CIA, Jay received one of his formative kitchen experiences when he trained in France with Michelin-starred chef Jean Michel Bouvier at Restaurant L’Essential. His recollection was cinematic.
“I arrived there with two heavy suitcases of school books, but my arrival had slipped the chef’s mind. Late in the day, he finally managed a few minutes to speak with me and asked about which parts of kitchen work I liked and didn’t like. I told him that I enjoyed working the grill but wasn’t too comfortable with pastry.” Of course at the end of the conversation, the chef asked Jay to report for work at 5 am the next day to start making bread. He was sleepless that night reviewing his schoolbooks on pastry making.
But Jay relished his time in France. Each day started with a sense of community, breakfast, and two espressos half an hour apart as the kitchen staff sat around a table in seats pre-assigned according to seniority. They were all expected to do everything from picking herbs to scrubbing the kitchen walls after dinner service. It was hard work, but fulfilling, and driven by a pure passion for the culinary arts.
Jay trained in France for a year and a half before returning to finish his degree at CIA’s New York campus. Another formative experience took place towards the end of the degree, when one evening, during a special CIA fundraising event that cost patrons $5,000 per table, he was assigned to wait on tables. He still looked hilariously mortified as he told the story. “Up until that time, all my experience was in the kitchen, so I was very nervous about serving.”
Early during the meal, Jay was trying to talk to his diners and open a wine bottle at the same time, when the cork broke. He tried a second time with a new bottle and the cork broke again. Panicked, he beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen where he flatly told his professor, “I can’t do it!” She rescued him and opened the third bottle herself.
After graduating, Jay decided to turn the traumatic experience around by taking a CIA fellowship to train in front-of-house restaurant service. When he finished his fellowship, a professor who had taken on a project to open a restaurant asked Jay to join him. And from there, Jay went from project to project, working with various Michelin-starred chefs such as Alain Ducasse, Paul Liebrandt, and Joel Antunes, at storied locations like The Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room and The Pierre Hotel, up to his current position as general manager at The Lambs Club with another Michelin-starred chef, Geoffrey Zakarian.
“If only your CIA teacher could see you now!” I beamed at Jay, referring to the one who rescued him from the bottle blunder. “She continues to be one of my mentors!” He beamed back.
“You’ve been away for 20 years. Is there anything that still ties you to the Philippines?” I asked.
“Yes!” Jay exclaimed, obviously eager to talk about a pet cause. “A few friends and I have a non-profit called NYers for the Philippines.”
NYers for the Philippines began in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) when coincidentally, Gawad Kalinga founder Tony Meloto was in New York and convinced Jay, who was a family friend, and Jay’s then colleague, Filipino-American chef de cuisine Arnie Marcella, to donate to post-typhoon rebuilding efforts. They decided to do a tasting evening to fundraise, and very quickly celebrity chefs like Daniel Boulud and Michael White committed to donating time and resources.
Bagatelle, restaurant of recession-proof decadence and fame, offered to host the event for free. Many other New York-based Filipinos volunteered to make the event a success. Even strangers such as the printer with whom they had their posters done donated the posters for free when they saw it was for a good cause.
Jay and Arnie had initially aimed to raise $5,000. When the tasting was said and done, they had raised $75,000. The group was able to provide funds for 25 houses to be rebuilt, and it continues its support until today via a scholarship fund that enables European entrepreneurs to teach students in Iloilo how to create products from local resources and bring them to market.
It was such a pleasure to see an old friend doing well for himself and others. But it left me with a sense of contradiction. When I asked Jay about his thoughts on the food industry – why so Filipinos were drawn to it and what led to success – he responded, “It’s because we are such a warm people. Hospitality comes naturally to us.” Indeed his own graciousness is striking.
But in Jay’s case, it wasn’t hospitality that drove him to face his fears, work to a point detrimental to his health, nurture mentor relationships over decades, or undertake philanthropy on top of a demanding day job. His affability belies a ferocity and pride in his work, obviously the other element instrumental to his rise in the industry.
As Filipinos, we derive so much of our national identity from our characteristic hospitality. Could the same be said for that other factor critical to success – the intangible combination of fearlessness and commitment? – Rappler.com