It wasn’t solely a career shift when a 54-year old banker took a detour and braved the motley hurdles to enter the world of food service in 2016. For Rowena Romulo, it was now or never.
Fuelled by her high regard for Filipino food and determination to enrich her family´s heritage as well as to expand, internationally, the successful Romulo Café in Manila, she mustered all her courage and embarked on an ambitious mission to not only pave the way for Filipino cuisine in the established London food scene but most importantly, make it stay.
Surely, ambition requires more than hard work; it demands a great deal of strategy and tons of passion. From hiring a UK consultant to devising a business plan, presenting it to her family in the Philippines, and then having to find a suitable spot—Rowena had to keep reminding herself of the goal so she wouldn’t get cold feet.
“The first location we set our eyes on and made a bid for turned us down because the landlord was not familiar with Filipino cuisine and he was unsure as to whether this would be a success or not,” she says.
She and her team were not oblivious to the fact that location is critical for restaurants. They had to execute a conscious decision to make a significant investment in an area that was close to major Filipino hubs such as Earls Court and Our Lady of Victories Church, and associated with key British landmarks and establishments like Kensington Palace, Holland Park, the Embassy Row, Palace Green, Royal Albert Hall, V&A, and London Olympia.
After six months of searching and surveying, a Kensington site was made available! Not even tough property lease negotiations would hinder the rise of the first outpost of Romulo Café in the British capital.
A Unique Compromise
Rowena didn’t sail unready. The challenges did not surprise nor daunt her. Confident of her team, she was up for some ‘donkey work’ to convince food lovers and restaurant-goers in London that Filipino food is the big thing. Moreover, although the mission was to take Romulo Café and all the good it had to offer to Kensington, still the bell loudly rings, ‘it’s London’, and there was always the risk that this Philippine set-up could misfire.
So, making a unique compromise was the name of the game—making Romulo Café blend into the London landscape on the one hand and stand out on the other.
“There were major modifications we had to make. The interiors made by Filipina Karen Soriano-Hristov, are a departure from the black and white/monochrome formula of our restaurants back home. There is also a bit of quirkiness, as you would find in any real home whilst its spirit belongs to the legacy left by my grandfather, Carlos P. Romulo, through the photographs and mementos that adorn the restaurant. The outcome is an appealing space that bridges Filipino culture with the locality, revealing a rich sense of personal and family history.”
After furnishing the restaurant, Rowena’s team was confronted with a more arduous challenge—setting up the London menu! She explained that the menu could not be as extensive as the restaurants in the Philippines largely due to ingredients not being available in London. It also became imperative to alter the presentation of some of the dishes to ensure that they were not just delectable but attractive to Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike, given the broader customer base in London.
Rowena has faith in the uniqueness of Filipino cuisine. For her, it is a mesmerizing combination of four culinary traditions – Spanish, American, Malay and Chinese, and a real fusion of flavours from the East and West. And she’s earnest in making it known and savoured by the world.
Greatness in the Making
It has been non-stop work at Romulo Café since day one. The challenges have been huge and demanding. How to not only introduce but familiarise diners with Filipino food; how to compete in such a crowded, noisy and high-standard culinary location, and even how to persuade Filipinos in London that Romulo Café offers a viable alternative to Pinoy home-cooking or Mama’s cooking.
Rowena strategised and soon witnessed history in the making. “Filipino food has been the ‘quiet man (or woman!)’ of gastronomy for the longest time. But we tried to explain our food on our menus as simply and clearly as possible, and we did not hesitate to promote, via social media and other media channels as well as exhibitions and food festivals, the fact that we existed as purveyors of ‘a taste of the Philippines in the heart of Kensington’.”
Today her chefs ensure that they keep her grandmother, Lola Virginia’s recipes alive by overseeing the consistency and quality of the food seven days a week, bearing in mind that many no longer consider eating out as a treat but a lifestyle.
“We have never claimed that our food is the definitive this or that dish; rather, it is the family rendition of Filipino favourites or, ever so often, our innovative twist on dishes using Filipino ingredients and cooking styles,” said Rowena. Romulo Café’s kitchen team is quite pleased to have been able to convince a number of people that fine wine goes well with fine Filipino food, and many of their Philippine-inspired cocktails have taken off.
“We have to make sure we are competitive — in every way, versus establishments in our style and price bracket,” she added.
Rowena certainly had high hopes, but she herself could not believe the turnout. Romulo Café has become a head-turner, creating not just a buzz but a resounding bang. That same year it opened, Romulo Café won the 2016 Time Out ‘Best Loved Restaurant in Kensington’. It also received a 5-star and other top ratings from trend-setting lifestyle/food bibles like Time Out, Hardens, and Square Meal.
And while those are already milestones, the inclusion of Romulo Café in the prestigious TATLER Restaurant Guide in 2018, the A-list of top restaurants in London and the UK, is one of the foremost achievements, carrying the powerful statement: Filipino food has definitely arrived and is here to stay. As if to drive home the point, in May 2018, Romulo Café retained its crown as Time Out Most Loved Restaurant in Kensington. Moreover, it is now Time Out’s second Most Loved Local Restaurant (among all restaurants) in London!
The hard work has paid off. Today, thanks to both fellow Filipino, British and international customers, Romulo Café’s Crispy Pata, Adobo, Kare-Kare, Pansit Guisado, Flying Fish, Pork Sisig, Chicken Relleno, Halo-Halo, and Suman Latik are firm favourites on Kensington High Street.
The Conquistador is a Woman
What could happen in less than two years? For Rowena and Romulo Café, what has happened is nothing short of monumental.
Grit over experience is Rowena’s formula for championing this voyage. Says the now established restaurateur, “We are never too old nor is it ever too late to start over. At times, we need to take a risk and have the courage to venture into something new—even if it means climbing out of our comfort zone. All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them. Nothing is impossible, the impossible only takes time.”
With such a disposition, it would not take long for the world to see the strength in Rowena. In 2017, she was named one of the 100 most influential Filipinas in the world by the Filipina Women’s Network. She was recognized in the ‘Builder Award’ category for her “exceptional organizational impact at a large workplace environment,” her “deep passion for a cause, through collaborative initiatives or alliances” and “high potential and skill with measurable results.”
In the midst of all the accolades, she remains steadfast. For her, receiving recognition simply means ‘No Slacking’. “My team and I continue to work extremely hard to ensure that we are consistently delivering quality food and service day in and day out. And to showcase the best of Filipino hospitality, and make Romulo Café ‘home away home’ for Filipinos,” she said.
Rowena cannot help but liken the journey of Romulo Café to their Pandesal. “Our home-made Pandesal is the first thing that guests are served when they dine with us. It looks very simple and unassuming and then when guests take their first bite, they say ‘WOW’ and are very complimentary. From the outside, the restaurant looks small and unpretentious but when people enter the main dining room, they are impressed with the overall ambiance and décor and the history that surrounds the restaurant. Our journey has been that of a relatively unknown cuisine in London that has made it to the A-list of restaurants in less than 2 years. And now, Pandesal is delivered to many London homes and we have non-Filipinos who come in to take it home. How about that!”
The eponymous Romulo Café is sure to honour the grand legacy of the diplomat Carlos P. Romulo. because a determined and driven woman named Rowena Romulo took up the challenge, it is now an emblem of Filipino pride in London, our very own cuisine at its heart.