Budgie Montoya

Budgie Montoya

Since being blown away by a meal he enjoyed at The Fat Duck in 2009, Budgie Montoya has made it his mission to make people as happy as he felt that evening. Now, as one of the chefs at the forefront of London’s ever-evolving Filipino food scene, he’s doing exactly that.

While Southeast Asian cuisines such as Thai and Vietnamese have been hugely popular in the UK for decades, Filipino food hasn’t had the recognition it deserved until recently. Now, more Filipino restaurants have started appearing across the UK thanks to chefs like Ferdinand Montoya (known as Budgie), who are championing the cuisine. At his restaurant Sarap, Budgie aims to show just how unique and exciting Filipino cuisine can be. 

Budgie was born in the Philippines but grew up in Australia, as his family moved to Sydney when he was five years old. Despite having always enjoyed cooking as a hobby, he initially worked in IT until everything changed after a trip to the UK in 2009. ‘My wife and I were travelling around Europe,’ explains Budgie. ‘On that trip, we went to The Fat Duck and it was a really eye-opening experience for me; everything from the food to the service was incredible. At the end of that meal, I remember sitting and thinking to myself ‘that’s what I want to do. I want to make people feel as happy as I feel now.’ That’s what started it all for me.’ It took a few more years for Budgie to take the plunge and change career, but in 2012, when he and his wife decided to move to the UK, he deiced to seize the opportunity.

‘I did a very basic cookery course before leaving Australia so I didn’t feel like a fish out of water,’ he says, ‘and then when I got to London, I applied to over a hundred restaurants.’ Eventually, Budgie landed a position working in the larder at Dean Street Townhouse and almost immediately knew he had made the right decision. ‘It was a whole new experience for me, and a big shock to the system in terms of needing to constantly push, but I just loved the rush of it all and the instant gratification of seeing customers eating my food.’ Over the course of the next year, Budgie had the chance to work his way through the different sections at Dean Street Townhouse, particularly thriving on the grill and sauce sections (‘that was where I really started to catch the bug’). However, soon a different London restaurant began to catch his eye...

‘I ate at Restaurant Story and was blown away,’ he explains. ‘Tom (Sellers)’s cooking was a whole new level. After I’d been there, I messaged the restaurant on Twitter, and they replied inviting me in for a trial.’ Budgie was offered a job and within a matter of weeks was working in one of London’s hottest new kitchens. Despite it being the most intense kitchen that he’d ever worked in, it was at Restaurant Story that Budgie’s confidence in his own ability really started to grow. ‘Tom is all bettering yourself and not worrying about anybody else,’ he says. ‘I look back on that kitchen with a lot of fondness, as I just learnt so much and gained a lot of confidence in myself.’

Following his stint at Restaurant Story, Budgie spent time at restaurants including the Hoxton Grill and Holland Park’s Flat Three, where he learnt about the importance of reducing wastage (‘the chef always preferred us trying something and failing at it rather than putting stuff straight in the bin’) and mastered various fermentation techniques. The turning point in Budgie’s career, however, came when he was given the chance to take charge of the small kitchen at Brooksby’s Walk in Clapton, and cook his own style of food. ‘The owner said that he didn’t care what I cooked, it just needed to be delicious,’ he explains. ‘I started to play around with Asian flavours and somewhere along the line I started to miss home and feel a void in terms of my connection to the Philippines, so I began asking mum for some recipes. At first, I definitely cheffed them up a bit too much and went a bit too far but that’s where everything really started.’ Budgie soon started cooking his modern Filipino food at a monthly supper club in Brooksby’s Walk and the Sarap concept was born.

Despite the success of his supper clubs, in 2017 Budgie took up the opportunity to become head chef at Foley’s in Soho, as he wanted to continue to develop as a chef whilst trying to define exactly what style of food he wanted to cook. Within a year of starting the job though, Budgie was getting restless. ‘I went back home in 2018 and my mum could see that I wasn’t happy,’ he says. ‘Being there made me realise that it was because I wanted to continue cooking Filipino food, so after that trip I took the decision to quit what I was doing and pursue Sarap full time.’ After a series of successful residencies at the likes of The Sun & 13 Cantons Budgie won the prestigious Brixton Kitchen competition (2019), giving him the chance to open Sarap permanently in Brixton Market.

When the national lockdown hit in 2020 and forced restaurants to close, Budgie decided to pivot to a more casual quick-service concept, reopening his Brixton restaurant as Sarap Baon. However, he was still determined to open a version of Sarap that was closer to his original vision – a restaurant where he could showcase his takes on classic Filipino dishes in all their glory. So, when the chance arose in 2021 to take over 10 Heddon Street and launch Sarap Filipino Bistro, he jumped at the chance, ‘having those two concepts running concurrently made me realise that they were two very different things,’ he explains ‘Sarap Baon was the food I liked to eat, but Sarap Filipino Bistro is the food I like to cook.’ Whilst Sarap Baon was ultimately forced to close in 2022 due to the impact of the pandemic, Sarap Filipino Bistro proved a hit, garnering praise from critics and the public alike.

At Sarap Filipino Bistro, Budgie’s primary aim is to showcase Filipino cuisine but he’s certainly not afraid of serving things in a way that might not have been seen before, ‘when I first started Sarap, I think I almost felt a burden to be a flag bearer for the cuisine and be authentic,’ he says, ‘but I’ve always felt that tradition shouldn’t bind us. That’s why I wanted to take all my learnings from mainly European kitchens and apply them to the flavours I know and understand, whilst also taking advantage of the UK’s amazing larder. For me, the food at Sarap is the most authentic I’ve ever cooked because it’s me on a plate; it’s my life, my experiences and my memories.’

For someone who decided to become a chef later in life than many, it’s impressive how much Budgie Montoya has already achieved. Not only is he making people feel just as happy as he did that evening at The Fat Duck in 2009 with his own food at Sarap, he’s now very much at the forefront of the UK’s Filipino dining scene.