Jeremy Villanueva

Jeremy Villanueva

Jeremy Villanueva

Before taking a contract on a cruise ship where he worked alongside a number of Filipino chefs, Jeremy Villanueva had only ever cooked classical French cuisine professionally. Now, having taken time to relearn the cuisine he grew up eating, he’s the executive chef at Filipino restaurants Romulo Café and Kasa & Kin in London.

London is full to brim with chefs from all corners of the globe who grew up eating all sorts of different cuisines. Yet for many of these chefs, whilst they may cook the food they were brought up on at home, the food they cook professionally is often completely different. Sometimes it's just the direction their career has taken them; other times it's a result of chefs not having the right platform to cook their native cuisine. After spending over fifteen years cooking the classical style of food he was trained in, Jeremy Villanueva decided to start trying to refine the Filipino food he cooked at home and is now one of the few chefs showcasing this Southeast Asian cuisine in the capital.

Growing up in the Philippines, it’s no surprise that Jeremy wanted to become a chef, given the country’s obsession with food. ‘A lot of our culture revolves around eating,’ he laughs. ‘We probably have about five meals a day. It was such a big part of our family growing up; we’d all have our own little dishes that we’d cook at family gatherings.’ Soon after moving to the UK aged fourteen, he decided that cheffing was the career for him and after finishing his A levels Jeremy moved to Blackpool to complete a diploma in culinary arts.

After spending some time training at Simpson’s in the Strand, Jeremy went to Australia for a year and worked in various kitchens across Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, before returning to London to work under Michel Roux Jr at Le Gavroche. After becoming chef de partie at the two-Michelin-starred restaurant, he went on to achieve his first head chef position soon after at The Waldorf Club (which was also overseen by Roux), before moving to Brasserie Roux at the Sofitel St. James. A stint working as Tony Tobin’s head chef at Reigate’s The Dining Room soon followed, but it was Jeremy’s next position as a chef on a cruise liner that would prove a pivotal moment in his career.

‘It was a very challenging environment working on a ship,’ says Jeremy. ‘I remember on one passage we hit some big waves and when we went downstairs, all of our evening preparation was on the floor.’ However, it was on board the cruise ship that after years of almost exclusively cooking French food professionally, Jeremy began to see his native Filipino cuisine in a different way. ‘There were almost a hundred Filipino chefs on board,’ he explains. ‘They all came from different islands and during the evenings they’d cook all these amazing regional dishes. They were all so proud of their culinary heritage and would debate how certain things should be cooked. Witnessing that variety and the culture surrounding it made me see Filipino food in a different light.’

On returning to the UK after his time on the ship, Jeremy was offered a position by his former head chef at Le Gavroche at Mayfair’s Le Boudin Blanc, where he remained until 2016. However, reinvigorated by his time spent on board with the chefs from the Philippines, he also began to further his knowledge of Filipino cuisine. ‘I had to relearn a lot of the techniques,’ says Jeremy. ‘I called my family back home to try and get the recipes that we were served as kids. Luckily there were a few other young Filipino chefs doing the same thing so we’d talk and exchange ideas.’ When he eventually left Le Boudin Blanc, Jeremy even decided to briefly work with a friend doing Spanish tapas to see the influence that Spain’s historic colonisation of The Philippines had on its cuisine. ‘It was all part of the learning process,’ he adds. ‘It also helped me look at the food I was cooking at home and think about how to refine it for a restaurant.’

In 2018, Jeremy was approached by Filipino restaurateur Rowena Romulo to become executive chef of her first London Filipino concept Romulo, and was finally able to start cooking his native cuisine professionally. ‘All the dishes at Romulo have their own stories of how they became what they are,’ says Jeremy. ‘A lot of them are family recipes which have been passed down too, so it’s something very personal that the Romulo family are sharing with their guests. I always respect this so even if I’m presenting something in a more modern way, the core of the dish is still there.’

More recently, as executive chef at Rowena’s second London restaurant Kasa and Kin, Jeremy has been able to be more playful with the dishes he serves, which are more contemporary in nature and partly inspired by Filipino street food. ‘The rules are different here,’ he explains. ‘Perceptions of Filipino food are changing and we’re trying to express that. You can get fried chicken and American spaghetti in the Philippines now. It’s not an isolated corner of the world. Manila has always been an important trading point all across Southeast Asia and in the US and its food reflects these influences.’

For Jeremy, food is about more than just the cuisine and having spent almost twenty years learning French cooking, that will always be a part of his style. ‘My interest lies in gastronomy as a whole,’ he says. ‘For me it’s not necessarily about whether something is French or Filipino, it’s the flavours that make me tick. My techniques are obviously heavily influenced by my training, so sometimes I won’t do things in the traditional order, but it’s the end result that’s important.’ It’s this freedom in his style of cookery, along with his combination of influences, that makes Jeremy’s food so exciting and intriguing.