Haven for the Heart: Lunch delight at Croque
Celine Rheinelle Allarey, INK
It is not everyday that we take a step back from the ‘busyness’ of life and pause for a well-deserved break, especially here in Metro Manila. Nor do we always find the things we crave, all in one place. Chef Owners Alexa Alaba and Paco Lao share how their foodie sentiments gave birth to a place you can call your heart’s haven: Croque Café & Bakery.
It’s difficult to miss Croque’s French-inspired façade and welcoming Mediterranean colors.
Inspired by Southern France’s cozy vibes and homey French windows, Croque welcomes you through its blue panel doors and decorated chalkboards, leading you right to its bakery. Croque is just so Instagrammable –great for selfies.
Chefs Alexa and Paco, Enderun Alumni, joined us for a memorable lunch spiced with kwentuhan. Croque Adobo was served like a filet mignon! Classic Carbonara was tossed with real crispy pancetta and topped with a raw but warm egg. We gave in easily to their famous triple layered chocolate cake. Their original coolers accompanied the meal. The cuisine is basically European fusion, with several dishes of native inspiration.
Paco emphasized Alain Ducasse’s fundamental principle that ingredients must be sourced locally.
Paco recalls, “We started the business, like we were the guinea pigs for culinary, the first batch of Alain Ducasse. And today I still think this principle is advantageous-every ingredient, the menu and the recipes have to be local, applicable to the Manila setting. We learned that 7 years ago.”
“My whole stay in Enderun was a very good foundation for our business,” added Alexa, Croque’s executive pastry chef and operations manager. “In college, we were always immersed in events and gatherings. Sir Chad Davis helped me work part time at Wine Depot when I was in 2nd year. Now we are sourcing all of our wines and beverages from Wine Depot and we developed a strong rapport with them. It’s crucial to know suppliers, and this can start while you’re still a student.”
Croque is from the French, meaning to crunch on something, thus an idiom meaning to eat. Freshness and comfort are at the heart of every dish served at the café bakery, blending local flavors with a European flair, which are also influenced by the multicultural culinary training of both Alexa and Paco.
“He worked as Chef de partie in Hyatt Regency Guam. I worked there as an F&B Management Trainee for a year. Meeting people is important during internship. Imagine the Executive Chef de cuisine of the restaurant where we interned came here during the planning stage of Croque. They were helping us out, giving tips about the menu, quality, and other inputs.”
It’s a different kind of partnership.
Alexa and Paco are more than just business partners. They tied the knot earlier this year! “We’ve been together since Enderun days. When I was interning in Southern France, Paco would visit me and we really fell in love with the place, so we thought why not make a restaurant in Manila that’s inspired by this Mediterranean look? From there we started planning. It was fun working with someone you’re attached to, but along the way it involved a lot of work too.”
“It’s hard to go into a business with someone who has the same interest as you,” says Paco. “At some point you’re going to clash, so as much as possible you go with a business where people want to do things differently, but in a complementary way, so you can learn as you advance.”
Both of them agreed that running a restaurant has to be taken as a whole package. A package that tediously demands the support of other people who share the passion, vision, and goals. Like marriage, it is a venture capable of testing bonds in times of conflict, but in the end, what’s important is to “keep the relationship intact.”
There are always challenges, risks and opportunities
Alexa traced back for a while and confirmed that part of the challenge was that they were both mahiyain during their first year in the business and that they were “both introverts. The restaurant business is quite a glamorous industry and you have to be present, especially now that online media is very competitive and powerful. At first we’re so scared of mingling with others but we overcame it eventually.”
“One department we’re lacking is marketing. We’re not very visible in media.” Nonetheless, their Dark Chocolate Quenelle was included in Spot.ph’s “Top 10 Chocolate Cakes in Manila, 2016 Edition.” Paco admitted, “We didn’t know our chocolate cake was featured until one of our friends messaged us.”
Culinary ventures always involve risk. Paco advises, “You can start with as little money as you have. Even if you risk something with little expense, use this dare to gather as much experience as you can. This will elevate your level of being a professional, so just go for it.”
Alexa shared a point for all of us to ponder. “What can you risk? It’s not just the money, but also the time, and in any business, it’s trial and error. You just have to test it out and do it. And you can’t equate any risk just to money. It’s not everyday the business is good, but the things I’ve learned in the past 2-3 years, they’re all priceless.”
Venez donc croquer au Croque!