“I can always tell who cooked the food served on the table,” chef John Buenaventura says with a twinkle in the eye. “A piece of our heart goes into what we cook that is why no two dishes ever really taste the same.”
It’s been a decade since Buenaventura first landed in Dubai to work in the kitchens of some of the best five-star hotels in the emirate. His last stint was as Chef de Cuisine in Seafire Steakhouse in Atlantis the Palm before he took a “leap of faith” to open his own restaurant in Dubai.
Buenaventura’s Cuisinero Uno in Steigenberger Hotel celebrated its grand opening recently, a few days before the young owner and head chef turned 32.
The hip restobar serves fusion tapas in Emirati, Mediterranean, Spanish and Asian-inspired flavours and has already enjoyed a successful soft launch in the past few months, gaining a steady stream of patrons due to its laidback atmosphere as well as good and affordable food (the most expensive food on the menu costs Dh55).
As an advanced birthday gift, his staff gave Buenaventura a memento during the restaurant’s official launch: a sledgehammer preserved in a box. It was enough to make the young chef visibly emotional. It was the same sledgehammer he used to work on the restaurant.
“At one point, my staff and I did the construction work inside the restaurant: masonry, painting, you name it. Funds were running low and we had to be resourceful. You can literally say we spent blood, sweat and tears on this restaurant,” he says, running a hand on the arm where he has a tattoo of his first kitchen knife, with the words ‘Cuisinero Uno’ superimposed on it.
“I was running on hope that everything will be okay,” he adds.
With the help of family, friends and investors, it wasn’t long before his dream became a reality. A part of the wall in the restaurant, with a colourful graffiti, has been preserved to remind the team of where they started.
“I always touch this wall when I come to work and before heading home,” he says.
Buenaventura’s inventive streak is visible everywhere: from the details in the tableware to the quirky dishes meticulously put together, including a rather popular Dubai Short Ribs: slow-cooked meaty wonder on a bed of Emirati madrouba, pickled onion and spiced ghee.
He is heavily involved in running the kitchen and is often seen behind the bar with the open kitchen. The Cuisinero Uno team gives out an unmistakable vibe of camaraderie, fuelled by Buenaventura’s youthful enthusiasm and management skills. “I’ve given my team a five per cent stake in the restaurant so that everyone has a share of its success. I’m happy that my team is happy,” he says.
There are already plans of opening a Cuisinero Uno 2 and 3 in Dubai and perhaps in the Philippines’ affluent Bonifacio Global City, Buenaventura revealed. “We’re hoping the flagship restaurant in Dubai maintains its momentum so we can work on opening restaurants abroad,” Buenaventura says.
How did the son of a Filipino farmer and accountant end up creating a successful restaurant in Dubai?
“It’s all about passion for food,” he said. “I love creating an experience for people through the food I cook. And when you pour your heart into whatever it is you do, you always get the same love back,” he said.
RECIPE: PHILLY CHEESE STEAK
150g Rib Eye Steak
100g Piquillo Pepper
50g Smoked Cheddar
To Taste: Black Pepper
To Taste: Sea Salt
200g Sourdough Bread
10g Softened Butter
100g Red Onions
50ml Red Vinegar
60g Brown Sugar
5g Smoked Paprika Powder
• Start off by preparing the caramelised onions, Slice the red onions into thin strips and sauté it over med. Once it starts to turn a little brown; deglaze it with the red vinegar. Simmer it until the vinegar slightly evaporates then add in your brown sugar and smoked paprika powder. Cool it down over an ice bath and set aside for later use.
• Season the rib eye steak with black pepper, sea salt and some corn oil. Place the steak over the charcoal grill and sear both sides for 2—3 minutes each and let it rest off the grill for 10 minutes. Set aside.
• Spread some butter over your sourdough bread and lightly toast it over the charcoal grill and start to assemble the dish.
• Re-heat the steak over charcoal for a few minutes. Slice the meat across the grain and layer them out on the grilled sourdough bread. Place a spoon full of the caramelised onion on top and a slice of smoked cheddar cheese.
• Place the sandwich under a salamander or inside the oven and toast until the cheese melts. Finish it off with some sautéed chopped piquillo peppers and chives.
• Serve with some old school French fries or salad, whichever you fancy. Enjoy!