What makes a legacy? It’s something I ponder on as I enter Victorino’s—the quaint restaurant along Scout Rallos Street whose facade evokes a sense of home. Today, I am slated to interview Chef Heny Sison, who by name alone is a formidable figure in the local food industry. Only a few homegrown culinary institutions could be said to rival the Heny Sison Culinary School, who with its decades of institution has catered to generations of aspiring chefs and celebrities.
There seems to be a common thread when it comes to culinary success stories: working from the ground up in a prestigious kitchen, then to another, before making a name for oneself with one’s own establishment. Such was not the case for Chef Heny—and to understand her enduring legacy in the Philippine culinary scene, perhaps it is necessary to look at how she began her foray into the culinary world.
An only child, Chef Heny would often spend her free time in between their family’s gasoline station in Orani, Bataan, and the family restaurant, Travelers Kitchenette. One could say it was her family that spurred her desire to cook, as her mother, aunts, and grandmothers all knew how to cook. But while it was this side that awakened her love for cooking, it was her father who taught her the fundamentals of business, as she would help out at the gasoline station as a cashier during the summer break.
This melding of two sides would play a large role in the years to come, culminating in her culinary school years later. But even so, this practicality would manifest prior to founding her school.
When one door closes, another one opens
Before becoming a culinarian, Chef Heny worked at the Philippine American Investment Corporation Bank and prior to this, a stint at a government agency where she met her husband. In a series of serendipitious events, she then enrolled at the Asian Institute of Management looking to take the MBA, but ultimately deferred it after a business opportunity came along—a kiosk.
Deciding to get married, she ultimately had to close up shop. But that too would spur another opportunity. “Of course, when I get married, I have to go on a honeymoon,” she says. “So we went to America, and at the same time while we were there, I took some classes.”
She expanded her skillset by taking courses under culinary greats like Tess Isaac and Sylvia Reynoso-Gala. Her pursuit for gastronomy took her further to Illinois to complete courses at the Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionary. By the time they arrived home, she would make the most of those lessons by making wedding cakes and fruitcakes as a sideline. Her designs would then attract the attention of many of her clients, some who would become her future students. “Kasi may nagrerequest sa amin na turuan ko sila because they’ve seen my work,” says Chef Heny. “[And] from two students, we became five, became ten, [and so on].”
What sets them apart
While other culinary schools might have existed then, none had offered such specialized cake decorating and baking classes at the time, giving Chef Heny’s school an advantage. Initially called the Heny Sison School of Cake Decorating and Baking, it was changed to the Heny Sison Culinary School to accommodate a wider range of students to learn cooking skills. Nowadays, Chef Heny considers her school a boutique school for its small class sizes and personalized style of teaching—which go hand in hand, as the limited class size allows a more personal way of teaching the students.
Many of the school’s faculty either have been screened intensively or are experienced professionals in the field, some of whom Chef Heny knows personally. “Not all chefs can teach. It takes dedication, passion, and experience, especially,” she shares. For Chef Heny, after all, “Being a chef is an experience. [You] cannot earn it overnight..” The education of Chef Heny Sison, then—or the Heny Sison Culinary School, for that matter—is one that cannot be divorced from the culinary journey itself. One can only create from what he has experienced.
And perhaps that is how a legacy is made. More than keeping relevant amid the tide of the times, a legacy is something felt, something lived. Tradition, after all, only persists if there is enough reason to partake in it. And with an eye for detail and an instinct for good food, Chef Heny ensures that her legacy will never fade.
Excerpt from Breakfast Magazine December-January 2018 issue.