The Cockney Chef: Mervyn Whitfield

By Kathy M. Villalon

JUST as you enter the front door of the Amigo Plaza Mall, to your left is the newest dining destination in the city – Stavros’ Kebab and Mediterranean House and Piccolo Mondo.
This family-oriented restaurant serves mouth-watering Mediterranean and Italian delights that were created by no less than Chef Mervyn Whitfield.

His expertise in the kitchen spans 42 years. But, surprisingly, cooking wasn’t really his first love.
“My father was in the Armed Forces in the United Kingdom. My mother is Italian, with a little bit of Greek in her. I wasn’t tall enough to go into the Armed Forces. My mother's cousin was a chef in a hotel, so I got into that instead,” he narrated.
He was only 14 when he left school and worked as an apprentice in a hotel. “When you are in a hotel kitchen, you do an apprenticeship. So, I started at the very bottom. I strained sauces for about a year and was a horrible job. All the rubbish, the pots and putting everything in. Then, you strain to another pot and then to another until you get the base of the sauces. And it’s hot and laborous. It’s a good thing we now have wonderful machines. But before, they only had big pots and strainers,” he said.
But, every hard work pays off and this is true for Mervyn. After four years of straining sauces, he got promoted to the different food stations. “It became more pleasurable,” he said. Then, a few years later, the hotel management thought he knew enough, so he was promoted as station chef. Four years later, he became chef Torno. “It’s like a sous chef who’s second to the head chef,” he explained.

“But after five years, I began to miss my social life. I didn’t go out with friends nor did I have a girlfriend,” Mervyn said.
So, he left the “kitchen” and with the money he saved in the bank, he bought a friend’s music equipment. “My friend had a rock band; a popular one in London. So I decided to buy those and became a glorified road manager. It did quite well,” Mervyn said, obviously relishing that action-filled part of his life.
“We came across many bands. We met the Beatles in Germany. We served as a back-up band for them,” he said. Not only did Mervyn hobnobbed with the Beatles but also with other bands. “We went all over the world and even in the Philippines. We even got kicked out of here,” he said laughing. “That was my first experience in the Philippines.”

Mervyn’s stint as a road manager made him a lot of money. A few years later, he decided to quit. And since cooking was the only thing he knew, he opened a restaurant called “The Casserole”.
“I was very fortunate that the people that were in the organization I worked with in the past six years, started to support me by coming to the restaurant. Having celebrities in your restaurant is free advertising. It became so popular I had to have someone outside making sure they had reservations,” Mervyn said.
But in every business, competition comes in. For Mervyn, the competition was a new food trend called Nouvelle Cuisine. “Here, food is served in small portions yet expensive. The Casserole could not do that type of thing because we target families and we serve big portions. So, I opened another restaurant called Bistro. That was my brand of nouvelle cuisine.” The restaurant did not cater to his friends, but rather to brokers and yuppies who would like to enjoy a bottle of champagne and to eat caviar.
Then, Mervyn went into the catering business that was really a big hit for companies. “I went into sports catering. Many people love to drink wine and eat good food while watching the games. I did Wimbledon and the FA Cup in England,” he said.

Just like anyone else, Mervyn’s life is marked by ups and downs. In 1990, he underwent a personal crisis. “I got divorced from my first wife. I sold everything and went around the world. I went to Vietnam. A friend financed our casino in a yacht club. But because of the bureaucracy there, it did not work out,” he said, the tone of his voice changing.
“One weekend, I found myself in the Philippines. That’s how I met my second wife Josie. Josie and I started corresponding when I went back to UK. In the late 90’s, I came back to the Philippines and got married to her in Surigao. We moved to Cebu and then to Manila. I was basically retired. But with a new wife who is pregnant, I had to work.”

Mervyn met a Catholic priest who invited him to start a livelihood project in a village called Moonwalk Las Pinas. “Josie and I did it for four years. We held a thousand receptions, baptism and weddings there. We started with four employees and the number rose to 150. We taught jeepney drivers, janitors and some people off the streets to cook and waiter, among other things. They were given houses in the village but they had to pay for these, so they had to work. We created funds from this livelihood program and the Church benefitted from it,” he said.

They wanted to have their own restaurant, so Mervyn and Josie opened Piccolo Mondo (meaning ‘Small World’) in BF Homes, Paranaque. “We converted a house into a restaurant that serves my own adaptation of pizza and pasta. It became popular to local celebrities and politicians. Then we opened Sophia’s in Alabang. We wanted it to be not just Italian, so we incorporated Greek, Turkish and Lebanese cuisines,” he narrated.

The couple had a bit of luck that made Sophia more popular. “KC Concepcion’s mom Sharon was a friend of ours. KC made a film at Sophia’s with Richard Gutierrez. If you remember, KC’s character in that movie was Sophia,” Mervyn said.
Sophia’s was indeed a lucky charm. It was where Mervyn met Rommel S. Ynion, owner of Stavros’ Kebab and Mediterranean House. “He was a customer there. We started talking and he had this idea of being the first to have a chain of Mediterranean restaurants. So, we came up with Stavros,” Mervyn said. ‘Stavros’ is the Greek reference to the crucifix.
“We opened the first Stavros branch in Alabang. Now, we’re here in Iloilo City,” Mervyn said.
“When I came here six months ago, we decided Stavros won’t be viable by itself. So we combined it with Piccolo Mondo. We’re bringing a different concept of dining for the Ilonggos. This is the place where food is very affordable yet of excellent quality because it’s made from high-end ingredients. Good food need not be expensive. Here, you can come with your family or friends and you don’t have to eat the same thing. You can have Greek food, while he or she can eat pizza or pasta,” he said.

The developments in the restaurant industry in Iloilo City did not escape Mervyn’s attention everytime he comes here for a visit. One thing he noticed is that Ilonggos love buffets. And he’s quite amazed on how hotels can come up with buffets at good prices. “I don’t know how they do it,” he said.
Mervyn has seen the varied specialty restaurants that cropped up as well. “This encouraged me that there are opportunities for growth here. And I know we can do a better job,” he said.
Soon they will open at SM city South. Again, it’s a new concept where they will serve at least five different Mediterranean countries’ cuisine - a first in Iloilo city.*

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