“I first uttered the words ‘I’m going to be a chef ’ when I was nine.”
Unlike most folks in their twenties or even thirties who are still trying to figure out what to do with their lives, Rebecca Disini had hers figured out as early as childhood. And after traveling all over the world in search of flavors and food trends for almost two decades, she returned to Manila (hopefully for good) to focus on family while finally reveling in her lifelong passion.
Shortly after coming home, Disini started posting on Instagram photos of cakes with flawless, mirror-like glaze, and decorated with either edible gold leaf or flowers. The posts got her friends excited, and they started asking when she would be able to take orders.
Each time, she would reply, “I’m just having fun in the kitchen for now.” Disini allowed herself the time to get engrossed with developing different recipes as her cake posts filled her Instagram feed—until she was finally ready to make an announcement. After almost two months of baking, she presented Ooh la la! by Rebecca Disini, now accepting orders for pick-up.
Without any marketing plan or even a new Instagram account dedicated to her cake brand, word about Disini’s creations spread like wildfire, and they were an instant hit. She currently offers only two kinds of cakes: the Le Matcha, a matcha-flavored entremet or her 16-cm cake with layers of flourless chocolate genoise (Italian sponge cake), matcha panna cotta, white chocolate mousse, and her signature matcha glaze, topped with imported edible flowers; and the Les Trois Chocolate, with layers of genoise, crémeux (creamy milk chocolate), Madagascan vanilla chocolate mousse, and dark chocolate glaze, topped with a 22-carat edible gold leaf. All done with finesse and precision, the entremets’ visual simplicity is the complete complement to their silky texture and restrained flavors. But this display of mastery and sophistication comes with a colorful and painstaking past.
Disini’s teen years weren’t typical. When she told her parents at 15, that she wanted to pursue a career in the culinary world, she was immediately dissuaded. “Most people don’t want their daughter working in a very hot environment, so I worked every summer since I was 15 until college to prove a point to my parents,” she says.
She worked in the kitchens of Angelino’s, Bean Street Café, and Street Life for free, but Disini’s father still disapproved of her desire to become a chef even after she had finished high school. He gave her a condition: she must finish a college degree first before going to culinary school. Disini then took up marketing at De La Salle University. Yet after she had received her diploma, Disini’s father denied her dreams once again. With proper culinary training still not a choice open to her, she offered her services for free at the kitchens of Via Mare in exchange for learning. “I had to be there at five in the morning and then I would come home at seven in the evening, six days a week. Back then, you hardly see women in the kitchen. If you were a woman, you would be relegated to doing pastries.” Disini wasn’t an exemption: she was assigned to the pastry section, and this was where she discovered her love for baking. Yet when her boss told her to pick between cuisine and pastry so that her hands wouldn’t suffer, “I chose to pursue cuisine because I loved to eat.”
Disini then flew to London to study classical French techniques at Le Cordon Bleu. After a year, she went back home, only to be gravely disappointed. “I didn’t think it was going to be that tough to find a job, considering I had studied abroad. I was so naïve then. No kitchen wanted to take me here even though I was willing to work for free.”
Gender discrimination was the major challenge, and Disini even had to point out how unlawful it is to one employer. “Employers prefer men, because they assume that only men can carry things, that they can stand for longer hours in the kitchen, that they would complain less about the heat.”
Beyond restaurant kitchens
With the job search not yielding anything, Disini took the opportunity when a friend told her about a teaching job at the newly opened School of Hotel, Restaurant, and Institution Management at De La Salle-College of St. Benilde. There, she taught catering classes for a year.
Another unplanned circumstance fell on her lap soon after: working for the British High Commission in Singapore as its executive chef, where she would be in charge of degustations and banquets for the ambassador’s diplomatic receptions. On her very first day at her new job, Disini was tasked to cook for an intimate dinner with special guests. Only after when the dessert was sent out that the butler informed her that Mick Jagger was one of the dinner guests. In disbelief, she asked if she could meet the rock star, but protocol prevented her from doing so. “[That job] was so interesting; they had Lee Kuan Yew all the time.”
“We also cooked for the Queen Mother’s birthday,” she further recalls. The ambassador’s wife even told Disini that she could fly in any ingredient from anywhere around the world. “That was a really awesome job, until SARS happened.”
After nearly 10 years of working in kitchens, Disini decided to take a year-long break, but another fateful call from a friend took her on her next culinary journey—this time in the corporate world, where she got to use her proficiency in both cooking and marketing. “Unilever provided me an avenue where I didn’t have to stay in the same spot every day. I don’t like to stay in the kitchen every day, and I don’t like to stay in a desk job every day either. I like to move around. So here, I got to meet a lot of chefs because I had to sell products to them, and I could develop products for different markets.”
“You’re never too old to chase your dream. Just do it and everything else will follow.”
Journey back home
Seven years ago, Disini gave birth to her daughter, and she juggled work with motherhood adeptly. She even got to return to Philippines at one point and started an all-natural baby food brand Oh Baby! When her marriage ended, Disini flew to Thailand for another corporate job. “That one basically taught me the science of food. As a regional chef, I was supposed to create the benchmark or golden standard for a product,” she says.
While spending the holidays with her parents one year, her father, in a completely different stance from before, advised her to do further studies in pastry: “‘You’re never too old to chase your dream. Just do it and everything else will follow.” That inspired Disini to fly to Paris to study at Le Cordon Bleu. “When I was there, I thought that maybe it’s time to open a small pastry shop or a commissary and sell pastries day in, day out. I’ll bake and sell only when I have the time. No pressure from any person, no numbers to meet.”
She started working on her cakes upon returning home, and then her brother-in-law offered her another corporate job as a culinary strategist. “For me, this is the perfect life right now: I work half the day at Monde Nissin, then when I’m home, I work on the cakes, which are really my passion. There’s nothing like a text message from a customer saying, ‘You made our Christmas dinner special,’ or ‘I never had a cake like this my whole life.’” With all the twists and turns her life took, Disini finally found herself living her dream.
The long journey to get here made her the woman she is now: mature, delicate, and sophisticated. Just like her cakes.
Writer: DENISE DANIELLE ALCANTARA
PHOTOGRAPHY JOSEPH PASCUAL