Alex Cabiao’s outstanding journey of food and faith from Guian to Oslo
by Rocky Nazareno
September 15, 2016
Oslo, Norway – “Alex Sushi is considered the best Japanese restaurant in Norway, and the eighth best among all restaurants in this city, according to a widely followed travel advisory site. It was also voted as one of the best Japanese sushi restaurants outside Japan by Time Magazine.
Food journalists here have been generous with their assessment of the sushi restaurant and bar, giving it five to six stars in recent years.
In fact, food was so good at Alex Sushi that the owners of another restaurant went to court in a bid to evict it from its current lease space, according to newsinenglish.no. The news portal noted that the restaurant “choked on the competition” it was getting from Alex Sushi.
Its main outlet on Cort Adelers Gate 2 here has a boat-shaped sushi bar, private dining rooms with karaoke facilities, and a take-away counter that was humming all night when we visited with orders from patrons, who even sent taxis just to get their meals delivered to them.
That was why it came as such a pleasant surprise that the restaurant’s owner, Petter Sandberg, welcoming the night’s guests composed of officials and staff from the Philippine Government and the National Democratic Front, introduced his partner, after whom the restaurant was named, as 60-year-old Filipino Alex Cabiao, a native of Guian, Samar.
“The moment I tasted the sushi he made, I knew he had to be a partner of mine in this business. He is one Filipino all of you should be proud of,” Sandberg told his Filipino guests, who were treated to dinner by the Royal Norwegian Government (RNG). The group was celebrating the conclusion of the first round of peace talks that was mediated by RNG here from June 21 to 26.
Cabiao’s lips quivered as he read from a prepared speech, obviously not accustomed to welcoming the likes of Communist Party of the Philippines founding chairman Jose Ma. Sison, NDF stalwarts Luis Jalandoni and Fidel Agcoaili, a host of New People’s Army commanders, and a group from the government led by Philippine Peace Panel member Hernani Braganza.
But a few minutes later, Cabiao was able to settle down and gather his nerves as he recounted to the Manila Bulletin his 42-year quest that started with a trip from Samar onboard the MV Tacloban.
“Like any other dreamer of my age, I threw all caution to the wind to take my chances in Manila,” he said.
In the big city, Cabiao took on odd jobs while living with a relative, working as a waiter for two years until a Filipina customer and her Japanese husband became his friends, enough for them to ask the then 20-year-old to join them in a restaurant venture.
Then came the chance to work for the iconic Furusato Restaurant on Roxas Boulevard in 1978, where he would build the foundations of a future in Japanese cuisine.
Just three years later, Furusato’s owner, sensing the potentials in the young Filipino, sent him to Shibuya in Japan where he was able to further hone his mastery of preparing and cooking intricate Japanese dishes.
Upon his return, even Malacañang took notice of his culinary prowess.
“That was in 1979 to 1980. I was called to Malacañang by First Lady Imelda Marcos to cook. They even had a special Japanese kitchen and dining area there,” Cabiao recounted.
At one of the dinners he worked on, Cabiao could barely remember one of Marcos’ prominent guests.
“They were calling him Henry. Henry Kissger daw,” he guessed. To which, we shot back: “Henry Kissinger!” “Yes, siya nga ’yun. Henry Kissinger. He liked the food I prepared for him,” Cabiao proudly remembered.
Then in 1984, Cabiao got his offer of a lifetime.
A visiting Singaporean, who was then a karate instructor of the Royal Norwegian Police, asked if he could join him in putting up a sushi restaurant in the Norwegian capital. Cabiao immediately agreed to go and try his luck here.
But since sushi restaurants weren’t so popular during those times, the Singaporean’s venture started to reel from poor following in just two years, and so did Cabiao’s hopes for a decent future in this Scandinavian country.
“I didn’t know that, after working two years here, you would be given an automatic status to become a resident. But one of the Filipinos informed me of that, so I just forged on,” he said.
In 1994, when Norway hosted the Winter Olympics, interest in sushi, sashimi, and other Japanese dishes surged, especially since the next Games would be held in Nagano, Japan four years later.
That was when Sandberg broached the idea of putting up a Japanese restaurant with Cabiao as industrial partner.
“Petter was a regular customer and he approached me with his idea. I took his trust and confidence in me as a challenge to really work hard,” the father of three girls and a boy said.
But what makes Cabiao’s story more remarkable was that, along the way to gaining prominence in the culinary industry in this country, he has always offered a helping hand to compatriots here, allowing them to work and train in his restaurant, and realize their own fortunes while doing so.
One such beneficiary of his graciousness was Mark Jayson Subia, son of a fellow Filipino also based in Oslo.
Subia came here seven years ago with nary but a few units of a degree in nursing tucked under his belt. He had to migrate to Norway before he turned 18 to gain residency under the country’s family reunification program.
“It was then that Tito Alex took me under his wings,” the Bacarra, Ilocos Norte native told the Manila Bulletin.
And under Cabiao’s wing, Subia soared.
He won the Norway Global Sushi Challenge last year, besting Norwegians, Polish, Thai, and Vietnamese competitors. Subia went on to get the nod of a master Japanese sushi chef to join the main competition held in Japan a few months later.
Subia performed so well in the Japan competitions that he got an offer on the spot from one of the Japanese judges to work as executive chef at a local chain of hotel-restaurants.
“I had to think twice about it. I couldn’t leave Tito Alex. He’s my mentor,” said the 26-year-old Subia, who was just able to petition his young bride, actually his high school sweetheart, from back home.
Aside from his protégé, Cabiao has also taken under the restaurant’s employ about 20 other Filipinos, ranging from former engineers in Dubai to fresh, young migrants from the Philippines.
“Most of them are relatives of Filipinos who are already living here. Just one of the ways to spread the blessings of living in such a peaceful country like Norway,” he said.
But the Philippines—particularly the coastal village of Guian—has not been lost on Cabiao.
He has immensely helped in rebuilding his parents’ ancestral home, which had been devastated by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.
But Cabiao lamented that it has been hard for his nine siblings to get back on their feet, considering that their coconut plantation was levelled by the unforgiving winds and water of Yolanda.
“We’re coconut farmers. But after Yolanda, it’s been hard. Nothing was left of the coconut trees,” he said.
Neither has he also abandoned dreams of bringing his expertise back to the Philippines.
With retirement coming in seven years, Cabiao hopes to build a “small and cozy restaurant in Manila.”
“That dream will never be lost on me. Every one of us harbors that need to return to where we came from. And for me, that’s Guian, that’s the Philippines,” he said.
Read more at http://www.mb.com.ph/how-a-samarnon-school-dropout-became-the-toast-of-oslo/#7JsELJSoJZa4WOuo.99