SINGAPORE: Christian Nacilla Calledo seemed to be living the dream in Singapore as a successful insurance agent. But the well-paid job made him unhappy, so he traded it for a career roasting suckling pigs.
“Having money as the only incentive to do things just got old. I simply wanted to do more with my life, not just chase sale after sale,” said the Filipino. “I didn’t want to just die at my desk.”
He was neither a chef nor did he have any professional training or experience as a lechonero — someone who roasts whole pigs over charcoal. And running the show took a toll on him.
“After a whole day of cooking, I’d just lie down on the carpet, and I’d cry because I was so tired,” he recalled. “I was very used to working in an office.”
Watch: Becoming a master of Cebu's lechon (3:55)
Today, the 38-year-old is at the forefront of Cebuano cuisine in Singapore, with his eatery Iskina Cebu serving its famous lechon, which some consider a national dish of the Philippines.
Now with his food business a success in his homeland too, his story is told in the On The Red Dot series, Makan and Migrants. (Watch the episode here.)
LAND OF MILK AND HONEY
Calledo and his-then girlfriend left the Philippines in 2007 to seek new opportunities in Singapore, which he considers the Asian “American dream”.
“We didn’t know anyone,” he said. “It was the Singapore dream, full of promise — the land of milk and honey.”
Their first home was a rented room — just two metres long and wide — in a Bugis shophouse. Money was tight, and before he got his employment pass, he was selling used mobile phones.
“At lunchtime, I’d have just S$1 or S$2. I’d buy soya bean milk, and I’d sit near the river, and I’d construct my dreams there,” he recalled.
Thanks to his gift of the gab, he found another job: Convincing people to sign up for credit card subscriptions. He later started selling insurance, which he did very well at — at a cost to his health.
“You have customers you need to call … After lunch, I’d call a bit and then go to Harry’s and drink. I was drunk almost every day,” he said.
He grew tired of the humdrum work. “At first, it was fun because it afforded me a life that was good. But over time, it became all about the money, and it became so stressful,” he added.
He wanted to return home, but AJ, his girlfriend turned wife, felt that there were more opportunities for them and a better future for their children in Singapore.
So about five years ago, the couple together with a business partner set up Iskina Cebu, which became their home from home.
“We made a Cebu here … When working and living in a country that’s far from your country, the best way to go home is through food,” he said.
“I guess Iskina has saved me in a way. I was stressed … and then the solution presented itself. It was my brain telling me — just stop and do something else.”
FOOD THAT BINDS
To him, lechon is special because back at home, it is usually eaten on special days, such as after Sunday mass, on birthdays and during Christmas. During town fiestas, he recalled, lechoneros were exceptionally busy.
“I’ve always found that to be very interesting: Having people do something very tasty and so nice. There’s so much hard work and teamwork behind it — the camaraderie, drinking and merry-making,” said Calledo.
“When I was younger, after my father left us … we had trying times in terms of finances. I specifically remember that we’d save money, just so that we’d have a good Sunday and have lechon. It binds people."
He sometimes helped out in the kitchen, but it was in Singapore where he invested time in, and experimented with, cooking.
When he opened Iskina Cebu in a Paya Lebar industrial estate, his wife doubled as a cashier and a cook while he did most of the preparation, cooking and cleaning.
“I was really afraid on the first day because, of course, you wouldn’t know how people would react,” he said. “It was a run-down place; it was really old. So we had to make do with what we had.”
He learned that in Singapore, one does not need to be surrounded with many staff in a kitchen. “I’ve always admired (the way) people cook noodles here because it’s very efficient with just an auntie or an uncle,” he added.
At first, his stall struggled because few people knew about it. But within a few months, it managed to make a profit, thanks partly to food critic K F Seetoh writing about it.
Calledo said he kept his food as authentic as possible — using charcoal to roast the meat, and spices similar to the ones in Cebu — but also adapted the recipe for the local palate, using less salt and skipping the MSG.
Cooking lechon is “all about patience”, as it takes hours of preparation and roasting, and his first lechon was far from “beautiful”, he admitted.
“Then I slowly learned … and spent time with lechoneros in Philippines,” he said. “I can proudly say that I’ve bled, I’ve got burnt, I’ve cried in the name of being a lechonero.
“Most kids would want to be pilots and astronauts when they grow up. Maybe deep inside, I wanted to be a lechonero because this is fun. This is representing your culture in the most unique way.”
As word spread, the stall began to count Philippine Ambassador to Singapore Joseph Del Mar Yap among its regular customers.
“Christian’s lechon is … famous among the local Filipinos here. All of us from Cebu obviously feel that this Cebuano-style lechon is the best Filipino lechon,” he said. “He’s the only lechonero that I’ve met in Singapore.”
ONWARDS AND HOMEWARDS
Iskina Cebu was later forced to move, as its premises were sold and the new owner wanted halal certification. It relocated to Timbre+ in Ayer Rajah Crescent, and its customers followed.
“I take pride in hearing about people coming from Johor Bahru even,” said Calledo. “They really make an effort.”
About a year ago, he came full circle by bringing his brand to Manila. It was a success.
“I think he’s (one of) the first few foreigners who’d set up their foreign food business in Singapore and brought it back (home),” said Seetoh.
The decision to return to the Philippines was taken partly because Calledo had his third child and wanted more family support. He also thought that “Singapore just got stressful”.
“That was the ultimate goal in the first place: Go to Singapore and just make enough and go home,” he said.
“It’s just that whatever value you gain from moving back … gets overshadowed by what Singapore has to offer, like security. You just need to weigh the pros and cons.”
He now shuttles between the two countries. He also hopes to inspire others to see that if success can be achieved “by someone as average as me, it can be done by anyone else”.
“I’m proud that a Filipino or a Cebuano … made Cebu in Singapore,” he said. “Now it’s (about) making Cebu in Manila and hopefully in the world. So I’m bringing bits of my home to anywhere I go.”
Watch this episode here. On The Red Dot airs on Mediacorp Channel 5 every Friday at 9.30pm.