Former senior banker Rowena Romulo shifts careers to offer a taste of the Philippines at Romulo Café London
After working in the fast-paced world of international finance for more than 30 years, London-based banking executive Rowena Romulo could very well have slowed down and take things easy. A chain of events, however, led the former Citibanker (who later moved to JP Morgan) to pursue a passion for food. She opened the first international branch of her family’s Filipino restaurant, the Romulo Café in the U.K..
“I was the typical senior banker, always travelling with my trolley all over,” she says. “It was a good change. It was a bit intimidating and frightening at first, since I was so used to having a routine. I had to become a self-starter, since my home became my office. There was no longer someone to rattle off to me what I had to do each day. I quickly realized that the training and discipline I acquired, along with the skills I learned working at the bank, would help me build this business. I’ve always been quite courageous and adventurous, so when women ask me how I reinvented myself at an age when I could have retired, I tell them I was lucky I got this opportunity at the right time in my life and I took advantage of it.”
London Address for Filipino Food
In July of 2016, Rowena was chosen by the Filipina Women’s Network as one of the 100 Most Influential Filipinas in the World, which “honors Filipina Women who are changing the face of power in their local communities and in their adopted countries they now call home.” Rowena’s award in the “Builder” category recognizes “exceptional organizational impact at a large workplace environment” and “deep passion for a cause, through collaborative initiatives or alliances.” Specifically, FWN credits her with putting Philippine cuisine on the gastronomic map of London in less than a year from opening the first foreign outpost of Romulo Cafe”
She considers it an honor and a privilege to be counted among all those amazing women who compatriots. “I didn’t realize how much impact I had made in such a short period of time. Of course, I could not have done it without the team. Running a restaurant is not a one-man show. They work so hard, day in and day out.”
Chef’s Dad is Also Romulo
Rowena shares how it all began. “In 2014, I was invited to a charity event at the Savoy, organized by the WONDER Foundation for the benefit of Typhoon Haiyan victims. As I walked into the ballroom, I was taken aback. I had no idea there were so many Filipinos in London. After being introduced to officials from the Philippine Embassy and the Department of Trade and Industry, they asked me, ‘Why not open a Romulo Café in London?’ They said they felt there was no place where they could entertain their guests and diplomats. I broached the idea to my sister Sandie and her husband Enzo Squillantini (founders of the Café in Manila) who were open to it.” This was not Rowena’s first foray in the restaurant business, having run the successful Thai Room with her aunt and uncle in Manila back in 1986.
London was an altogether different situation. She and partner Chris Joseph hired a UK consultant to get a feel of the market. As luck would have it, a friend introduced them to Chef Lorenzo Maderas, a young Filipino chef educated at the same culinary school Jamie Oliver attended. He had worked at restaurants before and cooked up a menu for the team. They were impressed. When Rowena offered him the Head Chef position, Lorenzo said he’d just told his father about his dream of someday opening a restaurant named after him. His father’s name is Romulo.
After a bit of a search, they found a place in Kensington High Street, known to Filipinos because the Philippine embassy used to be there. It was a tube stop from Earl’s Court, dubbed as the “Little Manila” of London. Design Director Karen Soriano artfully translated the look and feel of the Romulo’s idyllic home, Kasiyahan, in the Georgian townhouse using contemporary Filipino elements to match the British aesthetic of their Kensington location. The ambience created by the photos and memorabilia of great Filipino statesman and Rowena’s grandfather, Carlos P. Romulo is a big part of the whole dining experience at the Café.
Since opening in March of 2016, the Café has gained recognition from popular online review sites like TimeOut London. The Filipino specialty establishment won the “Most Loved Restaurant in Kensington” award in November 2016, a TimeOut Recommended Award for 2017 and an OpenTable Diner’s Choice Award for 2018. “One of our biggest challenges is getting people to understand what Filipino food is all about.” Rowena says she is extremely grateful for the malasakit that her staff of various nationalities has shown. They have embraced Filipino culture and food, including how to properly pronounce Binagoongang Crispy Pata. “We explain to our guests how to enjoy each dish and that it’s all about sharing. We want to take Filipino food to the next level, not by changing the flavors but the manner in which the food is presented.”
In September 2016, a charity partnership was formed with the WONDER Foundation. “We started this collaboration to raise funds for the education of young Filipinas in a school that specializes in the hospitality industry. So far we’ve raised enough for two scholarships and we continue to support WONDER’s endeavors and events through sponsorships.”
Rowena and her staff continue to strive for consistency of service and find more innovative ways of presenting the family heirloom recipes. Romulo Café London is on its way to getting Filipino food recognized and appreciated for the exceptional cuisine it truly is.
By Risa R. Garcia