All fired up

2:00 am | Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

Fortunately for food-obsessed Filipinos, Marvin Jay Cuyugan Agustin grew up in a rather compact family home.

“We lived in a small house,” recounted the actor-turned-entrepreneur. “So when something was going on in the kitchen, we smelled it. That’s where my passion developed.”

“Passion” is the one word that Agustin likes to say, oh about every five minutes during this interview, his smile unconsciously getting wider as he seems to spit out the word with newfound conviction.

Maybe because it explains how the actor has managed to parlay a middlin’ showbiz career into a hugely successful foray into the food business.

But then again you could say he was born into it. Cooking has always been a family past-time for the Agustins. The actor’s mother, a native Manileña, prepared Filipino dishes regularly but also indulged in Bicolano dishes, her specialty.  She baked the “meanest” desserts for her guests, a skill that the actor’s elder sister, mastered as well.

photo by Alanah Torralba

Not to be outdone, the then-7-year-old Marvin learned to choose the freshest produce from public markets and to haggle fiercely with vendors. It was something he liked doing, he recounts, “because then I could postpone working on my [school] assignments.”

At 16, eager to help out the family, he worked as a waiter at Tia Maria’s, where he was also allowed to study in the morning, leaving him free to work evenings. “I was the youngest regular [employee],” he recounts.

Having been rejected previously from a job at McDonald’s, the young man was determined to make the most out of the opportunity.

But more than the restaurant’s scholarship, Agustin learned from his waiter’s job the value of good service. “I was so happy when [I saw] families dining and we were giving them a great experience.”

It was during those 10 months on the job when his amorphous dream of becoming a “businessman” took shape and became more specific.

But his dream to become a restaurant manager and succeed in the restaurant industry would have to wait. A few months into his waiter stint, show business came knocking.

The road to acting began when in 1995,  Agustin plugged Tia Maria’s restaurant on several TV and radio shows, and once even judged an episode of “Show Girls” as part of the job. At about this time, he was asked to join a dance group.

“[But] when I checked how much I would be earning, it wasn’t even enough for my transportation expense.  I lived in the south,” he says.

When ABS-CBN later offered to let him do a screen test, he thought about it. Acting was never part of his dream.  “Wala naman sa dugo namin ang pagiging artista,” he explains.  But then he could certainly use the money.

“Actors get paid every taping so I gained financial freedom one way or another,” he recalls. “My sister was able to graduate from nursing, my other sister found work and I made my mom stop working. I was also helping my dad. We weren’t rich, but we had enough.”

Initially, he thought he would only pursue show biz until he had saved enough to live comfortably. But when financial stability came sooner than expected, the actor realized in the early 2000s that he was in too deep to quit.

“I realized that I still wanted to do it,” says this actor who has switched network homes thrice in a span of 18 years.  As he expresses so succinctly: “I used to need this job, but now I want it.”

And he didn’t do too badly either. When he was actively making movies, Agustin won as best actor for the thriller “Kutob” in the 2005 Metro Manila Film Festival.  The food business proved as rewarding: Last year, he bagged the 2012 Ernst and Young’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year award and was named one of 12 winners of the 2013 PLDT SME Nation’s MVP Bossing Awards.

Since joining TV5 in 2012, he has also produced and hosted the reality shows “Ka-rinderya Wars” and “Kanta Pilipinas” for the network. Currently, Agustin says he is in talks to star in a “dramedy” set to air next year.

But definitely, it is outside showbiz that he consistently shines. The 34-year-old entrepreneur is behind several popular restaurant franchises and culinary experiments, among them the hugely successful Japanese restaurant SumoSam, which has 29 branches to date.

Agustin’s foray into the food business began with Mister Donut in 2004. “When Mister Donut asked me to endorse them, what I asked from them was a franchise because I wanted to learn the business,” he says. He was given two franchises to manage.

Soon after, his family opened a slew of 12 food carts around the metro called Ricecapades. Then a friend convinced him to invest in the second branch of Oyster Boy, where Agustin says he also cooked.  That spurred him to enrol at the International School for Culinary Arts and Hotel Management for a short course. “I just wanted to professionalize my passion,” he explains.  He also took up a short program in Management of the Arts at the Asian Institute of Management.

“In cooking, you learn the techniques in school. But the passion,” he says, his wide, proud grin manifest once more, “it’s innate.”

The fruits of all that labor in 2004 culminated the next year, when the actor teamed up with Red Crab veteran Raymund Magdaluyo and chef Ricky Laudico to open a restaurant in Shangri-La Plaza.

The original plan was to open a Vietnamese restaurant, as Magdaluyo, whom Agustin refers to as “the guru,” had a Vietnamese chef in mind. But as someone who frequented Shangri-La Plaza, Marvin realized that there could be a market for an affordable Japanese restaurant inside the mall.

When he suggested the idea to his partners the night before a meeting with their investors, they agreed to come up with a Japanese presentation just in case.

“The Vietnamese concept was well-made, the presentation all decked out,” he says. But the Japanese concept was eventually chosen, although it was then just a hodge-podge of last-minute menu decks and cut-and-paste photos from the Internet.

“The [biggest] challenge,” says Agustin, “was when we asked ourselves, ‘Ano ang alam natin sa Japanese?’” the actor laughs at the memory, remembering to give credit to a Japanese restaurant that had closed down around the same time, allowing the trio to hire the Japanese chefs off the bat.

Preparations for the first branch of their Japanese eatery continued for many months until on Dec. 22, 2005, SumoSam’s first branch opened in Shangri-La.

“It was a good thing we opened during the Christmas season,” says Agustin. He adds that it must have been fate’s way of foreboding the restaurant’s success.

“We weren’t supposed to open just yet and just invited a few friends. We fired up the kitchen to test the chefs and the kitchen.”  But so many people had crowded outside, wanting to try the food.

TURNING JAPANESE: His most successful ventures are Japanese restaurants (PDI Photo/Alanah Torralba)

The owners had no choice, he says. “I told them that we were just testing our kitchen, that we’ll give them a discount and that we’re open to suggestions,” he recalls telling the hungry diners.

But despite making do with only 10 tables and a small staff, they managed quite well, he says. “Even if I had to learn how to make sushi on the spot,” he adds. “But since then, [SumoSam] has been a hit.”

The success of the franchise encouraged the trio to launch other restaurants focusing on Japanese cuisine: Japanese cosmopolitan joint John and Yoko, Euro-Japanese restaurant Mr. Kurosawa and their newest, high-end venture, Akira: The Art of Sushi and Tepanyaki.

“First of all, we wanted to offer a different experience from what we have right now,” says the actor-chef-entrepreneur. “So we said, ‘Pinoys like performances, we’re more experimental now.’ So we said okay, let’s try it here.”

Opening just six months ago at Shangri-La Plaza’s newest East Wing, the Akira franchise will expand to three other locations by the end of the year.

A lot has to do with his cooking, of course.  Diners often look for his steak, he says, done “medium,” and for his Cocido Madrileño, a Spanish stew usually made with chickpeas. They also crave his sinigang made with baby back ribs, thick in consistency with a hint of spice, his seafood pesto pasta and his beef liempo.

But the best validation comes from his sons, Santiago and Sebastian, who often rate his dishes over 100 points—on a scale of 1 to 100.

Other proud moments come from culinary inventions born out of his constant research.

“Eight years ago when we were doing sushi, we had traditional ones with the filling is inside,” he says. “[So] I reconstructed it because when I was eating sushi, I had to really chew it to taste the filling. I said, ‘Why don’t we take out the filling?’ Not all, just some on top. Our palate, you see, tastes [the rolls] immediately when we eat it. So I wanted the flavor to come out immediately.”

The confidence is reflected as well in his love of sports and fitness.

photo by Alanah Torralba

Five years ago, the actor practiced archery every day with an expert South Korean player in hopes of competing in the Olympics. But while that did not happen due to scheduling conflicts with his acting career and restaurant business, he still trains in tennis these days in preparation for an upcoming tournament.

Next to passion, his favourite word seems to be “authenticity.”

Asked to pose behind two teppanyaki tables in Akira as part of this Magazine’s photoshoot, the actor  Immediately balks at the idea.

“Let’s stay away from me cooking for our Japanese restaurants,” he says.  He may know how to roll sushi but Akira’s specialities are beyond his capabilities, he confesses.

“I’m all for authenticity,” he stresses. “I don’t like faking things.” •

Give ’Em 5

FROM waiter to actor to chef and restaurateur, Marvin Agustin has proven time and again that if you set your sights on a goal, it can be achieved. Here he tells would-be entrepreneurs  five tips on getting there:

1. Do something closest to your heart.

Before venturing into any business, Agustin says it must start with your particular passion. “Think about what makes your life happy, what seems right for you,” he says.

MASTER JUGGLER: He finds time for both showbiz and the food biz (PDI Photo/Alanah Torralba)

“Do it with all your heart and because you love it.”

2. Have good relationships with your business partners and suppliers.

“No man is an island,” applies to businesses as well. The actor credits a big part of his restaurants’ success to his partners and fellow restaurateurs, Raymund Magdaluyo and Ricky Laudico. Their energy and enthusiasm when they work together, he says, keep him inspired.

It’s equally important to maintain good relations with your suppliers and your staff, he adds.

3. Don’t stop learning.

Maximize the social media to keep up with what’s new and trendy. “We don’t stop learning,” he says. “We travel, check out what’s in and what people are talking about. And we give it to them.”

4. Exceed expectations.

For the actor,  “Being competitive is really good because it’s not just for yourself,  but for your customers.  Give them better and better food service all the time.”

5. Do business for your customers.

“An entrepreneur sells a product the customers need. And even if you go into a business out of passion and desire, you must always be sensitive to your customers and put them first. Don’t do it for the money or for selfish reasons.

“At the end of the day, [the customers] are your business. Take care of them,” he says.

Tags: Celebrities , Cooking , Food , Marvi Agustin , SumoSam , Sunday Inquirer Magazine

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