Sandy Daza hosts three food shows on TV and writes a column, making him one of the most recognizable chefs in the Philippines.
He co-owns kiosks bearing his name that sell empanada and siopao in malls across Metro Manila. And he wears another hat: as a guide of culinary tours in Japan that he considers a “sideline” and a “dream come true.”
Sandy reached this stage in his life by traversing, not a straight path to success, but a winding road of hits and misses.
It’s a journey that included involvement in student activism at the University of the Philippines (UP), running a family restaurant that went under, producing music shows, and publishing an entertainment magazine that did not pan out. In addition, he toiled at his food business in North America, to no avail.
His foray into guiding food tours began in 2013 when representatives of the Japanese government visited the TV station where he hosts “Food Prints’’ and asked him to feature the cuisine in the cities of Fukuoka and Hiroshima, which were then not popular with Filipino tourists. Osaka, a city known to many Filipinos, was added to the list.
The invitation was for him to do six hourlong shows on the food in the three cities.
Sandy flew to Japan with a daughter for the first three shows, and then with his sister Nina, who is also a chef, for the rest of the shows. He and his team were escorted by guides who told them to eat at fine-dining places, a lot of which were hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
The shows perked his viewers’ interest, Sandy said in an interview with this writer last month on a Shinkansen bullet train from Fukuoka to Hiroshima. “Oh, Chef, we want to try the places you ate at,” he quoted them as saying.
“By some blessing from above,” he said, Pia Alfonso of the Philippine office of Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) saw the food shows and asked him if he could lead a culinary tour in Japan. His reply: “Of course! That’s my dream come true.”
His first food tour was Fukuoka-Hiroshima-Osaka in 2015. “I had about 30 participants and we had a really grand time. You know, the food in Japan is very, very good,” he said.
But now he chooses the eateries he features and replaces those that do not meet his exacting standards. “I’m not happy with just good. [The food] has to be exceptional,” he said.
Sandy led his biggest food tour in Japan in 2022, just after pandemic-imposed travel restrictions were lifted worldwide. The 69 participants on one tour reflected the pent-up demand for travel.
“Suddenly, everybody wanted to travel. So I brought my son. We had two buses. My son was on one bus, I was on the other. I told him what to say. The next day I transferred to the other bus. We were happy,” Sandy recalled.
By JTB’s count, he has led “between 30 and 40” food tours, including 10 in a span of just three months in 2022—all in Japan—and seven this year as of October, including one in South Korea.
Of some 550 participants so far, the youngest was three years old, who came with his parents and a grandfather, and the oldest was a woman of 90 who joined the Sapporo, Hokkaido leg before the pandemic.
JTB introduced a food tour in Hokkaido also in 2015 and in South Korea in 2017. Both tours are led by Sandy.
Some participants have joined his tour twice, attesting to its attractions.
How is a food tour different from a garden-variety guided tour? Said Sandy: “A food tour is comfortable because we don’t wake up too early. You’re relaxed, and there’s not a lot of walking. There’s shopping, too.”
He introduced fruit-picking—strawberries, pears, melon, or persimmon—some three years after the tour began.
In the Oct. 20-25 tour in Fukuoka, Hiroshima and Osaka, there was time for handpicking persimmon on a farm, shopping at outlets for global brands, visits to fish markets, a stop at a peace memorial museum, and a boat ride to a world heritage Shinto shrine.
“Everybody is happy as long as they are comfortable when they wake up and they enjoy the food and shopping,” Sandy said. “The first day, [there is still some shyness to interact with others]. The second day, we really make a whole family.”
Denim jeans, T-shirt
Sporting his “uniform”—T-shirt, Levi’s 501 and rubber shoes—Sandy sits at the front of a bus full of foodies when moving to and from the assigned hotels. The bus has a “Chef Daza Food Tour” sign plastered on the windshield.
Occasionally he holds the microphone to explain something, not the scenic spots, but the food soon to be enjoyed. For the tour in October, the dishes were ramen, sukiyaki, sashimi, tonkatsu and tempura, and Hokkaido crabs, followed by dry ramen, yakiniku, oysters, unagi, grilled Kobe beef and shabu-shabu.
A dinner at a restaurant in Hiroshima betrayed Sandy’s background in basketball and affinity to UP, where he spent two years each in high school and in college.
As we participants were enjoying yakiniku (grilled wagyu and vegetables), Sandy, a smartphone in his left hand and chopsticks in his right, did a live report on the men’s basketball game between UP and Ateneo de Manila University.
“UP lost, OMG!” he exclaimed at the end of the game that went into overtime.
Standing at 5’10” and a half, Sandy was a member of the UP High School basketball team. He had a half-court concreted at the family home in Area 1 of the UP campus where he practiced his shots and hung out with friends.
Still seared in his mind after more than five decades is a televised basketball game in which he bungled a shot: “I was nervous and took a shot. Butiki patay (The ball hit the edge of the backboard). `Daza out,’ said the coach.”
Before he became a basketball player, Sandy was into tennis, swimming and badminton. He takes pride in once holding the Philippine swimming record for 13-14-year-olds.
He eventually shifted to basketball because, he said, “girls don’t watch swimming competitions.”
His stint with the UP High basketball team ended when he was kicked out for flunking his English and math subjects. He was also caught copying from a classmate during an exam.
But he suspects that there might be another reason for his getting kicked out: He might have earned a teacher’s ire for being an escort of Maricris Llamas, who won the “Lakambini” beauty contest.
From UP High he transferred to St. Martin Technical Institute, the precursor of University of Life, which accepted kickouts from schools such as Ateneo, Aquinas and De La Salle. The sections were based on height, he said.
Sandy returned to the State University in 1971, enrolling at UP Manila and taking courses in UP Diliman, where he got involved in a fraternity and in student activism.
He recalled being part of the Diliman Commune, in which students, faculty members and residents erected barricades on campus in February 1971 in solidarity with striking jeepney drivers protesting a fuel-price increase.
“I was there when the Metrocom (Philippine Constabulary Metropolitan Command) could not gain entry because of the barricades. I was going around the campus,” Sandy said.
The Metrocom pursued a group that included Sandy when the police finally broke through the barricades.
Sandy recalled a close friend, Dodie Tan, a member of the Chosen Few band and a brother of Jimmy Tan, who was president of the UP Student Council in 1972-73. “We prepared ‘subversive materials’ for Jimmy. We went around the campus to a vacant lot where we dumped the materials, which others would pick up,” he said.
Before martial law was imposed nationwide in September 1972, he joined the Beta Sigma fraternity. “Our final initiation was on a Sunday, and the day before that martial law was declared,” he said.
The Daza residence at the back of UP Infirmary became a waystation for some activists and frat brothers, a few of whom went underground to elude arrest.
The imposition of martial law marked the end of his stay at UP and dashed his hopes of joining the collegiate basketball team.
Sandy’s involvement in student activism so alarmed his mother, the culinary icon Nora Daza, that she sent him to France: “Natakot ang ermat ko doon sa activism. So she had me study at the American College of Paris, while I worked as a waiter and cashier at the family’s restaurant.”
Nora Daza, considered “the Julia Child of the Philippines,” was a restaurateur, cohost of a radio program, host of TV cooking shows, columnist, and best-selling cookbook author.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics from UP and a master’s in restaurant and institutional management from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
She established restaurants not only in Manila (Au Bon Vivant and Galing-Galing) but also in Paris (Aux Iles Philippines) and, upon the invitation of the Philippine government, in New York (Maharlika).
In Paris, Sandy rose early each day to buy supplies at a market that, he said, was similar to Tsukiji, Tokyo’s wholesale fish and seafood market.
At the restaurant he was unconsciously absorbing what the cook was doing: “While waiting for the dishes, you watch the cook work without noticing it.”
But one day the cook left, seized by a whim, Sandy said. “Sinumpong at lumayas na lang.”
He was forced to man the kitchen. He prepared appetizers and, to his surprise, the customers didn’t notice any change in taste. His confidence in his ability to cook boosted, he went on to take some courses at Le Cordon Bleu school of culinary arts.
After two years in Paris, he enrolled at Cornell University. In 1977, he earned a bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management. His sister Nina is also a Cornell graduate.
Arrogant and humbled
Sandy went back to Manila and was assigned to manage Au Bon Vivant.
“I was arrogant as a fresh graduate from Cornell,” he said. The restaurant lost money and closed down in 1979—a “very humbling experience,” he said.
He realized that school did not prepare him for running a restaurant: “It was totally different” from what was taught in school.
His next move was to form an entertainment company called Interbros, while his brother Bong set up Intertrading. Success eluded both ventures.
Moving on, they came up with an “artista” magazine and produced the shows of the Music and Magic band. These, too, did not catch on.
Sandy had to move on yet again. In 1983-84, he was involved in setting up Northern Foods Corp. that produced tomato paste in Ilocos Norte province. He was president of the company that he deemed “successful.”
But the People Power Revolution in February 1986 led to the “sequestration” of the company.
The change would fling him into the world of cooking shows. In 1987, he and Nina were informed by their mother’s secretary that, on her instructions, they should take over her TV show “Cooking with Nora” because she had left for Paris.
“Wow! We were terrified,” Sandy said. “Nina and I talked about our fears on the show. Interestingly, it became natural, and I enjoyed the show. Later I realized that ‘there’s money to be made here.’”
But the allure of Canada proved irresistible. In 2001 Sandy and his family migrated to Canada; they stayed in Vancouver, where he worked as a courier.
Eventually, he put up a cooking show that ran for eight years and gave him the idea that a restaurant should be his next project as he was already known in the area.
So he established a restaurant, which flopped. Its location was bad, and it had a staff of one or two. On weekdays he was the cashier and waiter. “I handled everything, including going to the market. I was having a hard time,” he said.
By 2010 Sandy had had enough. He weighed the words of a friend—that he was not someone special abroad but had cachet in Manila. He told his family: “Let’s have a look in Manila. If you like it, we’ll stay. If not, we’ll come back.”
His children found Manila to their liking. But questions about his ability to run a restaurant after the failure in Vancouver troubled him. “I asked myself, `Can I still hack it?’”
In 2011 Sandy and a business partner opened a restaurant, Wooden Spoon, on Katipunan Avenue, Quezon City. It was named Restaurant of the Year for 2013. (An image of him holding a wooden spoon is now his trademark in his cooking shows.)
Encouraged, he and his business partner opened a branch in Rockwell Makati in September 2013. It became a roaring success, he said: “It was always full. We were running out of food.”
He and his business partner parted ways in 2017-2018.
Sandy then put up a restaurant in Kapitolyo, Pasig City, but it turned out unsuccessful.
It was at this point that he joined forces with his cousins and established the “Casa Daza by Chef Sandy” restaurant in UP Town Center. Sales were anemic.
It paused operations during the coronavirus pandemic and reopened when restrictions were eased as a downsized and nimble “Casa Daza Specials by Chef Sandy” that sells empanada and siopao from kiosks. The business has grown to 16 branches and counting.
Besides the kiosks, he has three food shows: “FoodPrints” and “Casa Daza “ on Metro Channel and “Lutong Daza” on Net 25, where he teaches a guest how to cook a dish.
He also writes a column for Manila Bulletin.
Despite the many food tours he has led, Sandy, now 71, stays slim and fit. He inevitably puts on weight while on tour, but he sheds the extra pounds by reducing his meals back in the Philippines to just one a day.
Over the years, the tours have expanded his circle of friends that he now considers family. He still meets with members of his first tour.
And Sandy has not lost his mojo in leading food tours. Just three days after the five-day tour in Japan last month, he led another one in South Korea.
He best describes his vocation through this adage: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”