When a Filipino hears the name Judy Ann Santos, the image of a bawling, doe-eyed child star always comes to mind. In 1992, she masterfully portrayed the meek, down-to-earth Mara — alongside her good friend Gladys Reyes as Clara — in the long-running titular TV series Mara Clara. And the next role she took on that gave her career a meteoric rise was Esperanza in 1997. After that, it felt as if her career has not stopped in its ascent, cementing her repute as one of the most well-sought leading actresses in the Philippine entertainment industry with more films and teleseryes in her repertoire.
But in all honesty, I never knew Judy Ann Santos past Mara Clara. I’m aware she was paired off with the late national boy-next-door Rico Yan, the versatile Piolo Pascual, and her OG loveteam partner Wowie de Guzman. But do not ask me about any of her other projects. I only know of her prowess because she’s received critical acclaim from institutions such as the Gawad Urian, but nothing really tethered me to her except the show she was in when she was 14 or so. For all I know, she may have done a 180-degree turn from what I make of her, and I would have been oblivious to it.
That is, until Judy Ann’s Kitchen.
Judy Ann Santos' pet project in 2017 was a YouTube channel to showcase her cooking skills. The channel’s name hearkens back to her first cookbook of the same title, which bagged the Gourmand World Cookbook Award in 2016. Santos is no stranger to the kitchen: she graduated with honors at the Center for Asian Culinary Studies in San Juan, and hosted the Philippines’ edition of reality TV competition MasterChef in 2011 and 2012.
With this, one would think that Judy Ann Santos — or Juday as fellow actors would call her — would brandish her chef skills as ostentatiously as any other celebrity would. At the time, when YouTube was teeming with many lackluster content creators, celebrities with the biggest fanbases tried to jump on the bandwagon and ended up becoming internet noise. They often disappeared in the sea of crackvids and clickbaits, with content almost void of any heart or originality, habitually (and sadly) saved by the viewership of fans more rabid than wolves.
But in her very first video in her channel, her nimble fingers trembled as she sliced an onion. Then she eyed the camera after she made a reference to the reality TV show she led, where aspiring chefs pressed for time hastened in preparing meals in their bids to impress hungry and austere judges.
“Of course you would see in MasterChef that they all move so fast,” she says in Filipino, with a fresh sense of candor when she shook her head. “I am not there. I am not like that.”
The girl from Mara Clara had run out of the house and in walked a woman who knew her cooking skills like the back of her hand. I was already a fan of cooking shows since I was a kid — since having cable TV meant I could enjoy 30 minutes of Rachael Ray’s raspily explained recipes and Ina Garten’s portfolio of hearty meals made for men with large guts— but Judy Ann Santos was a breath of fresh air to the celebrity chef persona.
It may have helped that she was Filipino and I identified with Judy Ann’s palate. But my affinity for her cooking depends more on how she moves throughout the 20 or so minutes that the camera is glued onto her. Reminiscent of what she has said in her first episode, she is not a master chef at all in the kitchen — and it showed beautifully and relatably so. This was best exemplified in her most recent episode, as she was plating a gyu donburi with an onsen egg.
The episode marks Judy Ann’s return to the small screen after a pandemic-induced hiatus. In the first eight minutes, she fills the air with culinary information that gets filed at the back of one’s mind for later use. She preps the base broth with a bevy of Japanese ingredients for the thinly-cut sukiyaki beef. Almost finishing up, she readies a rice bowl with enough rice for her spouse, Ryan Agoncillo, whom Santos refers to as a foodie. (Based on the serving size Santos prepares for him, one can assume Agoncillo eats enough for the entire Philippine population.)
The video is 22 minutes long, and she is about to complete the dish nine minutes in. I was not complaining at all about the video length; she has always been a joy to watch, but more often than not we would know what she’d be serving in the episode based on the title. So I was wondering if this was a new approach to cooking videos — that she’d have an interview just like in morning talk shows, or that she’d start just another gimmick for higher audience retention amid the pandemic.
And then, in keeping with Judy Ann’s Kitchen humor, the bowl falls and its contents plop on top of the beef in her saucepan.
She looks up and pleads to the heavens from inside her kitchen. “Why?!”
And Judy Ann Santos doesn’t even immediately rescue the disaster in her saucepan. Instead, she stomps on her tiled kitchen floor like a child, staring at the mess on her burner, with a pained look on her face.
A voice, which I assumed to be from either Agoncillo or her producer, breaks the fourth wall and asks her, “How do you recover that?”
“I don’t know,” she answers back, distressed and confused, just as anyone would be when faced with the same situation.
I found myself laughing so hard after that that it jolted my quiet roommate from her seat. It wasn’t schadenfreude, no, I get no joy out of seeing people in difficult situations. I just immediately flashed back to the many times such an incident happened to me while I was in the kitchen. My thoughts immediately brought me back to when I burned adobo — the simplest of Filipino meals — when I wanted to surprise my bae. It brought me back to when I spilled too much sugar in my Pinoy spaghetti. It brought me back to when I wanted to make tinola more flavorful only to end up with a broth so dark it almost looked like batchoy.
And in each fail, I stomped like a child, pouted, and asked myself what was wrong with me. Then, in a seeming show of faked assertion that I’m a *chef’s kiss* gourmand, I forced people I cared about — including myself — to eat what I’ve prepared, or at least taste it so they can lie to me about how good it is. Those moments are often bathed in a mixture of sweat, tears, and last but definitely not the least: hearty laughter.
Seeing Judy Ann Santos screw up and salvage a simple, supposed no-frills dish like a gyu donburi reconnected me to her in the most wonderful of ways. Following the donburi dilemma, she tells her viewers that she can’t afford a second take. Instead, she dumps more rice into her saucepan and turns the pan itself into a donburi. It’s not a bowl, yes, and it may not give the money shot one needs in cooking shows. But it was exemplary of the pacham approach my partner and I often employ in the Filipino kitchen: when something fails to work, there’s nothing else to do except to make it work. There’s no finesse to it, but Judy Ann’s way to save her video harboured an authenticity that made me stay in her kitchen for the next 11 minutes.
Filipinos often enter the kitchen for the first time donning the concept of meal preparation as a performance, thinking that the dish is produced out of pre-determined moves and directives. But cooking like a Filipino is very far from that. It’s not metric. It thrives on anecdotes, trials-and-errors, and corner-cutting. It is, more often than not, process-oriented instead of output-based. It lives less on technique and more on adaptability. The measuring tools are not the cups and the spoons — rather, they are the gut, the heart, and the soul.
And when Judy Ann Santos fed her new, unprecedented dish to her family, I neither saw an awardee for a stellar cookbook, nor a celebrity chef, nor an acclaimed actress. I just saw a person who totally enjoyed concocting and experimenting in the kitchen, someone who clearly gets happiness from making meals for others without any pretense of culinary expertise (even though she has it). This, for me, was representative of Filipinos who wish to learn how to cook. Judy Ann’s Kitchen reminded me and other wannabe apron-wearers that a dish nestles longer in the soul when it embraces the messiness of its creation.