He’s said it before and he’ll say it again: Kalel Demetrio wants to make agriculture sexy. It’s a brazen statement, half brag and half illusion, a cocktail party pronouncement. He’s invited us to his “lab” in Quezon City, which sounds either illegal or nerdy, or both—and which turns out to be neither. Inside, shelves neatly lined with cocktail shakers and jiggers, liqueurs and infusions from around the country, and the spice of life itself: bottles of vodka, spirits, Hibiki whisky and Sioktong, among other hidden wonders.
He’s no mad scientist, he’s a liquid maestro—a name he’s coined for himself, the first half culled and translated from our native “likdo,” or liquid, and the other, well, you know what maestro means. It has the swagger of a rap name, and a boxer’s self-love. “Kind of like Ali,” Demetrio says, “he used to say he was the greatest of all time—he was always claiming it, so even if he’s not here with us, he’s always considered the greatest of all time.”
Demetrio himself looks like he’s part-rapper and part-shaman, with his hair in tight corn rows at the scalp, tapered cleanly at the sides. It’s almost as if he’s murdered the man bun or taken it for a walk on the wild side. He wears what looks like a warrior’s necklace—a beaded chain punctuated with what appear to be animal tusks or teeth. Skeleton rings hug each finger, and massive beads adorn his wrists. He looks exactly like someone who’s guzzled gas and Royal True Orange with guerillas in the foothills. Because, of course, he has.
He’s been in the mixology business anywhere between fifteen and twenty years, but he started out wanting to be a chef. Sans culinary or HRM degrees, however, this seemed impossible. “Before that, I had to be a bartender first,” he says in a mid-range rasp. “But they only allowed graduates to handle the kitchen.”
He was a quick study, though, learning the ropes, and discovering that the first step to success is knowing how to make the right friends. Demetrio worked in a sushi restaurant and knew that the best way to being a chef was to be a good bartender first. Kind of like a game of pool where you nick a ball over there to get over here.
“I made friends with the bartender, then in no time, I was already up in the station making friends with the chef.” Once he’d “infiltrated” the kitchen, Demetrio saw wastage—fruit trimmings strewn here and there; lemon and orange peels, mango sleeves. “Sabi ko, let’s use it,” he says.
He’d been in the bar, and he’d been in the kitchen. “Normally, there was a separation between the two, but in my case, I became a hybrid.”
Before he knew it, Demetrio was creating hit beverages with kitchen cast-offs. “The beverage line-up became successful, a lot of restaurants heard about it and they offered me a new job,” he says. “Then, I was very young and hungry for learning. New concepts excited me.”
Demetrio’s culinary education started in a Japanese kitchen and moved on to a Greek one, which posed a larger challenge: what was he going to do with all those ingredients? As in the past, the young bartender dreamed of being in the kitchen, and was once more pointed to the bar. “They told me that they hired me as a bartender and that we could start from there. And then I became the head bartender. When you become the head bartender, you already have respect,” he says.
His knowledge from Asian and Mediterranean restaurants paved the way for his next venture—this time, an organic kitchen. “I capitalized on all my learnings and brought them to a new concept, which was a restaurant called “Green Pastures,” owned by Chef Robby Goco.”
Organic food was a fairly new concept then and both weren’t sure if the idea would take off. Demetrio fashioned local organic drinks for the restaurant but wondered if the concept would stand the test of time and resources. “I told Chef, ‘let’s travel,’ so we travelled around the Philippines to see if the organic concept would be sustainable.” To their surprise, the idea of selling organic food was already the default practice of marginalized farmers who couldn’t afford fertilizers.
Soon Demetrio wanted to learn more, see more. He took to travelling by himself, to off-the-path areas. To places like Mount Cristobal—also known, in urban legend, as the Devil’s Mountain. Demetrio tells it like a movie, where his guide loses nerve and leaves him alone with sketchy mountain folk. He notices their sidelong glances, their stealthy suspicion. He learns shortly after that they’re members of the NPA.
To survive, he did what he was good at: he made friends. “They showed me some of the things they drink, and the food that they eat—”, one of the drinks being the orange soda and fuel cocktail he mentions earlier in the interview. Of that churning mix, all he remembers is a sweet burn in his throat. “Tinanong ko sila, “what’s this, buddy?” Gasoline was the answer. “Pampainit nila.” He downed it for the camaraderie, not for the danger.
Like this orange swill, hardcore ingredients also make their way to Demetrio’s concoctions. He’s used makabuhay—a mountain vine known for its healing powers, and serpentina, a wonder herb.
Local ingredients like these are bound to be in his mixes in Agimat—
a new bar and kitchen in Poblacion. “Agimat is one of my favorite words,” Demetrio says. It’s Tagalog for amulet or talisman. People think it’s an aesthetic object, Demetrio says, but for him, an agimat can also refer to food and drink specific to a particular locale.
Agimats are purely Pinoy—they’re pre-colonial inventions. They were only given iconic use when Spain reached our shores, and folk practice became folk Catholicism. “You can see a lot of agimat signage,” Demetrio says, “but it’s just aesthetic. For me, agimat is really about the ingredients.”
Delve deeper and one realizes that it’s the elements that decide whether local ingredients live or die, and that agimats are about harnessing these elements not unlike a sorcerer would, with magic and a little mischief.
This new venture might be the vehicle that makes local agriculture sexy. “That’s always my advocacy,” Demetrio says. He’s done speeches with local farmers, hoping to foster pride in local produce—which is key to loving the land they till, and making the next generation love it, too. “If their kids don’t love the land, in time, they’ll just sell it. I tell them that if they want their kids to be in call centers, that life is ok too, but there’s a gold mine in what they’re doing.”
He wants agriculture brash, he wants it scintillating. He wants local produce in the personal mixes he’s made for celebrities and presidents. He wants the cocktails Instagrammable.
He also believes in the inherent sexiness of the Filipino, because the Filipino is a survivor—and he’s needed a little creativity and inventiveness to survive. “Filipino creativity doesn’t stop,” Demetrio says. “It’s in our genes. We were born to adapt, we had different conquerors, so from there we really had to be imaginative.”
The top bars in the world have Filipino bartenders, he continues, and “we were born to have a lot of diverse talent.”
“We’re really on our way. One hundred percent. We’re on our way.”
He says it like he means it, and you leave his lab—that mysterious hub of potions and wonders, golden liquids and hard whiskies—and step out into the city a little more aware of its charms, and a little less scared of its dangers.