When Isabel T. Ronquillo came to New Zealand several years ago, she gave up a lot, including raising her one-year-old daughter for three years, in order to support her husband’s lifelong dream of moving here. Now she’s the head chef at Barrel & Co. Bar and Grill at Pullman Rotorua
“My husband, when he was young, saw the Pure New Zealand ads and ever since then, he was set,” said Isabel. In typical carefree Filipino fashion, she shrugs and laughs that he was so swayed by TV advertising – and that they took the leap.
Due in equal measures to New Zealand immigration laws and the couple’s impatience, Isabel and Norman had to give up their careers as registered nurses and pursue new pathways.
“We didn’t want to stay for two more years in Manila in order to get accredited to work as nurses in New Zealand,” Isabel said. While Norman took up building, she chose to study culinary skills when they arrived in Auckland, and she’s never looked back.
“I’m so happy that I did it. I don’t think I can imagine myself going back to hospital.
“A chef’s hours are nuts, I know. But because I love eating, it follows that I love cooking and that I love feeding people. It’s the joy of seeing people go, ‘Mmmm…’”
Isabel can monitor diners’ reactions to her food via sneaky peaks from the Pullman’s open-plan kitchen. The cosmopolitan menu showcases the best meats and produce, from kingfish and king salmon, to T-bone steak, kumara gnocchi and rack of lamb.
It was at Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour eight years ago where Isabel first started working with Israel Suarez Guido. Israel is now the GM at the five-star Pullman Rotorua hotel and hired Isabel in October to run the restaurant, giving Isabel her first role as head chef.
“I contacted my mentor when I got this job, and he said, ‘You have to be ready to be tough when needed, and you just have to enjoy the ride.’”
She’s not only enjoying the ride, but she’s thriving. She loves the creativity and sense of community in her role.
“It’s just exciting with all the new food coming in. I grew up where there’s just two seasons – either it’s really, really hot, or it’s really, really rainy – so experiencing seasons like this is just awesome to me".
When asked to describe her cooking style, Isabel’s response was, “My heart just tells me to make joyful food and showcase the amazing produce and meat that we get from this country. For me, it’s just translating what the land is giving us.
“Here in Rotorua there’s a micro-climate, which affects what grows here, and I try to source as much local produce as possible. I’m talking to local butchers now, too, to see who I can help promote. The dentist around the corner supplies our flowers from the gardens of his Airbnbs. They’re all edible. It’s quite exciting for me support local businesses, and they’re all stoked too.”
While Isabel, a self-confessed softie, works on developing her firmer side, she recognises the similarities in nursing and cooking: it’s the caring and looking after people that are present in both careers.
“Being a woman in the kitchen is not uncommon, but being the head chef of a big kitchen like this is a proud thing for me. Having hired mostly women in the kitchen is empowering and drives me harder for us to be successful.”
Now, 10 years on, Isabel and Norman have a second daughter, careers they love, and no regrets about leaving the Philippines. The family of four have even become New Zealand citizens.
“I think this is at the forefront of what you need to know about me: my children are the reason why I have this purpose. I have this ‘anything and everything for my children’ focus so all of my hard work, moving to New Zealand, having this life, is all for them.”