May 03, 2013

Chef Melissa Sison: Internationally Acclaimed Culinary Guru

Cooking isn't the easiest to excel in for some, and becoming a chef might prove to be a more difficult challenge.

Still, for Filipina Chef Melissa Sison, her passion for food and cooking creates the right recipe of spices and flavor to her life and career. More than just a chef in the kitchen, she is one of the country's top culinary academe, playing the role of Program Director in one of the country's top culinary schools. Her determination to continuously innovate culinary education, and her sundry achievements in the field, has gained her an outstanding reputation. Last year, she was a recipient of the Presidential Medallion by the American Culinary Federation (ACF). The ACF is a prestigious organization in the culinary profession, promoting the highest standards in culinary education by designing programs, resources and the like to enhance the professional growth of both chefs and aspiring chefs.

For someone who hopes to dabble into cooking, I have always been curious on what it really takes to become a full-fledged culinary master. I frequently watch cooking shows and I am always amazed on how easy these tv chefs prepare these "on-air wonders". Talking to Melissa shed some light on some of the more interesting aspects in becoming a culinary guru.

What was your inspiration in your path to become a chef?

I have always wanted to cook and I feel this was the influence of my mother. When we were growing up, my sisters and I would take turns in going to the market with her and when we would return home, she would teach us to cook. My father, on the other hand, loved to entertain guests at home. There would often be parties growing up. This exposed us in cooking various types of dishes. In fact, my favorite books to read was my mom’s collection of "Cuisines of the World" books, which was about over 15 of them placed in the shelf in our kitchen.

Chef Melissa Sison with her mother Mila Sison

What became the turning point that urged you to be part of an academe?

Being an academe happened accidentally. I had just decided to leave the partnership I had with previous restaurants and I wanted to teach until I figure out what I wanted to do. I taught before but as a volunteer, so I felt teaching will give me the same fulfillment of giving back. Once I had one foot in, it was more than giving back. I actually enjoy the environment and the profession itself. 

Currently, I am the program director of CCA so more often, I run the administrative part of operating the school while I still occasionally teach. My experience here at CCA goes beyond a job; our positions in the food industry is very sensitive and critical because in our hands is the future. While at school, we must form these chef-students to be responsible and professional culinary individuals. Having this on our shoulders gives me great fulfillment when I see our alumni succeed. The feeling is almost like umami!

In the past years there was a surge in interest to take up culinary courses in our country. How has culinary education evolved in the Philippines in recent years?

In the last 10 years, many culinary schools have opened which I think is one of the biggest changes. As more players come in, the industry becomes highly competitive. I treat the “celebrity chefs and cooking shows” like a double-edged sword. Because they are so popular in influencing many to go to culinary school. But once in school, they get surprised that it is not that easy as it was presented in the cooking shows. 

As an educator, what do you think are the main reasons why students are interested to be chefs and what do you see are major contributors to the success of culinary students?

They enter culinary school attracted to the glamour of being a celebrity chef and only realize after the rigors they would have to overcome before becoming a celebrity chef. Because of the demanding hours and physical stamina of learning culinary arts, dedication, devotion, passion and hard-work will make every student complete our program successfully. Once the heart decided to pursue something, everything else will follow.

What are crucial lessons that you always hope to impart or maybe influence to aspiring chefs hoping to be outstanding in their future careers?

Humility is key. As they go through their careers, never let compliments or recognitions go to the head. Just always strive and improve to do better because the consistent thing about “being the best” will always change.

The best restaurant of 2012 will differ from 2013 because the standards of best will always alter. As a chef, we are committed to always strive to be better, we must always continue learning either through magazines, newspapers, seminars or conventions, or simply trying out other restaurants. Eat out! Just like what the great Chef Jiro said, you can only cook good food if you eat good! So, eating out in fast foods will not constitute to really eating out.

To be a chef, we must be wiling to try different kinds of food. Being a chef is not a profession but a commitment on how to live your life. As a chef, you will spend more time in the kitchen than in your home.

Curious about how she felt during the awarding, Chef Melissa shared to me the essay she wrote, following her acceptance of the Presidential Medallion.

"The General Session was attended by approximately 1000 of the chefs and the morning started with an opening remarks from Chef Michael Ty, CEC, AAC, National President and he went on giving away awards and suddenly I hear my name… The person beside me said, “that’s you, go up”, I did not know and just gave her my camera and hoping she can steal a few pictures. I was surprised wanting to jump and hug somebody only I was on stage and I did not know anyone I would be comfortable enough to hug. It was announced that I was awarded the ACF Presidential medallion with 5 other people and it was the highest honor an ACF member can get and I was recognized for my contribution to Culinary Education. I would not have gotten this recognition without CCA who provided the vehicle to execute my beliefs and passion in how Culinary Education should be and for this, I have to thank Ms. Annie Guerero and Ms. Badjie Trinidad for believing in me.

When I got the medallion, the first that came to my mind was the prayer “Our Father”, I said so much “thank you’s”  that day and I kept telling myself, don't let this get to my head.  I felt this was the most important thing for me to remember, humility. I rushed to my room, texted everyone I could and in between sobbed and gave out tears of joy.  I felt recognized and appreciated by my peers and this was beyond the school I work for and it FELT EXTREMELY GREAT!  But through that time “alone”, I promised myself one thing, I was not going to make this award get to my head because it will occupy that part of my head that needs to continue to think of more ways in improving culinary education and the future of the food industry in this country.  The challenge now for myself is what’s NEXT?

Through the 5-day convention the chefs were proud of their movement “Chef & Child” and “Chefs move to schools” which aims to support the cause of their First Lady, Michelle Obama to fight obesity in America.  Here I was seated in a room full of American Chefs whose main concern is their children are eating too much while I come from a country across the Pacific Ocean where most of the children have no food to eat… There was tinge in my heart that I have to do something about this, so I guess when someone comes to me and ask what’s next?

My answer is simple I want to help improve eating habits of the Filipino Children and my challenge to all my fellow chefs is simple, join me in this cause by creating recipes for a family of 4 for 2 meals a day that will not go over P100 and while creating these recipes, the ingredients must have brain food or what we call the “super foods”. So, to all chefs and aspiring chefs join me in creating these recipes and submit them to our Culinary Education Foundation and help fight hunger in this country and together as CCA we shall make another mark in culinary history!!!"


  1. Thanks for this inspiring interview! Shall be talking about this with friends here in Krakow.

  2. I'm so proud of you Chef Melissa... And also I want to thank you Because I was one of your trainee in Butter Diner from Punlaan School... God Bless You! _Virppi_