The Way, according to Ninong Ry

By Joseph L. Garcia, Senior Reporter

SOCIAL MEDIA darling Ninong Ry (Ryan Reyes in real life) was presented as Knorr Professional’s first ambassador in the Philippines in an event at Makati’s Mess Hall on Sept. 7. How did a guy cooking (sometimes) in an undershirt get there?

For starters, his Facebook page has 6.7 million followers; while his YouTube channel has over two million. His unhinged online persona is truly engaging, cooking such delights like crispy kare-kare (beef stewed in peanut sauce), siopao (Chinese steamed buns) made three ways (you have to watch the video), and several ways to make sisig (the Filipino favorite made of pig’s face; Mr. Reyes makes his with twists). Ninong (that’s “godfather” in Filipino), and his merry crew make cooking exciting, but relatable -— when he splatters oil on himself, he swears like most everybody does. Yet when it’s all done, the cooking professional in him kicks in, and we’re presented with something truly beautiful. Seeing Mr. Reyes, his face gleaming with kitchen sweat looking satisfied at what he made makes one feel that you can do exactly the same thing (including the swearing).

“Ever since he started vlogging, we’ve seen how he taught many cooks the right techniques and recipes that elevate ordinary dishes. We’ve seen him — unprompted, unseeded — really use Knorr in his cooking, even teaching his followers this best-kept secret in restaurants. And of course, we’ve seen how he not so subtly said ‘Knorr, baka naman… (Knorr, perhaps….)’ whenever he used it! Of course, na-excite kami at Knorr, and we thought, here’s somebody who really embodies foodservice operators and chefs, is a loyal user of Knorr, and is not afraid to share his secret. We definitely needed to partner with him,” said Nicki Gutierrez, Unilever Food Solutions (UFS) Brand Manager in a speech.

(Knorr Professional is a line of seasonings streamlined and packed for professional kitchens – think Knorr Liquid seasoning by the quart)

To that effect, Mr. Reyes, who made smoked sisig and his own version of fried chicken during a cooking demo last week, told BusinessWorld his own favorite Knorr ingredient. “Knorr Chicken Powder,” he said. “It really brings out the flavor.” He uses it in almost all of his savory preparations, and to explain, his inner food nerd comes out: “I believe -— this is not scientifically proven — the taste of chicken is the taste of protein,” he said, citing that exotic meats often “taste like chicken.”

NINONGHis own online handle immediately makes him endearing, evoking memories of an occasionally present godfather who always brought a good time. It’s also effective branding: he calls his fans and audience his “inaanak” (godchildren), effectively creating a community.

“It’s a very uninspiring story,” he said on how he chose his screen name in an interview with BusinessWorld. He said he was looking for a word to attach to his own name that wouldn’t include the word “chef,” and saw the multitude of kuyas (older brothers), titos (uncles), and papas online. Not many used the word “ninong” for their online channels, so he used that instead. “It’s for branding.”

“It’s me. It’s not a persona. It’s me,” he said when asked who Ninong Ry stood for away from the camera. “For the camera, I usually just try to keep my energy high. I can’t say that even off-camera I maintain high levels of energy. We’re people. Our energy fluctuates,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino.

“‘Pag nagmumura ako, nagmumura talaga ako (when I swear, I really swear). ‘Pag bastos ako, bastos talaga ako (when I’m rude, I’m really rude).” After our interview, somebody asked Mr. Reyes to swear at his friend on camera (nothing too personal). Mr. Reyes gamely obliged. “Mahirap magsuot ng maskara. Ang dami mong maskarang isusuot at kailangan alalahanin kung kanino mo isusuot (it’s hard to wear a mask. You’ll have to wear many, and you’ll have to remember with whom to wear them).”

To him, the unfiltered self was what attracted the millions of followers anyway. “Kayang makita ng tao kung totoo ka o hindi (people can see if you’re real or not).” As for the successful online career (he’s had partnerships and sponsorships with many brands, as one will see on his channel; and enough corresponding coin to indulge his watch collection), he said, “Monetization came second.”

He started his channel as a pandemic distraction in 2020, at the height of lockdowns — after their family’s market stall closed, his father had died, and his then-girlfriend left him.

Asked how one could parlay their own personas into a lucrative career, he said, “If I had the formula, sasabihin ko. Hindi ko ipagdadamot (I’ll say it; I won’t keep it from others)… but that’s it. Hindi ko alam talaga (I really don’t know).”

In a mix of English and Filipino, he said, “It’s all an accident. What you see on camera, that’s the product of all my life experiences. That’s really me. That’s why it’s effective; because it’s not curated.”

He does tell people (not only for those looking into a career in content creation) to be consistent. “If you say you can only upload once a week, fine. Stick with once a week.”

LOVE FOR FOOD; AND HOW PLACES MAKE A PERSONWhile Mr. Reyes’ family made their living through a stall in a Malabon market, that’s not how he began to love food.

“’Pag nagtitinda ka sa palengke (when you sell in the market), you don’t think of it as food. It’s raw. You just see chicken,” he said. He recalls instances when he helped out in the kitchen as a child, but he becomes more animated when speaking of his late father. “Nakakahawa iyong passion ng tatay ko sa pagkain (my father’s passion for food was infectious). Sobrang katarantaduhan ng mga pinaglululuto noon (his cooking was crazy). Absurd! Pero ang sarap (but it was so good).”

He recalls a chicken his father roasted in a turbo broiler, stuffed with ham. He thought it was silly while it was being made, but bit into it and realized that the ham’s juices penetrated the chicken’s flesh. “Ganon pala iyon. Dapat pala, matapang ka gumawa ng mga bagay na puwedeng isipin ng mga tao na malamang katarantaduhan, pero importante iyong output. Masarap ba? Natuwa ba pamilya mo? (That, it turns out, is how you do it. You have to be brave to do something that people might think is crazy, but the output is important. Did it taste good? Did you make your family happy?)”

His culinary studies at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde (CSB) may have also fired up his own senses, but Malabon, his hometown, has a lot to do with it. Even now, he shoots video in the family home, or around the neighborhood. The city that gave its name to a kind of pancit must have something special in it (aside from the seafood markets, of course). To Mr. Reyes, we told him that it was in Malabon where we first got a taste of horse meat. He laughed, saying, “May kabayo kami sa ref ngayon (we have horse in the fridge right now)!”

“I didn’t realize this until college,” he said. In enrolling at CSB’s School of Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management, he thought he would be with people similarly inclined to love food. “But for some reason, none of my classmates had a deep emotional experience when it came to food. I have a deep emotional connection to my father’s sinampalukan (chicken in a tamarind broth; seasoned with tamarind leaves).” He credits this to his friends’ city upbringing, but then, we point out that Malabon is right next to Quezon City; it is still considered to be within the country’s capital region. “That’s what you think.”

He goes back to the story of his classmates, and while he gamely pointed out where to get the best food in his city, his classmates said that at home, they didn’t have anything like that, citing only mainstream restaurants. “Malabon is a city. But it has a probinsya vibe. There’s a sense of community. There’s a sense of identity.”

KITCHEN STRESS VS ONLINE STRESSMr. Reyes has of course worked inside the kitchen, but the relationship didn’t end too well.

His description of working in a kitchen sounds a bit like how Tolstoy described Levin working in a field. “There’s a certain level of flow that you experience. The stress and pressure are there. But in the middle of the day, you experience flow. It’s like watching yourself in third person doing your thing, and you’re not really thinking about it. It’s a very good feeling. Everything becomes second nature.”

In front of the camera, it’s different: “Everything that becomes second nature in a restaurant, you have to explain it in front of the camera.” He talks about 16-hour shoots for a 30-minute video. “Sometimes, you feel like you have no control over things. You can’t grind out the problem. You really have to sit down, slow down, and think.”

In 2023, our lives online and in real life often overlap. Sometimes, what we do online is looked at as worth less: friendships, education, work. If Ninong Ry cooks on camera, seen through our screens, does that work mean less than if he had done it nicely plated in a restaurant?

“Where does the value lie? Where is the value of what we do?,” he asked.

“Ang value ba ng ginagawa natin is (Is the value of what we do) for me to impress other professionals, for them to say good things about me? Or is the value of what I do to give entertainment and education at the same time?”

He recalled a story where a follower sent him a message, thanking him for saving her marriage. Prior to watching Ninong Ry’s videos, her spouse did not do his share of household chores. After watching Ninong Ry’s videos, the husband began to cook as well, and finding that pleasurable, and also began to help out more at home. “That’s where my value is. I can stop all of this now because I already put a family back together,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino. “I do it because I love it.”

But when will he stop? “I will only stop vlogging when people stop watching. I’ll just cook for my family and my friends.” That, or, “Baka mamaya, sobrang taba na ako, hindi na ako makalakad. (Or if I get too fat, and I won’t be able to walk anymore.)

“Basta kaya ko.” (As long as I can hack it.)

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