Filipino chef elevates Pinoy dishes for Singapore with pugon-centered restaurant

Meet Kurt Sombero, a Singapore-based Filipino chef who wants to spread Pinoy cuisine to the multicultural people of the island-state through his unique twists to traditional dishes.

Kubo Woodfired Kitchen, located in the Robertson Quay district, sets itself apart from other Filipino restaurants in the country by virtue of the fact that everything is cooked out of a pugon hearth.

Filipinos will know the pugon as a traditional wood-fired oven or stove found in many household kitchens.

Chef Kurt Sombero and entrepreneur Tora Widjaja, partners at Kubo. (Photo: Kubo)
Chef Kurt Sombero and entrepreneur Tora Widjaja, partners at Kubo. (Photo: Kubo)
Two cooks working by pugon fire in Kubo's open-concept kitchen in Singapore Robertson Quay
The pugon fire in Kubo's open-concept kitchen. (Photo: Kubo)

Now, the Mindanao-born chef has brought this traditional Filipino style of cooking to Singapore.

Kurt helped his grandmother in the kitchen when he was young, which inspired him to become a chef. The 35-year-old has fond memories of Grandma Josefa cooking for his family of more than a dozen over the pugon.

"The heart and soul of our kitchen is the pugon, running only on a wood fire. Every dish has an element that passes through the pugon," said Kurt.

Philippines dish Quail with adobo glaze and potato at Kubo in Singapore Robertson Quay
Quail with adobo glaze and potato. (Photo: Teng Yong Ping)
Philippines dish Sisig with foie gras and salted egg aioli at Kubo in Singapore Robertson Quay
Sisig with foie gras and salted egg aioli. (Photo: Kubo)

The stovetop above the pugon is used to cook stocks and sauces; the open flame is used to grill vegetables; even the smoke isn't wasted – it's channeled into a custom smoker to cook meats.

Sombero had a custom-made brick pugon built for Kubo. All the dishes at Kubo are cooked via the pugon's wood fire – there's a cast iron stovetop, a rotisserie, an elevation grill, and a smoker connected to the pugon.

"I'm a fire freak," said Kurt. "I really enjoy and love this type of cooking: to harness and use every strength of the fire." He certainly knows his way around the art of flame-cooking: he was head chef at Meatsmith, an American barbecue restaurant, and sous chef at the Michelin-starred Burnt Ends, also a barbecue eatery.

Kubo, which he set up with his business partner, Tora Widjaja, is his first solo venture.

“We would like the current and future generations to experience the honesty of wood-fired barbeque that I enjoyed in my childhood back in the Philippines,” Kurt said.

Philippines dish Green papaya atchara at Kubo in Singapore Robertson Quay
Green papaya atchara. (Photo: Kubo)

Fusion food

While interviewing Kurt, I made the mistake of referring to the food he serves as "Filipino cuisine". He swiftly corrected me – it's "Filipino-inspired," he said (as per the same phrase emblazoned on the awnings around the restaurant's exterior.)

That's because instead of faithfully recreating traditional Pinoy dishes, Kurt puts a different spin to them in terms of ingredients, preparation and presentation, combining Chinese, Indian and European influences.

“We want to redefine the flavors of the Philippines and re-introduce them to a multicultural palate,” he said.

Staple Filipino ingredients – like soy sauce, vinegar, chillies and garlic – are used, but so are international ingredients like foie gras, uni, truffles and rare spices.

For example, this is the chef's take on adobo (S$30): a quail is marinated for 36 hours, then – not stewed – but smoked, then cooked on the grill. The bird is served with either mashed potato with garlic or shoestring fries.

How about his version of isda sa pugon (S$38): grilled line-caught Japanese seasonal fish with bagoong dressing served with talbos ng kamote or sweet potato leaves.

Philippines dish Crab fat risotto and tobiko at Kubo in Singapore Robertson Quay
Crab fat risotto and tobiko. (Photo: Kubo)

Then there's his crab fat risotto (S$20): the talangka taligue (shore crab roe) in this Filipino-Italian fusion dish is sourced from the Philippines.

Kubo also serves interpretations of sisig (S$25), kare-kare (S$56), inasal (S$14) and atchara (S$8). The menu comes complete with Filipino desserts such as halo-halo (S$12) and bibingka (S$12).

Philippines Balisong steak butterfly knives made in Batangas, Philippines at Kubo in Singapore Robertson Quay
Kubo uses customized Balisong steak knives made in Batangas, Philippines. (Photo: Kubo)

A fair warning, then, to Filipinos looking for dishes cooked in the traditional styles back home: that's not what you'll find here. Kurt's creations resolutely seek to reinvent something new by melding his Filipino heritage with international palates.

However, Kurt sincerely hopes even kababayans seeking the taste of their hometowns will find comfort in his food. "We're enjoying different influences and different ingredients but with a nostalgic taste."