Maximus Navarro is an accomplished chef. He is trained in classic French cuisine, has worked in dozens of kitchens, opened several restaurants and is now the head chef at Thermëa.

Maximus Navarro is an accomplished chef. He is trained in classic French cuisine, has worked in dozens of kitchens, opened several restaurants and is now the head chef at Thermëa.

At home, however, his expertise doesn’t carry much weight when cooking for his picky offspring.

"To be honest, it’s more stressful," he says with a laugh. "The simplest thing (I cook) is bacon, egg and rice. Sometimes they just want the bacon, sometimes they just want the rice and they put all the bacon aside, sometimes it’s just the egg and the rice… it’s always a surprise."

Thermëa head chef Maximus Navarro, centre, with his wife Sakura and children Lily, left, and Titus, right. </p>

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Thermëa head chef Maximus Navarro, centre, with his wife Sakura and children Lily, left, and Titus, right.

Navarro, 39, moved to Winnipeg from the Philippines with his wife Sakura in 2015. Feeding their two kids, seven-year-old Titus and five-year-old Lily, requires patience and ample creativity — when bacon, eggs and rice won’t do, hotdogs are transformed into octopuses, rice is rolled into savoury balls and bento boxes are assembled.

Getting them involved in the kitchen also seems to do the trick.

"Oh, yeah," Navarro says. "Especially Lily, she likes to… do all the mixing or baking, or whenever we’re frying up something she likes to help."

Simple, one-pot meals are also a staple at home. After a long day of cooking at work, being able to throw dinner in the Instant Pot feels like a small luxury.

"For me, cooking at home or cooking in general should be simple," he says. "It should be made with lots of love; that’s the main ingredient."

Beef Pares

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

1.8 kg (4 lbs) beef neck or tail bone (shank cuts can be used as well)
240 ml (1 cup) brown sugar
15 ml (1 tbsp) ground pepper
500 ml (2 cups) shiitake mushroom
10 cloves garlic, chopped
1 white onion, chopped
Salt and pepper
5 pieces star anise
1 bay leaf
1 piece clove
500 ml (2 cups) soy sauce

1.8 kg (4 lbs) beef neck or tail bone (shank cuts can be used as well)
240 ml (1 cup) brown sugar
15 ml (1 tbsp) ground pepper
500 ml (2 cups) shiitake mushroom
10 cloves garlic, chopped
1 white onion, chopped
Salt and pepper
5 pieces star anise
1 bay leaf
1 piece clove
500 ml (2 cups) soy sauce

Start by seasoning the meat generously with salt and pepper.

Heat a heavy-bottom stock pot or cast iron pot over medium high. Drizzle with oil and sear the meat on all sides until golden brown.

Put meat aside and sauté spices, shiitake mushroom stems, onion and garlic in the same pot. Return meat and add soy sauce, letting boil for five minutes.

Pour in water or stock until everything is covered with about 1.5 cm (1/2 inch) of liquid. Boil for five minutes, then turn the heat to low and cover, let simmer for one hour.

After an hour, stir in the shiitake mushroom heads and brown sugar. Put the lid back on and simmer for two hours.

Turn off heat and serve with cooked rice and garlic sauce.

Beef pares, or beef ligament stew, checks all those boxes and has become a family favourite. Navarro learned to cook the dish, traditionally a Filipino street food, by eating — a lot. Back home in the Philippines, he frequented a vendor that sold big bowls of beef pares, rice and soup for just a dollar. After near daily visits to the food stand, he started picking apart the flavours and trying to recreate the dish at home.

"The Philippines has a big Chinese influence: the base is soy sauce, it’s got the flavour of bay leaf and the aromatics of star anise," he says. "And it’s sweet, too."

When he arrived in Winnipeg, he started making big batches of beef pares for staff meals at Thermëa using leftover stock bones — the stew is made from the cheapest cuts of beef, braised for hours until tender. The dish was a hit with co-workers, particularly former head chef Thomas Stuart, who is now director of food and beverage at the Crescent Drive spa.

Growing up, Navarro spent a lot of time in the kitchen with his mom and grandma. He got into the restaurant industry as a coffee shop barista and decided to attend culinary school to pursue his love of cooking. As a chef and kitchen manager, he worked in hotels and helped open a series of small restaurants in the Philippines.

His sister was the first to "gamble" on Winnipeg and Navarro decided to join her in the city after his son was born. Food has continued to create career opportunities.

"Everybody needs to eat, everybody will need a cook one way or another, so it’s worked out for me," he says.

Navarro perfected his recipe for beef pares, a slow-cooked stew, through trial and error.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Navarro perfected his recipe for beef pares, a slow-cooked stew, through trial and error.

Even though he’s doing less cooking and more paperwork as a head chef, he hopes to have a positive impact on the next generation of cooks, "We’re trying to make a kitchen that doesn’t need to shout or doesn’t need to cuss out anyone to get a point through," he says.

Navarro and his family live in the Brooklands neighbourhood, which he likes for its central location and proximity to Polo Park and Route 90 — pre-pandemic, it was always easy to collect visiting family members from the airport.

"They would stay (with us) and we would jam-pack everybody here — and then the best part is the never-ending eating," he says. "I grew up in a cooking and eating family; we would plan what we would have for dinner while we’re eating lunch."

Five Faves

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Here are some of chef Maximus Navarro’s favourite things:

Kitchen utensil: Cast iron pan

Book: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Movie: A Knight’s Tale starring Heath Ledger (Navarro is a self-described romantic)

Way to relax: Going to the beach or camping

Guilty-pleasure food: Crispy fried or grilled thinly sliced pork belly with soy sauce, vinegar and calamansi-lime-juice dipping sauce

Until international travel is allowed again, he’s thankful for technology and chat apps, "We can talk to them every day… so it’s less tough."

During the first lockdown, Navarro stayed home with the kids while his wife continued working. He was making breakfast, lunch and dinner from scratch every day and cooking Filipino dishes — such as whole fish stuffed with tomatoes and onions — over the fire during family campouts in the yard last summer.

The pandemic has also allowed him to explore other interests, including leatherworking. Navarro has carved out a little corner workshop in the basement where he can get creative and decompress.

"I learned how to make purses and bags. Of course, the kids were the first ones to have that stuff; I made a little purse for Lily and a bigger one for her mom," he says. "(Now) I’m making knife rolls for cooks and knife guards."

He’s back at work now, but still makes as much time for his family as possible, whether that’s listening to his kids practise piano or experimenting with new kid-friendly dishes.

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @evawasney

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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