CBD Filipino joint Askal was one of the year’s most anticipated new restaurants. And when the doors opened at the tail-end of February, it did not disappoint. The hard-to-book restaurant has become known for pushing the boundaries of Filipino food, with dishes like torched scallop adobo, its highly Instagrammable clay-pot rice served with bone marrow, and doughnuts topped with the thick peanut stew kare-kare..

Culinary director John Rivera started his restaurant career in 2012, working front-of-house at Rockpool Bar & Grill while studying patisserie at William Angliss. He’s since worked in the kitchen at fine diners including Rockpool in Sydney, Amaru in Armadale and Lume in South Melbourne, where, before Covid struck, he was executive chef.

During Melbourne’s lockdowns he co-founded Kariton Sorbetes, a gelato brand that specialises in Filipino and Asian flavours. It now has three stores in Melbourne, and it’s about to open its first Sydney outpost.

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Rivera says he got into cooking growing up in Cabanatuan City, on the Philippines’ northern island of Luzon.

“As a (fat) kid, I would also be in the pantry trying to come up with different fried rice concoctions which, while they were fun for me, was probably at the peril of my dad’s palette”, Rivera tells Broadsheet via email. “My imagination would go wild as I flicked between the Cartoon Network and the Food Network, often finding myself more engaged with the cooking than the animation. It did give me a false idea of the industry though – I thought that all the ingredients would be beautifully weighed up and laid out for you. Oh, how wrong I was!”

We took five minutes with the chef to find out where (and what) he’s eating in Melbourne these days.

CDMX birria tacos. Photography: Casey Horsfield

What’s your go-to for a quick takeaway?
CDMX in Melbourne Central never disappoints. It’s literally – even if just according to me – the best birria tacos in Melbourne.

That rich, tender braised beef brisket in that crispy, crunchy, cheesy taco with the super flavourful consommé – UGH!

How about lunch on the go?
Warkop on Little Collins Street. I’ve fallen in love with their tuna melt cakalang, and I swear I get it every time I’m there now – even if [owners] Barry [Susanto] and Erwin [Chandra] always suggest another sandwich. Sorry, guys!

But whatever they are making is quality, and the way they incorporate traditional Indonesian flavours into their sandwiches just makes them so delicious and interesting.

Auterra. Photography: Samantha Schultz

And for a drink and snacks?
It’s hard to look away from Auterra in Armadale for a great flurry of snacks paired with some pretty awesome wines.

Just say “F**k it! We’re all in!” – it actually says that on their menu – and let them send you out a snack degustation that’ll floor you with flavour.

If you’re looking for inspiration?
Lutong Pinoy in the Footscray Market. They do home-cooked Filipino food so well – no fuss or fanfare, just good, honest cooking. I always believe that when I’m stuck on how to move forward, I need to go back to basics and recalibrate my thinking. It also helps that it’s next to the produce section, so I can check out what’s great right after my meal.

Kudo madeleines. Photography: Arianna Leggiero

Where is your favourite dessert in town?
I feel like any answer is wrong if I don’t say Kariton! But actually, I don’t really get high on my own supply.

I really love all the goodies at Kudo and Raya. Special mention goes to Kudo’s chilli-and-chocolate madeleines and miso-sesame cookies, as well as Raya’s kaya-butter-toast cake.

Best comfort food?
My dad’s pork sinigang, a sour Filipino soup made with tamarind. Dad uses mostly pork soup bones as opposed to belly; you gotta fight for your meat on the bone, but the deep, rich and tasty broth it produces is so comforting and more-ish.

I don’t know how you’ll be able to come over and try it, but I reckon if you pay him enough money, he’ll sling you a bowl.

Where do you go for a big meal?
Our “big meal” treat is not what you think: we are always hitting up Sakura Kaiten Sushi II on Lonsdale Street every time we’re after a fill me up.

With my wife being pregnant twice in the past three years, sushi is a real treat for us. Now that she can have all her favourite raw seafood again, we go all out on the sushi train! The seafood here is always so fresh and delicious, and all the sushi is made so well.

If you have visitors from out of town?
I’m always taking family and friends to Lune. Let’s be honest, everyone wants to go there – and why not!? Not only do they get to tick it off their list, I get to reward myself with a yummy croissant.

What’s your bucket-list restaurant?
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, London. I grew up watching Boiling Point, Kitchen Nightmares and Hell’s Kitchen, and even had the chance to meet Gordon on Masterchef, so to be able to enjoy that experience would be like fulfilling a childhood dream.

Where do you find your favourite sweet treat?
Right now, I’m having a real obsession with falooda [a sweet South Asian drink with layered rose syrup, ice-cream and vermicelli], and living in Tarneit/Truganina means I have access to some great Indian desserts at any time. And by any time, I mean I’m Uber-ing a rabri falooda from Dessert Corner on Wheels at 11pm.

What’s your go-to hangover food?
Okay, listen up here – and I apologise to the Indian community of Melbourne in advance. But you get a lamb biryani, butter chicken, raita and a roti paratha. You’re gonna use the roti like a burrito tortilla and you’re gonna fill that bad boy with the biryani, butter chicken and raita. Roll it up tight and then pan fry that confusion of a burrito paratha in a hot pan so two of the sides get crispy. Then you’re gonna eat that on the couch contemplating life and the choices you make.