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The Owner of Cupcakes by Sonja Has the Coolest Travel-to-Eat Stories

If you're a foodie, you'll want to be her.
The Owner of Cupcakes by Sonja Has the Coolest Travel-to-Eat Stories
IMAGE Jeanne Young
If you're a foodie, you'll want to be her.

It has almost been 10 years since pastry chef Sonja Ocampo opened the first branch of Cupcakes by Sonja. She has been busy in the interim with not just opening four more branches, but also traveling the world to, you guessed it, eat—and not only at dessert hotspots that can whisk her away with sweet inspiration, but fine-dining meccas and street-food outposts alike. From Manila to her second home, New York, where she studied culinary and pastry arts and honed her skills at Bouley and the famed Magnolia Bakery, Sonja has traversed many cities in between and beyond in pursuit of good eats.

IMAGE Jeanne Young

Manila's cupcake queen, as Sonja is fondly called, collects menus from the restaurants she visits, and brings heavy culinary tomes for chefs anf staff to signwithout batting an eyelash at excess baggage fees!

How does your job influence the way you travel?

As much as I love exploring new, unfamiliar cities, I always end up going back to those that give me the most exposure to what’s going on in the world of food. I make regular pilgrimages to New York, Paris, Tokyo and London. And when I’m there, I feel like I’m in a marathon. I cram as many restaurants and bakeries as my stomach can handle. That usually means at least two meals for each meal: two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners. I usually start with a light breakfast at some bakery and then brunch elsewhere, try a few different lunch spots and get drinks and appetizers at one restaurant for dinner and go all in at the second.

What kind of traveler are you? Do you do a lot of research on a place or do you wing it? Do you prefer luxury accommodations or do you like to rough it?

I research a lot and can get very obsessive with it. I don’t leave without making sure my restaurant tables are booked and I have options for fallbacks. When I am on the trip, though, I do try to let go and leave room for the unplanned. I follow my itinerary but with flexibility and wisdom to abandon if a more enticing experience comes along. I don’t mind luxury or roughing it up. I can do both.

What is it about traveling to eat that excites you?

I love the discovery of new flavors, dishes and ingredients that I can’t find at home. I love a successful hunt for the perfect plate. I really enjoy the thrill of that first bite and scoring that killer dish.

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How does this translate to your work here in Manila?

I take these discoveries with me to our test kitchen and I try to recreate something that would resonate well with our local audience. My work has always been a byproduct of my travel experiences. Cupcakes by Sonja was almost entirely inspired by the years I spent in New York.

Has food always been your passion/obsession?

Yes, I’ve always loved food. Growing up, I was the girl who had the biggest appetite in the family and among my friends.

Where is the most unusual place you’ve been to eat?

Modern Toilet in Taipei. We sat on toilet seats and ate poo-shaped chocolate ice cream out of a squat toilet bowl. It was too bizarre.

What possessed you to eat there?

The people I was with. Never again!

The craziest experience you’ve been through to secure a table?

Matsukawa in Tokyo. It’s an introduction-only kaiseki, which means you have to be invited by a regular patron to eat there. I didn’t know anyone who was so I had to pretend that I did. I sent the email in Japanese. Luckily, it worked.

What is your most memorable dining and travel memory so far?

I will never forget that summer when my friends and I took a road trip around the south of France, driving from the sun-drenched food of Provence to the rich and intense flavors in the rural southwest. We walked through vineyards, ate at Michelin-starred restaurants, had impromptu picnics by the beach and ate home-cooked meals our local hosts would prepare. It was amazing. Each day felt like a scene from a Peter Mayle novel.

The best meal you’ve had to date?

What a difficult question. I think my best meal changes each year because of how quick the restaurant landscape changes. I tend to look at the most recent one that took me by surprise. They’re so special that you can tell their arrival signifies the beginning of a new movement or the end of one.    

My favorite meal this year was at Wildair in New York. It’s a casual wine bar that shares the same kitchen with Contra, a tasting menu restaurant. It’s very similar to the concept of the new wine bars in Paris, except that in this one the extension is so much better than the more formal [dining area]. The techniques, flavors and overall execution are on par with some of the best in the fine-dining business. The food is excellent, prices are reasonable, and the vibe was just so laid-back and easy.

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The most sumptuous dessert you’ve had? The most unique and incredible?

Most sumptuous: I recently had the sea-salted sticky buns at Roberta’s in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I thought those were life-changing. Most unique: The dancing sourdough ice cream dessert at El Celler de Can Roca. The sourdough ice cream covered in soft marshmallows with fried lychee and jerez vinegar meringue came to our table dancing like a slow-motion disco ball. The dessert was literally breathing and pulsating on the plate, playing on the idea of sourdough as a living culture. It was so much fun to watch and most importantly, it was so good.

The most underrated food destination? The most overrated?

Copenhagen. Four years ago, I would’ve said that Copenhagen is overrated. I enjoyed Noma but found the rest of my meals there to be forgettable. Fast-forward to today, and I now find the city to be underrated. It’s not all about foraged grass and dehydrated ants anymore. The more I eat in Copenhagen, the more apparent it becomes that the city is adding a new layer of restaurants to its culinary geology. Who would’ve thought I could find extraordinary tacos and the best churros in Copenhagen? Most overrated… hard to say. I think each dining destination reflects the local culinary renaissance happening in that particular place. So for me, that’s really interesting.

Street food or fine dining?

Both. I would enjoy with equal enthusiasm a degustation at a white-tablecloth establishment and an amazing sandwich from a small street stand that knows what it’s doing. They each have their time and place. And in my humble opinion, you need both to enjoy food and have a good time.

Do you collect any food- and travel-related keepsakes? If so, which is the most precious?

My signed menu from Noma’s pop-up in Tokyo. I don’t think that will ever happen again. And in Tokyo, my favorite food city in the world.

Where are you planning to go next, and what/where do you plan to eat?

I have a trip to Silicon Valley this coming February so I can’t wait to revisit and get to know California all over again. There’s just so much concentration of new, exciting and invigorating restaurants happening there right now. Californios, AL’s Place, Animal, Benu, Saison, Bestia and a taco crawl in SoCal are on my hit list.

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This article originally appeared in Preview Magazine's March 2016 issue.

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