I walk past the door to Bar Magda several times before I find it. Tucked down a quieter street off the busy Karangahape Road strip, the black door leads down a dark staircase and into a surprisingly big space. It’s still a construction site when I visit and builders are banging away in the background as Carlo Buenaventura tells me about the new hospitality venture, his first permanent restaurant.
“The idea is that you go downstairs and come into a different world, a different space,” he says, speaking with the kind of hurried excitement of someone finally seeing their dream come to life. Bar Magda has been years in the making for Buenaventura, a journey filled with a number of setbacks. “You can have this idea to open a space, but it comes with a certain level of maturity and preparedness,” he says. “Once I realised I wasn’t ready, I had to allow myself more time to grow as a person and as a hospitality professional. It also comes down to the right timing and people.”
That being said, it takes tenacity to open a restaurant at a time when the hospitality industry is still in the midst of the pandemic recovery. “As hard as it sounds, there’s always opportunity amidst disaster,” he says. “You have to be positive, and from where I come from we deal with typhoons and floods; Filipinos are so tenacious, it’s amazing. We can find opportunities from nowhere. I thought, if we can do that where I’m from, there should be some opportunities here if we just dig deeper.”
Growing up in the southern region of the Philippines, Buenaventura was on track to become a doctor but ended up forgoing his university studies for culinary training. He wound up coming to New Zealand and eventually realised he didn’t want to leave, taking up positions under the likes of Dave Verheul and James Pask at Matterhorn and Tom Hishon at Orphans Kitchen.
For the past five years, Buenaventura has run restaurant pop-ups through The Cult Project, taking over restaurant kitchens around the country to deliver one-off dining experiences, inspired by the likes of Ludovic Lefebvre, the French chef credited as one of the original pop-up pioneers. “The pop-ups were a good way to showcase certain things, be creative and trial to know what works and what doesn’t,” says Buenaventura. “I didn’t expect to be doing the pop-ups for that long, but I’m grateful because it allowed me to discover my style.”
This style is a reflection of his immigrant story, which is a culmination of the places and people that have shaped his life. “It’s Aotearoa seasonal produce told through a Filipino lens. It’s a sharing style rooted in that convivial sharing and gathering that we have back home. It’s neither traditional nor modern. It’s these moments in time, personal experiences that we’re going to translate through food, drink and hospitality.”
‘Sutukil’ is a style of cooking Buenaventura is showcasing at Bar Magda. An abbreviation of ‘sugba’ (grill), ‘tuwa’ (braise) and ‘kilaw’ (raw and marinated in acid), it originates in the Visayas region of the Philippines, where Buenaventura’s father was born.
“We’re not trying to do full, traditional Filipino. It just so happens I am, so it’s natural for me to gravitate towards something that is so familiar to myself,” he explains. “That style of cooking was always present to me growing up. Because sutukil is more of a style of cooking rather than dishes, it allows me to be a little more creative. It doesn’t limit us to certain cuisines.”
Cult-hit dishes from his past pop-ups have returned to Bar Magda’s menu. One is his take on ‘suglaw’ (sugba and kilaw), a grilled and marinated dish traditionally done with goat or pork. “I’ve been reinventing it with different sauces. Filleted fish, that’s the raw part, which we dice and then the bones and heads get grilled and the meat picked apart. It’s a charred, smoked fish flavour, mixed with the raw marinated fish and then dressed with a seasonal sauce.”
With desserts, he’s playing around with sweet and salty flavours that are common in Filipino cuisine. “I grew up eating cakes with cheese, like sweet brioche with butter, sugar and cheese. It’s those elements of sweet, salty and sour – very Filipino profiles in terms of desserts.”
The space is divided into casual bar and bistro dining areas, with an exposed kitchen and bar at the centre. “In the south of the Philippines where I’m from, where it’s really hot, everything is open. Having that open kitchen is welcoming. You get to see everything that’s going on.”
Collaboration lies at the heart of the project. His business partners Matthew Venables and Craig Thompson are both just as involved as he is. Hospo-turned-tradie mates have helped him fit out the restaurant, from the design of the wooden benches, to the velvet curtains. The details are well thought out. “The bar is made by a cabinetmaker who had experience working in bars in Germany, so the cut is inspired by the cocktail glasses, it’s very subtle,” he says.
It’s clear that community has played a formative role in Buenaventura’s career. Coming here as an immigrant, it was friends and colleagues who looked out for him and encouraged him to dream big.
It makes sense why he has decided on the Karangahape Road neighbourhood as the home for Bar Magda, having spent time working and running pop-ups at a number of local establishments, such as Gemmayze Street, Culprit and Madame George.
“I’ve grown a lot in this neighbourhood. I feel like K Road is flourishing because a lot of the businesses are owner-operated,” he says. “So you get that honest, genuine intent. It all started with operators like Gemmayze, Madame George, Apéro and Coco’s Cantina. If not for them, you wouldn’t have the younger owner-operators taking a shot as well. I wanted to be part of this community because it’s so genuine and supportive, and hopefully be a part of its continued growth.”
Photography by Josh Harvey