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Chef Jam Melchor’s Passionate Love For Philippine Cuisine

With more Filipinos traveling abroad and with our penchant for riding on whatever is in vogue, restaurants are churning out dishes and menus that seek to satiate the ever-evolving, fickle palate of a once-conservative dining market.

It is in this environment where Jose Antonio Miguel Melchor or Chef Jam is trying to make a difference by passionately promoting Philippine cuisine and our country’s local ingredients.

 

Roots

Chef Jam’s journey in wearing the toque started at an early age, in the encouraging environment of his Kapampangan home.

“Cooking runs in my family. Everybody in my family knows how to cook but nobody really took it to a professional level. For me, it came naturally that I decided to take culinary arts. It helped that even before I entered culinary school, I already knew how to cook and that I have been blessed with a gift of taste,” Chef Jam shares.

 

Cooking in his hometown (IG @chefjamme)

 

Growing up in Angeles, Pampanga, which is a widely-acknowledged gastronomic hotspot in the Philippines, Chef Jam recounts how his strict family upbringing and Catholic education molded him into seeing his profession as a chef as being his vocation.

 

Chef Jam’s sisig puso (or lagat puso in Kapampangan) made with banana hearts, pork, shrimp, and vinegar (Photo by Paul del Rosario for FOOD Magazine)

 

“I’m happy and fortunate to see my work as a chef with a 360-degree view at a relatively early age. Because of my profession, I have been able to do so much more outside the kitchen but everything revolved around food. When I took up culinary arts, I just wanted to get the diploma that ‘formalizes’ what I’ve always liked to do. Never did I imagine that I would eventually be teaching, doing food styling for publications, TV hosting and even becoming sort of a food activist. Cooking is the only thing I know how to do even with my eyes closed!” Chef Jam confides.

 

Chef Jam’s kilayin, a Kapampagan version of adobong puti, made with pork innards cooked in vinegar (Photo by Paul del Rosario for FOOD Magazine)

 

Because of his endeavors as a chef, he was able to see how Philippine cuisine has the potential to rival some of the best-known food in the world. He explains, “Filipino food is never just pantawid gutom. Never. It is our soul, it is our identity. This the reason why I am saddened as to why we can promote our food abroad but almost never here in our own country.”

Chef Jam acknowledges that it was his stint at Le Bistro Vert, one of the pioneer restaurants that pushed for green, sustainable dining, that influenced him in his current advocacies. “As a team, we went around the country to source out local produce and boy, were we amazed with the variety of products we felt we needed to feature,” Chef Jam shares. He got to meet organic and sustainable growers and producers such as Olive Puentespina of Malagos Farmhouse.

 

Meeting THE Alice Waters at Terra Madre 2016 in Italy (IG @chefjamme)

 

From then on, Chef Jam has been instilled with the philosophy of preparing dishes that feature ingredients that are in season, loving what is local, and knowing the people who grow your food.

 

Promoting local, preserving authenticity

From 2013 to 2015, he was appointed a culinary envoy by the Philippine government under the Department of Agriculture (DA) for the ASEAN Roadshow “Linamnam! Flavours of the Philippines.” It was held in different ASEAN countries to promote native products for export, with food festivals showcasing Filipino favorites.

“I realized then that we need to do more to educate and inform ordinary Filipinos about how rich and full of potential Philippine gastronomy is,” Chef Jam recounts. This paved the way for him to convene the Philippine Culinary Heritage Movement (PCHM), an SEC-registered, non-profit movement dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Philippine culinary heritage and gastronomy.

 

Chef Jam with former DA Undersecretary (and now DOT Secretary) Berna Romulo-Puyat and fellow PCHM member Nina Daza-Puyat at the PCHM Gala Night in 2015

 

Among the feathers on its cap, PCHM was able to successfully lobby for the creation of a dedicated month focused on the promotion of Filipino cookery. In collaboration with the National Commission on Culture of the Arts (NCCA), the DA, and other entities and individuals in the food industry, the concept was started during the time of President Benigno Aquino III and took two years before President Rodrigo Duterte signed Proclamation 469, which assigns April as Filipino Food Month or Buwan ng Kalutong Pilipino.

“PCHM isn’t only about chefs. It’s about farmers and growers, restaurateurs, communities but also about researchers and academics. Remember, we don’t have a government agency assigned solely for the preservation and promotion of Philippine gastronomy. This is where PCHM comes in.”

 

With fellow chefs and Filipino food advocates at the PCHM Taste Workshop (IG @chefjamme)

 

Also in the pipeline for PCHM is a center for Philippine cuisine—a physical space that will serve as the home for researching, studying and archiving our local gastronomy.

Chef Jam acknowledges the invaluable contribution and encouragement other personalities have given in terms of their advocacy, like the family of the late Nora Daza as well as the Reyes family of The Aristocrat. Others who have played a part in the movement are Tina Morados of Pamora Farm, Marco Lobregat, and Vicky Garcia of RICE, Inc. among many others.

 

Filipino cuisine at the heart of world gastronomy

Perhaps Chef Jam’s finest moment was in October 2017 when he became the first Filipino chef to present Filipino food at Le Tavole Accademiche (The Academic Tables) of the Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche (UNISG) in Pollenzo, Italy.

 

The first and only Filipino chef to be invited to Le Tavole Accademiche

 

Each year, 25 top chefs are selected from around the globe to prepare dishes that reflect the core values of good, fresh, and fair food using local and seasonal ingredients. Chef Jam prepared, among other dishes, suam na mais (Filipino corn soup), adobong Batangan, sinigang na hipon sa bayabas, sinuglaw, and chicken galantina ensalada to the delight of the UNISG faculty and students.

 

Chef Jam’s chicken galantina served at Le Tavole

 

Chef Jam further expounds, “UNISG is one of the world’s most recognized centers of food research, a place where gastronomy and different culinary cultures are studied and celebrated. I wanted the students and alumni of such an important university to delve deep into our captivating food, one that is rich, historic and diverse.”

 

Sinuglaw prepared by Chef Jam at Le Tavole

 

We can take the cue from Chef Jam in becoming more discerning when it comes to our own food. Hopefully, we can rally around him and other food industry movers—the iconic and the quiet ones—who invite us to rediscover locally-sourced ingredients, preserve heirloom recipes, and get to know the people who grow our food.

 

To learn more, visit Philippine Culinary Heritage Movement on Facebook.