This Is How Up-And-Coming Filipino-American Chefs Eat Their Way Through the Philippines
Filipino food in the United States is having its moment right now. No longer hidden within Filipino-American communities, it has now gone mainstream. Proud of their heritage, more and more Filipino-American chefs and restaurateurs are now cooking and serving Filipino food. One group of up-and-comers from Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City recently landed on our shores for a ten-day culinary journey of discovery of their homeland. And what an eye opener it was.
Who are these chefs and restaurateurs? Perhaps the most prominent among them is Chef Alvin Cailan of Eggslut and its much buzzed about egg sandwiches, who recently relocated to New York City, operating the Filipino food delivery Amboy and working on his first cookbook on Filipino food.
From Los Angeles, there was Chef Chad Valencia of modern Filipino restaurant Lasa, Chef Charles Olalia of tiny Filipino eatery RiceBar, and Johneric and Christine Concordia of The Park’s Finest BBQ. Restaurateur Billy Dec of Rockit Ranch that operates Pan-Asian restaurant Sunda flew in from Chicago. Just Google any of their names and you’ll find a slew of glowing articles from the US’s top publications. Also joining the group were LA-based journalists from Eater LA and the Los Angeles Times.
Alvin Cailan Eating Haleyang Sampalok at Asiong's
Charles Olalia of RiceBar
Chad Valencia checking out the lechon in La Loma Quezon City
Billy Dec of Sunda
What did they do while they were here? For starters, they made sure they didn’t get the Anthony Bourdain version of Philippine culture that most Americans have been exposed to, thanks to this celebrity chef-TV host’s highly rated Parts Unknown on CNN. Chef Alvin admits, “Sometimes I cringe when I watch [Bourdain’s show] because the representation of Filipino culture is not accurate. I get it, it’s cool to show karaoke culture and halo-halo. But just the experience we’ve had in the last seven days is not even close to what Anthony actually saw.”
Touring Binondo with Ivan Man Dy
It was the Department of Tourism office in Los Angeles that invited the group on this jam-packed food tour of Metro Manila and its environs led by Clang Garcia of Food Holidays. Clang explains, “I wanted to show them multi-faceted dining experiences. So I didn’t just bring them to fine dining, but to the carinderia, to the market, to the palengke, to the dampa.” The group learned how to make lumpia wrappers in Farmer’s Market, sampled Caviteño cooking in Asiong’s, discovered Tsinoy food in Binondo, raved about modern Filipino at Toyo Eatery, enjoyed a fine dining meal at Antonio’s in Tagaytay, among many memorable food experiences.
Piaya from Bacolod served at Provenciano
The group at Provenciano
I caught up with the group at Provenciano, Chef Chris de Jesus’ popular restaurant on Maginhawa Street in Quezon City known for its regional specialties. Hosted by the Mama Sita Foundation, a veritable Visayan feast was laid out of lumpiang sariwa, bam-i pancit, chicken inasal, humba, laswa, KBL, sugba, kinilaw na puso ng saging, Cebu lechon, plus a host of Ilonggo delicacies like galletas, otap, and piaya. During the dinner, food writers Felice Sta. Maria and Micky Fenix shared their deep knowledge of Philippine culinary history and regional cuisines with the group who peppered them with questions throughout the evening.
One of them revolved around the question of authenticity in Filipino food, especially when it’s cooked abroad. Christine Araquel-Concordia shares, “Being part of the Philippine diaspora, we are in a place where our authenticity is going to be challenged whether we’re American or whether we’re Filipino.” For example, Chef Chad Valencia describes his take on pancit, “We treat the pancit more like an Italian pasta but all the flavors are 100% Filipino.” Raved about by LA Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, the pancit is made with fresh canton noodles tossed in a mix of butter, patis and calamansi juice, garnished with scallions, and topped with patis-cured egg yolk shavings. Is this a Filipino dish? To Chad’s delight, Felice Sta. Maria answers, “The sense of it is there, complete with the egg.” She reassures, “You are making and remaking the food… You’re enriching our food wherever you are.” Christine responds, “I love how you put it. With food being dynamic, with food changing, it’s about social cohesion and I think that’s the perfect way that encompasses our experience with Filipino.”
Felice went on to emphasize that Philippine cooking should be regarded as a truly elegant, refined cuisine, which Chef Charles Olalia, who grew up in the Philippines, appreciates. He shares, “In hospitality, there’s always honesty and elegance and refinement, and for [my friends] to see that and be enveloped with love and friendship and happiness of everybody that we’ve been around, I think that’s something that you can only get here. That’s what makes me come back here all the time. And hopefully we can share that over there.” Chef Alvin was also enthralled by the experience, declaring, “To see how all the restaurants that we’ve gone to, whether it’s from a stand on the side of the street to a beautiful fine dining restaurant in the mountains, it shows the diversity of what being a Filipino culinarian is.”
The group at Farmer's Market
For this happy group of chefs, restaurateurs, and journalists (who also happen to be friends), the trip gave them the opportunity to understand the larger context in which they cook Filipino food. They all hope to come back again to learn even more. As Chef Chad admits, “For certain Filipino food, I already know that I know nothing. And it makes me happy to know nothing. It makes me feel good to know that I have a lot to learn.” Billy Dec adds, “[There’s a] duty to tell the story back in America of what this really is, and what we are experiencing, and what really exists…compared to the Anthony Bourdain stuff or even worse.” Johneric Concordia succinctly puts forth the inherent responsibility this entails, “There are generations of kids who will never come back to the Philippines. They’ll never see what we’ve seen. So there’s a privilege in that, being able to offer them [these] flavors. Sometimes that’s the only way they can connect to being Filipino.” We look forward to seeing what these talented Filipino-Americans will come up with as they continue to enrich our ever-dynamic, ever evolving cuisine.
Photos by Don Reyes for Food Holidays