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The Fat Kid Inside Grows Up

With a James Beard award and his growing advocacy for local food artisans and regional cuisine, Erwan is just getting started

When Erwan Heusaff enters the heritage restaurant Cabel for this Metro.Style photo/video shoot and interview, the air crackles with his palpable star presence and quiet conviction. “Like an old Hollywood movie star,” is how shoot producer Troy Barrios puts it.  And yes, just like a classic leading man, he is giving mysterious and inscrutable. He is not one for small talk and the overt, showy greetings of the usual local celebrity; though he is proper and polite to everyone on set. No assistant, no fuss , no muss.


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The inscrutable Erwan | Justin de Jesus

He poses on the vintage home-turned-restaurant’s solid narra staircase with élan and ease. He doesn’t project or emote, but he is also confident about his angles, as he has clearly done his fair share of endorsements and publicity shoots. When the first batch of photos are done, we settle into one of the private dining rooms for the interview. His reserve thaws a bit, and as he gets into the stories of his adventures, his eyes light up and there’s a glimpse of that kid inside. That kid has literally gone places, winning the James Beard Award, nicknamed the Oscars of the food world, and embarking on amazing, hyper local trips as a de facto roving ambassador for Filipino cuisine. When we ask, do you like interviews, he smiles sheepishly, and says softly, “Yes, actually, more than (getting my) photos (taken)!”


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As a content creator, he's on a mission to find the narratives of food | Justin de Jesus

METRO:  It’s been a few months since the James Beard award, but we want to know more about what the journey was like for you.


ERWAN:  I first heard about the James Beard award on Top Chef, and some of the guys there would be introduced as ‘James Beard’ nominees and I would think, if they didn’t win, why do they include it in their bio?  And it was only through the years that I realized why. Even here in Manila, so many people were getting so excited about my nomination and wanting to know more about it and that was a surprise. Actually, one of my guys just told me matter of factly that they were going to submit our videos. We never, never expected to win. I flew out to Chicago alone, partly because I didn’t want to ask someone to come such a long way just to see me lose. The ceremony is rather long, and as I was looking around , I realized that I was the only guy there who wasn't working in the US, which actually made me feel better.  Like if I didn’t win, then at least, I still got some visibility and awareness for the Philippines. The people who won clearly had prepared their speeches, which I didn't do since I really never thought I would win. So mentally, I sort of put a speech together inside my head. I was jetlagged. I was wearing  a barong, so I was sticking out like a sore thumb.


When I heard my mispronounced name, it really took me a few seconds to react. I somehow made my speech and exited the stage. I was just so relieved that I was able to get through my speech. At the after party, I got to meet some really great people. And as I was looking around, I just had to ask myself a few times, Am I really here? I met Rick Bayless, so surreal, and we agreed on so many things.  He had actually been to the Philippines and we talked a bit about his trip here. I met Kenji Lopez-Alt, and we have talked about his work in our videos, and used some of his articles .  


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A poster boy for evolution, Erwan has been eater, story teller, restaurateur, and now, award winner | Justin de Jesus

METRO:  There were also three other Filipinos who won this year; do you feel that you are part of a wave of Filipino culinary recognition?


ERWAN:  I don’t know if it’s a wave, but there is definitely more visibility. The Fil-Am chefs are doing a great job of representation. I ate at Kasama in Chicago and I knew that the food had Filipino influences, but I didn’t know just how Filipino the entire menu was!


It is going to take a lot for Filipino cuisine to really get the recognition it deserves, and it has to come from everyone, from all sectors, so from the Jollibee's to the Metiz and the Toyo’s; to the farmers to have access to better funding and distribution so that produce can really be delivered efficiently ; it’s not just from one sector.


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He has a genuine pleasure in discovering local artisans, entrepeneurs, ingredients, dishes. | Justin de Jesus

METRO:  In a way, you’re like a poster boy for career evolution and adaptation.  You maximized the blogging era; you went from a very personal type of content to developing campaigns for food advocacy; and yet you have remained consistent in your mission of telling narratives, the story is the core of your brand.


ERWAN:  Both my parents were not particularly well-off, but they both had such colorful lives.  My dad was with the French Navy, my mom was with the Bayanihan Dancers and they met and fell in love with Cairo. Growing up quite sheltered in Makati, I always felt that I also wanted to to have more adventures in my life.  Not many people know that I was born in Manila and lived here until I went to college in Paris. In Paris, people love to say, ‘Oh there are no jobs!’  But it’s because they are snobbish about the kinds of job they want to take. I saw a job opportunity in Siberia and took it. And then I took that company from a deficit to break even, which wasn't bad. When I returned to Manila, again, I wasn't afraid to just try things out. I know that some people called me a failed restaurateur but, well, (Gallic shrug here) actually I am still in the restaurant business, like my consultancy with the Palace group and Chingolo, a deli that serves Bolzico Beef, which is a business I have with my brother in law Nico; so its just not that visible. Not like in Niner where I would literally do the bartending and with just one look, I knew who would be writing on their social media, ‘Erwan Heusaff sucks.’  I could tell who would come to the bar to be a hater. They wouldn't look me in the eyes.


And I remember that one of the criticisms against me was how could I comment or feature Filipino food when I wasn’t ‘Filipino enough.’  So that’s when it got me thinking, what does it mean to be ‘Filipino enough’?  That led me to wanting to really explore the Philippines more.


We never forget that we are creating for social media.  So we have to keep it entertaining, we have to tell the stories that will keep people interested. But if at the same time, it can have more of an impact; for example, I will tell you what happened when we featured the artisanal salt makers in Bohol. So when we interviewed them, they told us that they wanted to close the business, no one was interested in salt made the old way. But after the video came out, they had such great demand and the governor of Bohol even included them as one of the official tourist attractions, which I was so happy about because I’m all for supporting agritourism.  So what we did was, with the money we got from the video, we shared it with them and they were able to expand their business. And so when we make our presentations,  I always tell my clients, with us, you are already doing an indirect CSR (corporate social responsibility ) because we are always investing in the communities we feature.


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Having carved out a niche in the über competitve world of food media, what's next for Erwan Heussaff? | Justin de Jesus

METRO:  Since the scope of your company has grown, it made sense to rebrand your YOUTUBE channel and company name to FEATR, but you still maintained the name The Fat Kid Inside for your production studio.


ERWAN: Well, it still exists as a business.  But I guess, just like how I chose it as the title for my original blog, it somehow signifies that even if I’ve lost all that weight, and my body did change, part of that insecurity and drive to change will always be with me.


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Enjoying Cabel's piyanggang manok. This heritage restaurant is a showcase of Filipino cuisine from Luzon to Mindanao. | Justin de Jesus
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METRO:  So what comes next?  What are the dream projects for you?


ERWAN:  Oh wow, well we are doing a documentary on local honey.  There’s footage of this 60, 70 year old guy who just climbs up the coconut tree, gets the beehive and neatly puts it in a Rebisco tin. When we asked if we could have the tin, so we could shoot it, he says, ‘But you have to give it back, it’s the only one I use.’ We are also planning on documentaries on coffee and chocolate.  We really want to do it well; and then, I want to do a documentary that I will exclusively be working on, like just that project for six months or so and we hope to be able to eventually submit that for an Emmy. Hopefully, that’s the trajectory we are on.


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As we wrap up the interview, Erwan then has to go into another dining room for his last set of photos. When asked to eat the dishes before him, he eagerly digs in and starts to eat the chicken with his hands, finger lickin’ good style.  Feeling his devotion to his work and seeing how much he is loving the food prepared for him, he is the perfect example of how passion, pleasure, and purpose propel a journey; and how being true to yourself means your path is open to endless possibilities.



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Shot on location at Cabel Filipino Heritage Cuisine, formerly known as Casa Roces, an historic two-storey house built in the 1930s. The restaurant is a showcase of Filipino culture and cuisine, from Luzon to Mindanao. Private parties can be held in the elegant, second-floor rooms, while an al fresco garden space is the perfect spot for sunset drinks and cocktails. | Call 02 85501781 | 1153 J.P. Laurel corner Aguado Streets, San Miguel, Manila.


Photographer: Justin de Jesus | Videographer: CJ Reyes | Producer/Sittings Editor: Troy Barrios | Special thanks to JC Cabel Moreno and Miguel Cabel Moreno.