“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates
The poem, “For Filipina/x Americans Who See Themselves Thru Anthony Bourdain”, was published on The Offing, an online literary magazine, which publishes work that challenges and provokes. And that’s exactly what the poem written by Janice Lobo Sapigao does – it challenges and provokes.
Intrigued? We asked Janice what prompted her to write it and included the link to her poem below.
But wait. Don’t scroll down just yet. Not before you meet Janice Sapigao. Janice is a Filipina writer, poet, and educator born and raised in San José, California. She is also one of the much-revered story and recipe contributors to our forthcoming Filipino Food anthology, My Food Beginnings.
Her first book of poetry, Microchips for Millions, about immigrant women in the Silicon Valley who make microchips, is launching this month.
Here’s a sneak peek:
An excerpt from Microchips for Millions:
MFB: What was it like for you to grow up in the U.S.?
JS: This is a question that I still ask myself. As a Filipina American – and this is well-documented in my poetry and writings, just as it is in my Filipina American scholarship – I come up against questions about accessing language, culture, and information and I sit (not very well) with half-answers wondering about being, saying, or doing enough that depicts my past or changing identities.
I am still writing a novel entitled Where Did You Get All Those English From?, which seeks to answer so many questions regarding how I grew up within my household, and how I grew up in the US. I find traces of how I grew up in the following books and texts that, for me, describe very well the in-betweenness I felt:
The Babysitters Club series and The Babysitters Club Little Sister series by Ann M. Martin
JS:My poem, “For Filipina/x Americans Who See Themselves Thru Anthony Bourdain,” was published in an online literary journal I love, The Offing. The Offing seeks out work by writers who are often marginalized in literary spaces – which is important because many Filipina/x writers write out of these spaces. I love that my poem was published during 2016 Filipina/x American History Month.
I wrote it because I saw that, in Spring 2016, a lot of folks were re-posting and re-tweeting links about chef Anthony Bourdain’s trip to the Philippines in late 2015. I’m always weary of travelogues, travel shows, and people (celebrities and everyday people – even my own friends or acquaintances) who make tourism and traveling a sport. I’m weary and critical about these things because the consumption of food and culture is inherently linked to (often unchecked) privilege. I think that, if anything, checking one’s privilege allows folks to think about who they are, where they are, and most importantly, who they are not.
Why do Filipina/xs extend care or pride or see themselves when a white male chef is whitesplaining ourselves and culture back to us?
I wrote the poem because, as social media friends were seeing the Philippines through Bourdain’s eyes – or Bourdain’s camera – I took (and still take) issue with the newfound or renewed sense of pride in being / being from the Philippines. Bourdain himself wrote, “It’s not even about Filipinos — as my experience, however intimate, is limited in the extreme.” I appreciate and respect Bourdain for writing that in the article that accompanies the full episode, because, it is so true! It is limited, Bourdain. Which means, yes, ours as viewers is limited, too. I wonder, why do Filipina/xs extend care or pride or see themselves when a white male chef is whitesplaining ourselves and culture back to us?
I want readers to think about these particular lines from the poem:
“Why drum the remote to find home.
Why not drive the knife into the accent
they baked for you.
Why not julienne the blessing with your bare hands.”
MFB: Based on your observations/experiences, how are Filipinos and Filipino food viewed in America?
JS: I wonder if this is where I should talk about halo-halo with soft tofu, popcorn, and gummy bears, and energy drinks, or ube as the newest flavor after green tea and coconut.
I wonder if this is where I offer an opinion on white people doing Filipino food pop-ups or food trucks.
I wonder if this is where I reflect on white folks eating tilapia on banana leaves with a spoon and fork.
I think about point-point (turo-turo) restaurants, or point-point restaurants at markets, and how I love them so, but cannot, and wish I could, order in Tagalog or Ilokano.
I think about my Auntie Luz, in Maui, who knows so many people who work at the Maui Flea Market. I think about how we both talked with the Ilokano workers at the Maui lavender farm, as they crouched down pulling weeds while we sat on a bench.
I think about how my step-dad had dreams of opening up his own restaurant once he arrived in America. And the shame I felt when I was little, and insisted that our family eat at McDonald’s or In-N-Out instead of at a Filipino restaurant that closed six months after it opened in Milpitas (6+1, I still remember you!). We got our food in the drive-thru lane that day, and my step-dad took his Big Mac only to put it in our refrigerator for later eating (or throwing away).
I think about how, every week for two years, I bought all of my groceries at Seafood City (a supermarket chain specializing in Filipino & other Asian goods)at Eagle Rock Plaza.
All of these moments thread together the present and simultaneously fleeting. These are my memories that are telling about my exact thoughts on how Filipinos and Filipino food is viewed in America.
MFB: If you could only have one Filipino dish for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
JS:Filipino breakfast! Filipino breakfast is so versatile! It’ll always include rice, some (sweet meat) protein, and fried, runny eggs. I like it with diced tomato and onion.
I could eat a late night meal or breakfast from any of the following places: Coffee Adventure in Milpitas, CA, or Tselogs in Daly City, CA; or Lucky Chances in Colma, CA; or Toppings Tree in Santa Clara, CA; or LA Rose Café in Los Angeles.
Is culinary snobbery for real in Italy? Mamma mia! If you ask me, I’d say yes in a heartbeat. I’ve experienced it firsthand. My mother-in-law is Italian! Although I’ve never lived in Italy, we’ve visited at least once every year for the past 18 years.
One time, we were at my in-laws on my son’s birthday, so I volunteered to make the birthday cake – strawberry shortcake, his favorite. After the birthday song was sung and birthday candles blown, I cut into the three alternating layers of sponge and strawberry with cream cake and served everyone, including my dear suocera (mother-in-law), a slice.
I immediately sensed her hesitation. She examined the cake with skepticism before she mustered the courage to dig in. She forked a tiny morsel into her mouth.
Nose turned up, she pushed her plate of cake away. Her verdict? “Nauseante”, meaning nauseating. If I didn’t see my son and husband, who are also Italians by the way, but the kinds who don’t live in Italy, devour their pieces of cake with gusto, I probably would have burst into tears.
Don’t get me wrong. My mother-in-law is not a snob. She is a wonderful, humble lady who slaves over in the kitchen and waits on her family on hand and foot. But when it comes to food, she is a tough one to please. And while she doesn’t represent the entire Italian public, I’m sure she’s not the only one in Italy, who regards anything foreign-made, meaning any food prepared by someone who lives from 30 miles away and further, with utmost suspicion.
My point? For a Filipina to break into food in Italy is probably as difficult as scaling the legendary summit of Monte Bianco. That is why I was so thrilled when I found out about Rome-based Rowena Dumlao-Giardina, an accomplished Filipina food and travel writer, recipe developer and food photographer, who’s making her mark in Italy.
Rowena is the lady behind Apron and Sneakers, a blog about cooking and travelling in and beyond Italy. How is her blog different from others in Italy? Hers has two doors open to two worlds of cuisines: Asian or Filipino inspired cuisine and Italian cuisine.
On Apron and Sneakers, Rowena shares her experiences visiting wineries, restaurants and hotels. She attributes the success of her blog to the wide scope of categories she tackles, which sparks the interest of her audience. Likewise, her photography is a strong magnet to her work.
My Food Beginnings was not the first to notice Rowena’s flourishing career. She’s been interviewed and featured in both Italian and international sites and magazines, such as Juan in EU.
Her work takes her far and beyond the confines of her own home. In August 2015, she, together with other media people, were invited to spend a day at ALMA Scuola Internazionale di Cucina Italiana, the world’s leading international training center for Italian Cuisine, directed by Italian Master Chef Gualtiero Marchesi. During this visit, she stayed in the kitchens and classrooms with the other students and was also one of the judges of the school’s culinary competition that awarded the winning student a scholarship.
Rowena(left) at ALMA Culinary School
Outside of Italy, she participated in press tours and events in Georgia, Bulgaria,Turkey, Spain and the Netherlands. In the Hague, she was invited to a dinner event to promote Philippine cuisine with Purple Yam owners Chef Romy Dorotan and Amy Besa at the residence of Ambassador Jaime Victor Badillo Ledda of the Philippine Embassy in the Netherlands.
Rowena with Ambassador Ledda
When Rowena is not traveling, she works at home full-time, creating recipes, cooking them and photographing what she has cooked.
The daughter of Nimfa B. Dumlao, originally from Marinduque and the late Capt. Ramon S. Dumlao, originally from Tarlac, Rowena grew up in the Southern part of Metro Manila.
Capt. Dumlao, Rowena’s father, was a pilot for the UN. He died while on duty in Angola. After her father’s tragic passing in 1999, Rowena travelled alone to Europe for a much needed soul searching. With nothing more than her worldly needs in a backpack and a eurail pass, she journeyed across Europe for a month and a half, starting from Madrid. It was at the Madrid train station outbound to Lisbon where Rowena met her future husband, who was also then a traveler.
“It was the beginning of a wonderful journey all over Europe. We would meet in some cities and amazingly, make a lifelong commitment. I moved to Italy in the same year,” she reminisces.
How She Got Started in Food and with Apron and Sneakers
Like many Filipinos in the Philippines, Rowena grew up without minding the kitchen and what went on in that part of the house.
“There was always someone who took care of the food and it always arrived on the table. I did have an interest in cooking but when I tried to follow some western recipes, I just had to give up,” said Rowena. “Most ingredients were difficult to find in the Philippines at that time.”
In Italy, without the comfort of help she was used to at home, Rowena realized how inadequate her cooking skills were. Fortunately, her mother-in-law, whom she described as “having the Sicilian genes of an incredible cook”, took her under her wing in the kitchen until her first-born child arrived.
As a mother, it was time for Rowena to hold the reigns in the kitchen. The years of training with her mother-in-law paid off. She prepared her son’s food from scratch. Nothing artificial. Nothing processed. It was, therefore, her maternal love that got her started in food.
Apron and Sneakers was a product of her cooking for her kids. At some point, her son became a very picky eater and with the birth of their second child, she had to be creative to make her kids interested in eating. She started photographing the food she prepared and posted them on Facebook. After continuous prodding by her friends to start a blog, she finally took the plunge in 2011.
On Filipino Food
Rowena describes Filipino food as a particularly unique cuisine with influences from Spanish, Chinese and Malay cuisines. At least, that’s how she recalls it was some twenty years ago when American influence had not overtaken the real essence of Filipino gastronomy. When people asked her about our cuisine, she’d say it is a rich cuisine of seafood, vegetables and meat (mostly pork), that are usually grilled on fire or cooked with coconut milk accompanied with rice, the Philippine staple, and different kinds of dipping sauces.
Filipino food in Rome
“Filipino food is still a mystery among Italians,” confirms Rowena.
She knows just a couple of establishments serving Filipino food and they cater mostly, if not exclusively, to the Filipino palate. Popularity-wise, it cannot be compared to Chinese and Japanese, which dominates the Asian cuisine market in Italy.
“I think there is a big need to open more Filipino restaurants with an Italian- friendlier approach to the cuisine, something that can bridge the gap between Filipinos and non-Filipinos,” says Rowena.
Advice for aspiring bloggers
There are three things in Rowena’s must list for blogging: passion, determination and patience.
“Love for what you’re doing transmits to your writing, which becomes a natural flow of words coming straight from your heart. If you are determined about what you started, you won’t easily give up. And of course, patience – don’t think that as soon as you start blogging, opportunities will start clamoring on your door. It takes time and patience. Blogging works for others and it doesn’t for some,” advises Rowena.
Her Filipino-based Recipes
Rowena bring elements of Filipino cuisine into many of the recipes she develops. Examples are:
After a seafood lunch of orata alla livornese in Eataly, I made my way to the seafood section to buy some shrimp to cook for dinner. As I was checking the array of oysters from Brittany, France, my eyes landed on a big container of alghe (seaweed) beside them. I went closer and was transfixed for a full minute. My mind raced back to my childhood, remembering fond memories of Sunday lunches in my grandparents’ house.
Sundays were special and when we had seafood, my grandmother made sure that we had seaweed grapes or lato salad as a side dish. I shared the love of this salad with my grandfather. Almost everyone ate it but not everyone was as crazy about it as the two of us. Maybe because seaweed grapes looked like bunches of minute grapes that I had grown attracted to or perhaps it’s because it was served as a salad mixed with onions & tomatoes and dressed with vinegar. Whatever the reason is, it remained high on my list. This salad was soon forgotten after my grandfather died when I was 12 and the Sunday lunches became lesser and lesser until my father’s family completely dwindled. The Sunday get-togethers abruptly stopped along with this salad. I never saw the seaweed grape salad on our table again.
Photo by Rowena Dumlao-Giardina
Sea Asparagus Salad with Grilled Shrimp Skewers Recipe
200 g. sea asparagus
1/2 Tropea onion (any red onion is fine), rings
cherry tomatoes, halved
1 lemon rind
black sesame seeds
extra virgin olive oil
Barolo wine vinegar (or use any vinegar you have)
8 – 10 shrimp, deveined and shelled
fresh basil leaves
Clean the sea asparagus with water. Take away the parts that are brownish. Set aside.
Boil some water in a big saucepan. Prepare a big bowl that can accommodate the sea asparagus with ice and water. When the water boils, add some salt and blanch the sea asparagus for 3 minutes. Take them with a slotted spoon and transfer them to the bowl of ice and water. Make sure that they are submerged in the water. This way, you trap the color and freshness of the sea asparagus. Once cold, drain well.
Transfer the sea asparagus to a serving bowl. Add the tomatoes & onions. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds & lemon rind. Dress with extra virgin olive oil, vinegar & salt.
Grill the shrimp on a griddle. Put 4 – 5 in a skewer, alternating with the halved tomatoes & basil.
“No one can have too many cookbooks,” wrote Marilyn Donato in a letter that came with her autographed cookbook, Philippine Cooking in America. More than just to teach the uninitiated how to cook Filipino dishes, the cookbook adorned with the Philippine map on its front cover, aims to alleviate homesickness through food.
A full-blooded, Philippine-born and raised Filipina who moved to the U.S. for her post graduate training in Dietetics, Marilyn knows what it’s like to long for our homeland’s food and be paralyzed from preparing it due to lack of experience or know-how. Growing up in a country where live-in maids are not only a privilege reserved for the rich, many Filipinos took kitchen work for granted until they have to live abroad. Lucky if you move to a place where Filipino food vendors exist. Otherwise you are left at the mercy of your own cooking skills to satisfy your hunger for your native country’s food – unless of course you can afford a Filipino cook abroad.
The first edition of Philippine Cooking in America hit the market in 1972 when there were hardly any Filipino cookbooks published in America. In fact, according to The Roanoke Times, this is believed to be the first published Philippine Cookbook in America. Forty-four years later and now on its eighth revised edition, Marilyn’ s cookbook with about 200 recipes, addresses the availability of new food products that make cooking a lot more fun and convenient.
MFB: What was it like for you to live in the US in your twenties? What did you like most and what did you like the least about living in America then?
MD: Travel is and has always been a positive adventure for me. I just loved meeting many new friends both Filipinos and Caucasians who were like family to me. I was so excited with my first snow fall, the autumn leaves, spring then summer. It is hard for me to think what was the least I liked, maybe becauseof my “Pollyanna” attitude or “anything goes”. I loved spontaneous invitations to visit a place, shop or eat someplace else.
MFB: When was the first edition of Philippine Cookbook in America conceived? Please relate to us the story that prompted you to write this cookbook?
MD: Philippine Cooking in America was conceived in 1963 in New Haven, Connecticut. I was shopping for my cooking ingredients in the store owned by a Chinese lady, whom I’ve become friends with. Her two daughters were my food servers at Yale Medical Center Hospital. In one of our conversations she said: “Marilyn, your country is the only one I do not have a cookbook from, why don’t you write a Philippine cookbook?” My pride was hurt a bit and I answered her back, “The Philippines has many published cookbooks!” But she planted the seed for me to do as she said.
MFB: Was this the first cookbook you authored? Please tell us about the challenges you went through to get a Philippine cookbook published and made available in bookstores in America.
MD: Philippine Cooking in America was the very first cookbook I authored. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagine that one day I would be publishing anything, and a cookbook at that. There were challenges but they were eased by my friendship with Mr. Glick who owned a publishing company for cookbooks in Boston, Massachusetts. According to him, next to the bible, cookbooks are the most published books.
Mr. Glicked helped and guided me on how to gather recipes from our Filipino friends, and how to distribute the finished cookbooks. My dear mother-in-law, my Ilocana live-in maid and my husband tested the recipes with me in the kitchen, writing down the procedures and measurements of ingredients. The several Filipino organizations, associations in America used the published “Philippine Cooking in America” cookbooks as their fund-raiser project and helped distribute them to Filipino stores and book stores. And since I was the syndicated food editor for several Philippine-American newspapers and magazines, a caption after each article, showed where the cookbook can be ordered from.
MFB: Who are your target readers for this cookbook?
MD: The target readers for “Philippine Cooking in America” are the whole Filipino population in the United States, Canada and Europe.
Marilyn Donato with thousands of her cookbook fan mail
MFB: You’ve sold tens of thousands of books and received thousands of letters from your readers. Which ones among the letters you received are the most memorable?
MD: I remember letters about how their meals have become more delicious and reminiscent of their meals in the Philippines and about how they never thought they could cook like “experts”. I also remember receiving a letter from a mixed household where the wife is American/Caucasian. She was so happy when her Filipino husband exclaimed: “Wow! How did you learn how to cook Filipino!”after tasting the Filipino dishes she prepared.
MFB: About how many percent of the population of Roanoke are of Filipino descent? What is the general perception on Filipinos and Filipino food in Roanoke?
MD: The population of Roanoke, VA is about 200,000 and about 5,000 are Filipinos….about 2.5 %. The general perception on Filipinos and Filipino food in Roanoke is admirable. The Filipinos in Roanoke are mostly physicians, nurses and wives of Americans. The hospitable and friendly characteristics of Filipinos in Roanoke predominate as we share our Filipino dishes with our American friends at work and in the community; when there are food festivals, church activities and school programs. We celebrate our Philippine Independence with parade and food galore as well as sale of Philippine decorations, wooden bowls, blouses, and my book “Philippine Cooking in America”.
MFB:Please describe the Filipino food scene in Roanoke? Virginia? Is Filipino food visible in the mainstream?
MD: In Roanoke, since most Filipinos are in the health field, there are no Filipino restaurants. But in Norfolk or Virginia Beach where Filipinos abound (maybe 50,000); there are Filipino eating places, markets and stores.
MFB: What advice can you give inexperienced and reluctant Filipino cooks abroad who long for Filipino food?
MD: It’s never too late in life to learn and perfect Philippine cooking. Be creative. Use substitutions the best you can, i.e. anchovies for “bagoong”. Or bring the jars of “bagoong” or bottles of ‘patis’, soy sauce, etc.When I was new in Roanoke, I talked to the managers of the supermarkets to stock fresh ginger, soy sauce, some oriental vegetables and fruits, and they did!. There is no longer a lack of oriental food products.
If it weren’t for the Filipino noodle dish, Pancit, Alexa Alfaro, her siblings and Filipino food in Milwaukee wouldn’t probably exist today. Sounds far-fetched? It won’t be after you read this story.
Once upon a time, in a faraway and sparsely populated land called Alaska, there lived a Filipino immigrant named Ray Alfaro. Ray, born and raised in Caloocan City, worked at a hospital where he met Deb Fucile, an Italian-German nurse from Wisconsin. Ray fell head over heels for Deb. Problem was he couldn’t muster the guts to ask her out. Then an idea formed. Why not get someone to do it for him? And so he asked a colleague, an avid pancit fan, to be his messenger in exchange for pancit. Long story short, Ray and Deb wed and had three children. One of them is Alexa, who now with her brother Matthew, owns Meat on the Street, the first and only Filipino food vendor in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Matthew and Alexa Alfaro
Filipino food in Milwaukee? Who would have thought that there would be a demand for this previously obscure food in this sparsely Filipino populated city? Meet Alexa Alfaro and find out how she introduced and created an addiction for Pinoy food in a city in the Midwestern U.S of A.
MFB: Have you been to the Philippines?
I visited the Philippines when I was in 5th grade for a six-week trip that turned into eight weeks. It was a trip I remember to this day. The culture and infrastructure from a developed country to one that’s just developing is permanently engraved in my memories. It was magical and heart breaking.
Our drive into the Tondo area was the heart breaking part. Along the sides of the roads were children living in cardboard boxes and tires. I’m talking three, maybe four- year old orphans.Some of these children had younger siblings, whom they had to take care of. At a very young age, they had to work and provide for their younger siblings. It was an eye opening experience for me at 10 years old.
Prior to this trip, I had taken for granted a “normal” shower, drinkable water, and Wisconsin summer temperatures. My Philippine stay included showering with a large plastic bucket and a pot. You fill up the large plastic bucket with cold water, scoop the water with the pot and dump the water on your head. Now in 115 degree weather, one shower is not enough so this was the routine usually a couple times a day.
Now let’s talk magic, aka food. To me food is magical, in taste and how it can make you feel. First experience was the street food in the Philippines. Now the US only had ice cream trucks at the time but the Philippines had everything. My cousins and I constantly snacked on mango lychee flavor ices and ate pork BBQ from the street vendors.
Next was the fish market. Now while the smell was rancid and could make you gag, the visual trumped it. Fish hanging, fish on tables, fish on bins, fish in buckets, fish in crates, nothing is refrigerated, no ice in sight, just fish for as far as the eye can see and the nose can smell.
Also, I was lucky enough to see one of the vast rice fields in the Philippines. Getting there was an adventure on its own. First, the AC went out. Second, it took forever to get there. Third, as breathtakingly scenic as it was it was equally breathtakingly terrifying – single lane road along a winding cliff. But once we were there it was an amazing sight. Level upon level upon level of green. Terraces holding water. Military with semi-automatic weapons. I now know I had the privilege to see one of the wonders of the world.
MFB: What was it like for you, of Filipino heritage, to grow up in Wisconsin?
AA: Growing up in southeastern Wisconsin and being Filipino made me stick out.
It started when myself and two younger brothers were babies. People would constantly ask my mom from where she adopted her beautiful children. My mother is Italian-German. She viewed this as an insult, replying she carried each of us for months and gave birth to us. It’s still a sore subject to this day that we all like to tease her about it.
In elementary school, I was constantly confused with another girl in my grade who had an olive skin tone. Emeli is Puerto Rican and we look nothing alike.
Growing up we always had a pot of rice with dinner and my dad would not accept macaroni and cheese as a dinner choice. My dad would allow us to eat with our hands. I only eat my rice if it has soy sauce on it which must be Kikkoman.
Other Filipinoness? My dad would crack his wing bones in half to suck out the marrow. Lastly, we started eating sushi, the raw stuff, at a young age. Overall, very Filipino.
I realized how different Filipino food culture was from American food culture when my friends would come over for dinner or go out to eat with my family. One of them referred to sinigang as lake water. Fine, more soup for us.
Also, it was a little hard to explain to your friends why your dad had a fish head the size of a football in your fridge. Yes we eat it, no it’s not that weird.
For my birthday, every year I would request as much Filipino food as my mom would allow us to make. Usually the menu consisted of pancit, lumpia, and pork BBQ on a stick. At first my friends were hesitant to try it. Now they are proudly addicted to Filipino food.
MFB: About how many Filipinos are there in Milwaukee? What is the general perception on Philippine cuisine there?
AA: There are approximately, 1,700 Filipinos in the Milwaukee area according to the Internet.General perception of Filipino cuisine is dependent on your experience. If you had it, you remember it and love it. If you are lucky, you know someone who will get you your fix or invite you over for a Filipino family party. Otherwise you were SOL (sadly outta luck) until late June of 2014…
MFB: How did you get started in food? What prompted you to set-up Meat on the Street?
AA: I began formally working in the food industry at 15, my first job was scooping ice cream. I was paid $5 an hour. From there I always worked in the food industry, Famous Daves, Buffalo Wild Wings, a raunchy beach bar, and an upscale steak house in Milwaukee. This might sound weird, but I enjoyed making people happy with food, it felt comfortable and a lot like home for me.
My early years and informal food beginnings started with my dad in the kitchen. He taught me how to chop, dice, slice, roll, skewer you name it. We would stay up late rolling eggrolls or skewering meat. He would tell me stories about his childhood and family. To this day my dad brags of my lumpia rolling ability. He would make all sorts of different food with different flavor and spices. I am almost always willing to try it.
Meat on the Street began in late June of 2014. It started when I was working as an engineering sales intern. My summer project was to determine if the company was losing money based on their current quoting procedure. Based on my data and results I determined they were and it was a lot to me. They told me awesome job and they might present it to the big wigs at their yearly meeting. I thought if a company can potentially be losing X amount of dollars and run while profiting I can definitely run a business.
I knew engineering was not going to be my long term happiness and I asked myself what would make me happy. I kept gravitating back to food. It had been a running joke since I was 12 that my dad would open up his own restaurant. I thought, well, why not make that joke a reality. I researched food trucks on a national level, then at the local level. I looked at competition in Filipino cuisine, Asian cuisine, and then food truck wise. It was a no brainier. People loved our food. We would serve it at every big party and there were no leftovers. Guest would ask, when is the meat-on-a-stick arriving? That was when the idea of a Filipino food truck was born.
Now telling your Filipino father who is an electrical engineer when you are in engineering school that you want to drop out 22 weeks from a degree to pursue a Filipino food truck is downright gut wrenching. That’s why you start with your mom. Her reply, “That’s interesting.” Thanks for the words of encouragement mom. Finally I worked up the courage and pitched the idea to my dad. His response was the purchase of a used WE Energies truck in the middle of December.
Three seasons in and it still feels like a dream. We have been so well received by the city of Milwaukee. People love the food. Whether they are first timers or looking for a little home cooking.
The name came from my brother’s friend, Josh. He is insanely intelligent and I do believe you will know his name one day. My brother Christian asked him for suggestions. Meat on the Street was one of them. It was a done deal.
MFB: Please define your concept, target market and goals for Meat on the Street. Long-term plans?
Alexa and Matthew Alfaro in their Meat on the Street Filipino food truck at Kilbourn Park, Milwaukee, Wis., Tuesday August 16, 2016
AA: Meat on the Street’s concept is authentic Filipino food and traditional American food with Filipino twists. Our menu consists of BBQ sticks, aka meat on a stick. This is common street food in the Philippines. We serve beef, chicken, or pork. We have white rice, our delicious garlic rice, and pancit, a traditional Filipino rice noodle dish with vegetables and seasonings. We also serve pork adobo, chicken binakol, and lumpia rolls. We sell an American version of kimchi which is our veggie slaw. It’s a green and red cabbage, carrots, and onions with a sriracha, soy-honey dressing.
Our target market is anyone who is hungry. Our menu has been designed to provide meals of substance, meat and carbs and/or veggies. We have elder Filipino who enjoy our food and little kids whose parents come back for 2-3 orders because their child enjoyed it so much and they didn’t get any.
As for now, Meat on the Street is Milwaukee’s only Filipino food vendor. We are expanding this year into a food court styled location at ELEVEN25, 1125 N. 9th St. Grand opening is on Dec.5. This space will be open Monday through Sunday from 10am to 9pm. Our menu will include our current truck menu, with plans to add more Filipino dishes and ramen. There is seating inside and we will offer take-out.
With our Milwaukee location underway, I am looking at Madison for our 2nd location with some type of mobile cart. Chicago area is a 5 year plan for us.
MFB: Which Filipino dishes are the favorites?
AA:Meat on the Street’s best selling dishes are garlic rice, pork adobo, and the meat sticks.
Meat on the Street’s Adobo Bowl
The number one question for the garlic rice is, “What’s the secret ingredient?” To which we reply, “Garlic.” There is no secret to our garlic rice. It’s white rice, garlic, oil, salt and pepper. We have customers who come back for seconds or have eaten with us before and purchase two orders right away. One for now, one for later (maybe a few minutes later, wink, wink).
The adobo is like a blast from the past for many Filipinos in the area. I’ve found that the younger generations of Filipinos are less likely to be able to cook the food. They find the truck and are ecstatic. For them, it’s as close to being in their nanay’s or lola’s kitchens. We’ve heard our adobo is out of this world, I would die for this dish, and more.
A conversation I was lucky enough to overhear was a guy eating our pancit at a Milwaukee County Zoo event we attend. He took a bite, looked at his wife, and said, “I miss my mom.” For us, there is no greater compliment.
The meat sticks is where it all began. Our first year of the truck, this was the only item on the menu, meat sticks with a side of white rice, garlic rice, or pancit. People of all ages love them. Children will come back three, sometimes four times. Their parents are willing to buy their children as many as they want. Other times, adult men will order two sticks, come back for three, and then come back for three more. The most we have ever sold to a single person is 21 in 15 minutes. He claims his family kept eating his; we never judge how many sticks you order.
MFB: How far is Filipino food from crossing over in Wisconsin? What else can be done to give it a boost?
AA: Unfortunately, Filipino food has awhile to go in Wisconsin. We are the only Filipino food vendor in Milwaukee. There is a Filipino cart with American-Filipino cuisine, and possibly one more location more north-west?
The best thing for Filipino cuisine is awareness. Once you have it, you know it and are addicted to it. We have people who will glance at the menu; a Filipino dish catches their eye and BAM! They are ordering and excited.
MFB: What do you consider as your greatest challenges and accomplishments as the co-owner of Meat on the Street?
Greatest challenge in the beginning was getting people to try our food. We are seen as ethnic food and Matt and myself look Filipino. This sometimes makes people wary to try us. We have had our friends come down, given them free food to stand outside the truck and eat. People will then stop and ask about it and are more willing to give us a try.
The other challenge, as anyone who has worked in a family owned business is working with family. It is great, don’t get me wrong. I feel very blessed to be able to do this with some of the people I hold closest to my heart. However, you try working with your siblings and parents on a 90 foot square box in the midst of a crazy event with 50 people in line on a hot day. Let me know how it goes. It can get heated. We are all able to laugh about it after the fact but in that moment it’s a different story.
Meat on the Street in Milwaukee
Our greatest accomplishment is where we are today. We have met so many individuals who love our food, Filipino’s who have flashbacks when eating our food, and the success we have had to this point. It is truly amazing to me that I can say that I own and operate a food truck for a living with my brother. That is great accomplishment, being able to have a personal and working relationship with Matt. The business strains it for temporary moments but it also strengthens it.
My mom tells people when asked, our greatest accomplishment is legacy, the present lives on through the past. Our legacy as American-Filipino sibling entrepreneurs is to be able to simultaneously share our culture and have each other’s back. It brings tears to her eyes.
MFB: If someone asks for your opinion about the viability of opening a Filipino-inspired restaurant in your area, what would you say?
AA: I would say there definitely is viability. This was our goal and we are excited for this next chapter in our business. We think our ELEVEN25 location will be well received in the downtown Milwaukee area.
I definitely think starting with a food truck was the better route. It got our name out there, we were able to market ourselves to a large audience all over the Milwaukee area as opposed to settling in one permanent location and getting people to come to you. I believe if you are passionate and willing to put your heart and soul into it, anything is possible.
Oct. 15,2016 is the return of Savor Filipino, the big Filipino food event launched by the Filipino Food Movement that woke national interest in 2014. This year’s theme is “buksan”, meaning to open – a call to the public to open their minds and their palates to various chef interpretations of Filipino dishes that will be offered at the event.To be held at The Overlook Lounge in Oakland, California, tickets are priced at $64 – $199.
We asked the co-founderand VP of the Filipino Food Movement what she considers as her accomplishments and frustrations as a Filipino food advocate. But first, a brief personal introduction: US born to Filipina mother, Joanne Boston-KwanHull, lives in Daly City, south of San Francisco. Filipinos makeup the biggest population in Daly City that this tongue-in-cheek, hyperbolic claim is often told:
“You know why it’s always foggy in Daly City, right? Because all the Filipinos turn on their rice cookers at the same time.”
Joanne presents herself as a 9 to 5 employee at a medical accounting firm in San Francisco and a 24/ 7 Filipino food advocate. She spearheaded projects, such as Project Adobo and kapaMEALya, and is the Vice President of The Filipino Food Movement (FFM), a non-profit, community-driven organization to help mainstream Filipino cuisine.
I quote from the FFM website, text that resonated with me and I’m sure would resonate with most Filipinos around the globe too:
“We believe that the story of our culture, and indeed ourselves, is programmed into the DNA of each ingredient, no matter where it is grown; each dish, no matter how it has evolved; and each cook, no matter where he or she may come from. “
MFB: As an advocate of Filipino food culture, what do you consider as your biggest achievement? Biggest frustration?
Sous Vide Pork Adobo with brocolli rabe & fried mushrooms by Chef Jerrick Figueroa at Pampalasa Restaurant in San Francisco.
JBK: I would have to say that Savor Filipino (the country’s first Filipino Festival) was our biggest achievement and frustration. It was a triumph because 30,000 people came to the event! This was the first Filipino food-focused event ever held in San Francisco. Being part of the steering team was a great learning experience. Again, it took a lot of hard work, lots of late meetings and sleepless nights. We noticed a lot of things before, during, and after the event:
1) Filipino chefs were eager to work with us during this event and they did not hesitate to collaborate with each other. This was great to see.
2) Patrons were saying that the prices were too high. It almost made me think that they did not believe value can be put into Filipino food. We had top-notch, nationally known chefs cooking dishes that can appear in a white table cloth restaurant. Yet, there is this ridiculous belief that Asian food – especially Filipino food – should be “cheap.” At this event, we had quality ingredients made by quality chefs. Nothing cheap about that.
3) There are still people who cannot let go of the fact that Filipino food is evolving before our very eyes. Filipino food is special to our chefs because it is so attached to their memories and families. They like to pay homage to a moment in time or even a person in their life through a dish that they fashioned themselves, but was motivated by a traditional Filipino dish. Old school believers do not like that. I highly doubt that the Filipino food from 2010 is the same as the dishes in 1910, 1810, 1710, and 1610. Sure the evolution came over a course of centuries, but now there is a fear that the integrity of the dishes we know and love will be lost if it is customized too much. That’s totally understandable, but we also have to understand that we can respect the traditional and give room for the contemporary at the same time. Change always comes with time.
MFB: What is your advice to the global Filipino diaspora who would like Philippine cuisine to be globally recognized?
JBK: Be present. Go to Filipino events. Go to family parties. Cook the food. Do anything that will potentially teach someone about the cuisine. Share it on a blog. Take photos. Teach a class. Cook a dish for your friends from a Filipino cookbook. We need to expose the food. All the while, we need to keep an open mind.
We shouldn’t judge someone else’s adobo or afritada because it will never be exactly as how you grew up with it. We shouldn’t write off anyone else’s dish just because it doesn’t look or taste like your mom’s. Enjoy it for what it is. If we constantly compare our standard to everyone else’s version, we will be disappointed majority of the time.
A lot of people tell me that because there is this competitive spirit in Filipinos, it will be naturally hard to impress each other. This is why people refuse to eat out and prefer to have Filipino food at home. If they choose to eat out, they’d rather eat Japanese, Italian, Indian, etc. This can be why there is a lack of restaurants.
MFB: What’s your goal in the next few years?
JBK: It may not be a goal that will be accomplished by me, but I hope that there is constant Filipino representation on mainstream television. I hope there will be a go-to figure that will educate the general public about the dishes. Another goal I have been holding is to open a Filipino culinary culture center somewhere in the Bay Area. I live in Daly City – one of the most Filipino-dense cities in the country. I would love to open one near there. It would be a place where we can have workshops, wine tastings, pop-up dinners, chef seminars, classes and so on. The sky’s the limit! My general goal is to have Filipino food recognized as a delicious cuisine that isn’t automatically linked to Fear Factor.
How old were you when you figured out what you really wanted to do for a living?
At a very tender age of two, Christian Andre Pettersen (CAP) already showed an inclination for his future vocation. Tuxedo-clad, the toddler Christian played waiter in his father’s fish restaurant in Bodø, a town in the North of Norway. At nine years old, he was Dad’s little kitchen assistant assigned to scouring pots and pans, washing dishes and peeling vegetables. Year after year, his duties expanded and by the time he turned eighteen, he was snatching awards at prestigious competitions from doyens of Norway’s gastronomy. Now at twenty-seven, he’s unstoppable. He has garnered an enviable 11 golds, 8 silvers and 1 bronze like a man with a mission – a mission to live a dream.
Christian’s father, mentor and inspiration lived long enough to see his son live his dreams. Before Christian’s father passed on in 2013, Christian made him a promise – to stand on the podium as the champion of the culinary equivalent of the Olympics – Bocuse d’Or. It’s a promise he’s determined to keep. Next year, Christian is one of the acclaimed chefs who will be vying for the ticket to represent the country at Bocuse D’Or Europe.
We agreed to meet with Filipino-Norwegian Christian at Restaurant Mondo located by the harbor of Sandnes in Norway, where he’s the Head Chef. He was meticulously plating food at the restaurant’s open kitchen when we arrived. His focus on his work was unmistakable: slightly furrowed brows, head bent over the food on the counter, tattooed arms in motion; it was almost petrifying to announce our presence. As we spoke with him later on, his features softened.
MFB:Please tell us more about your Filipino heritage.
CAP: My mother, Charito Billones , hailed from Carmen, Cebu. My father met her in 1987 in Cebu when he set sail across the Pacific and along the coastal countries of Asia, including the Philippines.
MFB: Have you been to the Philippines? What was the experience like for you?
CAP:I’ve been seven times, but I was very young then. The last time was when I was 12 years old. I don’t remember much, but what stood out to me was the Halo-Halo. I found its interesting mix of textures and cooling quality in contrast to the hot weather refreshing. I also remember trips to exotic islands.
MFB: How strong is your exposure to Filipino food and culture?
CAP:My mother often prepared Filipino food at home, like adobo, pancit and spring rolls. There was always rice on the table – even for breakfast. My father also prepared Norwegian food so I grew up with food from both worlds. That’s why I’m referred to as the East meets West Chef.
There is a big Filipino community up there in the north. We attended many get-togethers. Sometimes traditional Filipino dancing using bamboo poles (Tinikling) was showcased.
I also had a very Catholic upbringing and attended mass every Sunday. I served as an altar boy.
MFB: What was it like for you, of mixed heritage, to grow-up in Norway?
CAP:I was born and raised in Norway. I never felt like an outsider. As a boy, one of the starkest differences I noticed was in our religious practices. We went to church every Sunday, while most Norwegians didn’t. It was tempting to sleep in and relax on Sundays, but not for us, we were in church at 11am. No excuses.
MFB: Please tell us about your father, who inspired you to be a chef.
CAP:My father, who was a chef and restaurant owner, was my inspiration and mentor. Actually, he urged me not to become a chef. As a chef himself, he knew that it is a very demanding occupation. The job requires a lot of hard work and can take over your life. My father and I had a discussion about this. After proving my skills and passion, we settled that if I was going to pursue my career as a chef, I should be the best of the best.
My father inspired me to do great things. He taught me that life has no limitations except the ones you create for yourself. That’s something I always keep in my mind. I’m living my dream right now, thanks to those words.
I’ve competed 20 times and won a medal each time, making me one of the chefs in Norway with the most participation in professional culinary competitions. My father lived to see me reap awards. In the end, I became his inspiration.
MFB: Which one among the 20 competitions you participated in stands head and shoulders above all the rest?
Nordic Championship June 2015 Denmark
The Norwegian Culinary Championship I won in 2011 is the most memorable. I was the youngest chef in Norway to win it. I was only 21 at the time and competed with the country’s seasoned chefs. It helped me become who I am today.
MFB: Bochus D’or is said to be the most prestigious gastronomic competition in the world. How close are you to getting the most coveted golden trophy?
CAP: Bocuse d’Or Norway will be held in January, 2017. I hope to be one of the six to compete. The winners at the Nationals will represent Norway in the European Selection in 2018. Winners at the European will compete in the Bocuse d’Or World Grand Finale in Lyon in 2019.
MFB: Can you give us an example of a dish you created where you incorporated Filipino flavors and cooking techniques into the food?
CAP:I made pancit, but instead of using noodles, I used thinly sliced cabbage. I infused it with flavors and served it with crispy pata (pork leg). I gave crispy pata a twist by using pig’s ears, which I popped to achieve a very crispy texture. I crushed it and coated the meat with it. I’ve served this to top chefs in Norway and they really enjoyed it.
MFB: Mondo opened in June 2016, while Stavanger is still suffering from an oil crisis. What prompted the opening of Mondo? What is the concept and how is it unique? Any plans of introducing Filipino-inspired dishes at Mondo?
CAP: The price of oil is low now so the only way for it to go is up. Mondo was born during an economic downturn and positioned to be stronger in an upturn. So far, we’re doing very well. The restaurant is full every night.
In Mondo, which means world, we use local ingredients and take inspiration from cooking techniques and spices from around the world. We have a changing 5-course and 9-course menu and occasionally include my takes on my Filipino favorites: halo-halo, crispy pata and adobo.
MFB: What is your advice to aspiring Filipino chefs in Norway.
It’s an American Dream in the making. Or shall we say a Filipino- American Dream. Paolo Dungca, one of the founders and chefs of Timpla, a supper club in Washington DC, isn’t ashamed of his humble food beginnings.
Born in San Fernando, Pampanga and raised in Paranaque, Metro Manila, Paolo followed his mother and brother to the land of opportunity when he was thirteen. The United States has become his home since.
Paolo’s first job in the food industry was a dishwasher in a restaurant in Disneyland. Working there cemented his passion and aspirations to rise in the kitchen’s hierarchy. From the lowest rung of the ladder, Paolo toiled his way up. A few years later he was working elbow- to-elbow with distinguished chefs, such as Chef Kevin Meehan in Los Angeles, , Chef Jeffrey Buben in Washington, DC and Chef Cathal Armstrong in Alexandria.
Together with his three teammates, Paolo utilizes his finely honed skills into creating masterful dishes for Timpla, a Filipino word for a blend or a mix. Just as their name suggests, their food is neither Filipino nor American, but a blend of their cultural identities – Filipino-American.
Timpla Team ( JR, Kristina, Katrina, and Paolo)
MFB: What was it like for you, of Filipino heritage, to move to the US?
PD: It was tough assimilating to a new country as a teenager because of the language barrier and cultural differences, but luckily we moved to Los Angeles, CA where there were many Filipinos. It felt like home. However, many Filipinos in LA couldn’t speak Tagalog, so interestingly the language barrier was just as apparent with Fil-Ams as it was with Americans.
In terms of food, I never really experienced a shift. When I moved to America I was old enough to understand the difference between Filipino and American cuisines. Furthermore, there are numerous Filipino joints in Los Angeles so I never really felt deprived: Jollibee was 10 minutes away from my house, Goldilocks was nearby, Gerry’s Grill, Seafood City, Chow King, etc. I always had Filipino food around me, unlike my Timpla teammates JR, Katrina, and Kristina, who growing up, had to travel 4-5 hours to the closest Jollibee.
MFB: How did you get started in food? What prompted you and your team to set-up Timpla?
PD: My first restaurant job was washing dishes at Golden Vine Winery (GVW) in Disneyland.
Golden Vine Winery in Disneyland
While working, I saw my friends in the kitchen cooking with pressed white coats and face glimmering from the grill fires. I wanted to be like them. So when a position opened up in the kitchen, I applied for it and became a line cook. That’s when I fell in love with cooking. I loved the adrenaline, the rush, the push, the intensity of the kitchen, and the true value of teamwork. I loved the process of creating something from start to finish, the reward of creating something delicious and seeing the satisfaction from guests. I worked at GVW for 3 years and worked my way from line cook to lead line. I enjoyed the ambience at GVW but wanted to expand my knowledge of culinary arts and learn about different cuisines and techniques.
After leaving GVW, I met Chef Kevin Meehan of Kali Restaurant in Los Angeles, CA.
Paolo (left) with Chef Kevin Meehan (right)
At the time, he was doing supper clubs and that was when I learned the ins and outs of running a supper club. He served contemporary California cuisine using local ingredients and modern techniques. It was under his mentorship that I realized that I wanted to imitate his style, but with Filipino cuisine.
In 2014, I moved to the east coast and worked at Vidalia in Washington, DC, where I was exposed to the fine dining scene in DC.
Chef Paolo (right) with Chef Jeffrey Buben (left), owner & chef of Vidalia
While working at Vidalia, I was offered a sous chef position at an upcoming Filipino restaurant, Bad Saint. I helped open Bad Saint working alongside Chef Tom Cunanan, where I learned how to push the boundaries of Filipino cuisine. He taught me the importance of researching different regions in the Philippines and going in-depth to unearth the stories behind the dishes.
Bad Saint- Filipino Restaurant in DC
Paolo (left) with Chef Tom Cunanan of Bad Saint (right)
I am currently a sous chef at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia. Working under acclaimed Chef Cathal Armstrong has taught me the importance of using quality products to create the best food, as well as the grit and discipline needed to become a great restaurant.
Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo Credit: Restaurant Eve
Coincidentally, Chef Cathal is opening a Filipino, Thai and Korean Restaurant all under one roof in D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront in fall 2017. The upcoming Asian restaurant will be named after the Filipino word for left, Kaliwa.
Paolo with Chef Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve
MFB: Please define your concept for Timpla. How is it different from other Filipino-themed supper clubs?
Chef Paolo’s version of Kare-Kare: Braised Oxtail, Charred Eggplant, Baby Bokchoy,Wild Mushrooms, Shrimp Paste Gel, Peanut Veloute
PD: Timpla’s supper club consists of a 5-course menu displaying Filipino dishes with modern culinary techniques and seasonal inspirations. As Filipino-Americans, we cannot distinguish ourselves as either Filipino or American, but as combinations of both cultures. When constructing our dishes, we take inspiration from our blended cultural upbringing, empowering us to push past the traditional and into the innovative. Our cuisine tells the complex, yet immensely gratifying story of finding your place in a melting pot culture. You can read more about the details here: http://www.timpladc.com/timpla-stories/17/5/2016/how-to-transform-filipino-cuisine
MFB:Which Filipino dishes are the favorites/ bestsellers among your guests? What are the comments?
PD: We don’t have a bestseller because the menu changes every supper club based on the seasons and what’s available at the farmers’ markets. One of the best comments we received is our “boldness” in not serving rice with our dishes. When we first started Timpla, one of our priorities was to eliminate rice because we believe Filipino dishes can stand on their own. We have achieved that, but with some push-back from more traditional guests who feel like their meals aren’t complete without rice.
Timpla’s Adobong Pugita (Photo Credit: Costa Photography)
MFB: What is your guest/target market profile?
PD:We get an interesting mix of attendees at our supper club: half are usually Fil-Ams who grew up eating traditional Filipino cuisine and are curious to try our modern interpretation; the other half are people who have never or seldom experienced Filipino food and are drawn to a supper club serving a cuisine they don’t know much about. We create an intimate setting of 10 guests per dinner and it’s been great hearing Filipino guests share with the non-Filipino guests their experiences with the dishes and their opinions on our interpretation.
Timpla’s Ginataang Soft Shell Crab
MFB: Has Filipino food crossed over in DC? Why or why not?
It’s slowly becoming more exposed. Restaurants,such as Bad Saint, Purple Patch, and Restaurant Eve are showcasing flavors from the Philippines in different ways and educating diners on what Filipino cuisine is. They each have their own interpretation and present the food in their own way, but at the end of the day we’re all working towards bringing Filipino cuisine to the mainstream.
MFB:What is the general perception on Philippine cuisine in DC?
People just aren’t aware of it. Non-Filipinos haven’t had much of it with the exception of a Filipino neighbor’s party, or a Filipino friend bringing lumpia to a potluck. For Filipinos who grew up here, they expect traditional cuisine and are more critical of restaurants that make the food more upscale.
Timpla’s Sinigang: snapper, radish, tamarind dashi poured table side
MFB:What do you consider as your greatest challenges and accomplishments?
The greatest challenge would be pushing boundaries and presenting traditional dishes in a modern way, while still preserving authenticity. How do we make Filipino food elegant enough for non-Filipinos to enjoy, but at the same time retain the comfort and heart that reminds you of home? Additionally, we challenge ourselves to use seasonal high-quality ingredients at every supper club, which forces us to consistently change the menu. These challenges become our accomplishments when executed correctly and the guests go home with a new appreciation for Filipino cuisine.
Timpla’s Cassava Cake
MFB: What are your goals in the next few years?
PD:We want to continue with Timpla and expose people to the wonders of our cuisine. We want to keep researching in depth the different layers of our culture and hopefully travel to the homeland to experience the food ourselves and learn from the locals.
MFB: If someone asks you for advice about opening a Filipino-inspired restaurant in DC, what would you say?