Which Filipino Food Perfectly Embodies Filipino Culture? (An Interview with Pinoy Junior MasterChef)

When I was eleven years old, all I could do in the kitchen was peel onions and garlic with a dull paring knife. Pinoy Junior MasterChef Kyle Imao, at eleven, was whipping up dishes with components , such as chawanmushi and nouc cham, that I hadn’t even heard of at that age, let alone cook with.

Kyle Imao

Photo credit: Coolbuster.net

Mind you, this boy doesn’t spend all his time slaving away over a hot stove. Now sixteen, he has a lot of other interests, such as biking, playing with his pet rabbit and their eight dogs.Like many teenage kids, he’s a Star Wars, Marvel, DC and cartoons with robots fan. He collects Transformer toys  and assemble Gundam model kits as a hobby.

Kyle joined Junior MasterChef Pinoy Edition in 2011. The competition ended in February 2012. He walked away with the championship title, PHP 1 million cash prize and PHP 1.5 million worth of culinary scholarship.

MFB: Did your friends treat you differently after Junior Masterchef?

KI: After winning Junior MasterChef my friends and classmates always nudged me to bring food or cook for them. I obliged and cooked, not just for my classmates, but for my teachers too.

MFB: At what age did you discover your passion for food? 

KI: I started cooking when I was seven. I cooked breakfast for my parents on weekends. I just cooked simple stuff, like fried rice, bacon and eggs, then eventually progressed to cooking lunch and dinner. I cooked Japanese, Indian, Filipino and Chinese food.
I really enjoyed cooking and it made me  happy that my family enjoyed what I prepared for them.

I learned to cook from my dad. My father’s side of the family comes from Pampanga, the Culinary Capital of the Philippines, so everyone in our family knows how to cook. When I was young, my dad would always cook at home. Now, me and my dad cook all the time.

Kyle, now sixteen

MFB: You are the only Pinoy Junior Masterchef Champion. How did you end up on the show? 

KI:Yes, as of now I am the only Pinoy Junior Masterchef. The program was not continued.

I learned about Junior MasterChef from my uncle who is a director. A friend of his asked if he knew any kids who could cook. My uncle asked me to join and I decided to give it a try.

The auditions were fun. We presented our specialty dishes. I brought a Japanese style chicken curry which I cooked at home. I explained my dish and how I prepared it to the panel of judges.

We had to wait for a while before we were called back in to make pancakes from scratch in twenty minutes. After that, they told us they’d call us if we got into the second round of auditions.

A month passed and I didn’t receive a call, so I thought I didn’t make it. Later on, I finally received the call and I was so happy.

MFB: Please tell us what it’s like to be in the show. How did Junior MasterChef change you as a person and a cook?

KI: It was very intense. We had to cook under time constraints and we were always given some sort of surprise in each challenge. We were all friends in the competition, in the kitchen we supported each other and after we cooked we tasted each others food. After cooking we played, like most regular kids and went back home to our houses.

Kyle on winning Junior MasterChef It felt like a dream

Junior MasterChef Pinoy Edition 2011-2012 (Photo credit: Pinoy Showbiz Photos)

I liked everything about the competition, including the pressure and the intense challenges. However, I remember one elimination challenge when I got frazzled. We had to make Siopao (Chinese meat-filled buns). The Siopao dough I made didn’t rise and I started to panic since I didn’t have much time left. The chef judges went to me and told me to calm down and make another batch. I was really lucky to pull that through despite the limited time.

Junior MasterChef really changed the way I cook and it taught me the value of hard work and time management.


Kyle serving his signature dish to the Pinoy Jr. MasterChef judges: (Photo credit :ABS-CBN)

MFB: How would you describe Filipino food to a foreigner? If a foreigner, who is completely clueless about Filipino cuisine, came to visit, what would you serve her and why?

KI:Filipino food is heavily influenced by the Malay and Spanish. Our food has a lot of umami since we use patis (fish sauce) and soy sauce to flavor our dishes. Filipino food has a lot of contrasting flavors and textures. We like things sweet and savory, spicy and sour, crunchy and soft.

It may sound cliché but I would serve lechon (a spit-roasted suckling pig), not only for its taste, but because it reflects Filipino culture. The cooking of  lechon is a laborious and painstaking task that requires family or group effort. It reflects the hard-working attitude of Filipinos and our Bayanihan spirit,  which refers to the spirit of communal unity, work and cooperation to achieve a particular end result. When we eat lechon, we eat as a family. Everyone shares and gets a part. No one is left out.

The flavors of lechon mirror our food culture. Lechon itself is of Spanish origin but we slowly made it our own, incorporating distinctly Filipino flavors. The seasonings used in lechon is very Asian. We use a lot of lemongrass, peppers, chilies, and a very unique technique we use is to baste the skin of the hog with coconut water. The sugars in the coconut caramelize and help give our lechon its distinct shiny hue and glass-like crunch. For me it is the most Filipino of all dishes.

lechon 2 (1)

MFB: How can you make Filipino food friendlier to non- Filipino children?

KI: In my opinion, a lot of Filipino food cater to children, such as our barbecue, adobo, sinigang, and tocino. They aren’t too heavy on the spices, and the flavors are kept simple. Our barbecue is quite different from other types of barbecue. It consists of cubes of skewered pork leg marinated in garlic and soy sauce. Adobo is a pork or chicken stew braised with soy sauce and vinegar. Sinigang is a soup dish that is much like the Thai Tom Yum without the elaborate spicing. Tocino is a favorite of Filipino kids. It is pork cured with salt and sugar and some annatto seeds to give it color. Some people refer to it as Filipino bacon.

MFB: According to an article on Philstar.com, your latest goal is to bring Filipino food into the global scene. How are you doing that?

KI: I continue to cook Filipino food and try to perfect it. I also try to modernize Filipino food by using French techniques and incorporating other Asian flavors and ingredients. I think that if we present Filipino food in a more approachable way, it will really shine in the global scene.

Deconstructed Balut Tempura & Chawan Mushi with Wasabi  Foam 3.jpg
Kyle’s creation: Deconstructed Balut Tempura & Chawan Mushi with Wasabi Foam

MFB: What do you consider as your greatest accomplishment after Junior Masterchef? What are you plans in the next few years?

KI: After Junior Masterchef, I set up my own cafe in The Mind Museum called Kyle’s Lab. It ran for a good 2 years. Kyle’s Lab was a science-themed cafe made for kids. We served unique, science-themed meals & snacks.

Right now we’re planning to put up a new restaurant that will feature modernized comfort food.

MFB: What is your favorite Filipino dish? What does this dish remind you of? How did you elevate this dish?

I love this Kapampangan dish called Pancit Luglug, a rice noodle dish . My Lola (grandma) always prepared this at home when there were fiestas and birthdays. Our whole family would be around: my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents.

The Pancit Luglug was smothered with a thick, golden shrimp sauce with coconut milk and a lot of toppings. It was a rich mix of flavors and textures. I took the dish a little bit further by adding a Vietnamese twist, using cilantro and serving it with a nouc cham sauce.

MFB: What is your advice to aspiring Junior MasterChefs out there?

Work hard and never give up. Always do your best and cook like it’s always your last dish. There’s a lot of competition out there. Just keep your head up and aim for the (Michelin) stars.

thumbnail_Purple Passion - Ube Maruya with a  Rose Cheesecake  Quenelle and Strawberry Rose Syrup 2

yle’s creation: Purple Passion, Ube Maruya with Rose Cheesecake Quenelle and Strawberry Rose Syrup

Connect with Kyle on Kyle Imao’s Official Facebook Fan Page


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