On November 5, 2015, professional chefs from seven international embassies battled in a gala event hosted in a chic venue at John G. Diefenbaker Building in Ottawa, Canada. The gastronomic masterpieces they created vied for two awards: The Judges´ Choice Award, selected by a panel of celebrity judges and food critics, and the People’s Choice Award, voted for by distinguished guests.
Representing the Embassy of the Philippines was Filipino-Canadian Chef Jil Aranas. She bagged not just the runner-up for the Judges’ Choice but also the first prize for the People’s Choice. Her dish, inspired by Kinulob na Itik, is ( are you ready for this?) pineapple duck confit topped with chicken liver jus, on a bed of white rice infused with coconut milk, enhanced with crispy chicken skin, deep-fried quail eggs, pickled papaya, caramelized pineapple and sweet potato chips– the most ambitious and multi-component plate of the night.
Jil’s winnning duck dish at the 2015 Embassy Chef Challenge:
Obviously, to put up a dish of this caliber, Jil was no amateur. She worked with Ottawa’s big shot chefs, such as Marc Lepine of Atelier restaurant, John Morris of the National Arts Centre, Jud Simpson of the House of Commons and Duane Lepine of the exclusive Rideau Club.
She’s no rookie either when it comes to competitions. She won the gold at the Eat Vancouver Salon in 2009, the silver as part of Canada’s Junior Olympic Team in Dublin, Ireland in 2011, and the silver at the Annual Maple Leaf Signature Dish contest in 2013.
Awestruck, I couldn’t believe my luck when Jil agreed to this interview.
MFB: Please tell us more about your Filipino heritage. What brought you to Canada?
JA: I was born and raised in the Philippines. Laguna was my hometown. I immigrated to Canada at the age of 15 to reunite with my mom and brothers, who were already residing in Ottawa.
MFB: How did you get started in food? What was the first job you held in food.
JA: Growing up with my grandparents, cooking started out as a daily chore. Like most chores, I didn’t really enjoy it at first. I’ve always loved food though.
The first job I held in the industry was at a small family restaurant in Ottawa. It was inside a mall, which served different varieties of food from roaster chickens to salads and sandwiches.
MFB: How did you become the Philippine Embassy’s representative at the Embassy Chef Challenge in Ottawa?
JA: Philippine Ambassador to Canada Petronila P. Garcia, personally invited me to represent the embassy. I’ve worked with them for special dinners before. Maybe they saw how passionate I was about pushing Filipino Cuisine and my own interpretations of Pinoy dishes.
MFB: You’ve participated and garnered awards in other culinary competitions in Canada before. How does pressure affect you?
I learn so much about myself when I’m under pressure. It also helps me become a better cook. I improve by pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I really enjoy the adrenaline rush at competitions. I find it fun and a great break from my daily routine.
MFB: Please tell us about your winning dish at the challenge. What was your inspiration for that dish?
JA: I chose to pay tribute to Laguna, the hometown I grew up in. Kinulob na itik or deepfried duck was actually my moms idea since it’s also our family’s favorite duck dish. Growing up in a town where duck farms abound, kinulob na itik is almost a trademark dish. It’s also customary to give it away as a gift on special occasions.
MFB: Do you ever get the chance to showcase Filipino-inspired dishes at your job? Please give us examples.
JA: I get to showcase Filipino-inspired dishes at Personal Chef, the business I’m occupied with right now. I try to stick to my roots whenever I can.
Jil’s Smoked Tinapa Salad with Spring Greens, Fresh Shaved Asparagus and Baby Radishes, Grape Tomatoes, Sinamak Pickled Onions, Calamansi Vinaigrette
For example, when I was working at the Rideau Club, I did pan seared halibut in sinigang broth for the daily fish specials. It received a lot of great feedback from non-Filipino guests.
MFB: Please tell us about the status of Philippine cuisine in Canada. What, in your opinion, is the Canadian public’s general perception of Filipino food?
JA: Philippine cuisine is definitely present in Canada. But I have to say, it needs a further boost in order to differentiate it from other Asian cuisines. Canadians still need to fully understand the cuisine.
MFB: About how many Filipinos are there in Ottawa? Are there any establishment showcasing Filipino food? Has Filipino food mainstreamed?
JA: There’s a fair number of Filipinos in Ottawa but nothing compared to bigger cities like Toronto or Vancouver. Filipino cuisine, in my opinion, has not mainstreamed just yet. It’s more popular in bigger cities and it makes sense because Ottawa has a smaller Filipino population. There is only a handful of Filipino establishments here but they are doing great. I can definitely see a potential for Filipino cuisine becoming bigger than it is now. It may not hit the mainstream just yet, but the fact that more Filipinos are opening food establishments is promising.
MFB: What are your goals in the next few years?
JA: In the next few years, I would love to open my own restaurant. Nothing big. Hopefully, a place where I can showcase more Filipino food – my own interpretations of dishes I grew up eating.
MFB: What advice can you give aspiring Filipino chefs in Canada?
JA: One must always remember that nothing comes easy. First, be open to new things. Apply what you learn, own it, and then showcase it. Second, be patient and keep striving to be better. Third, cook from the heart. And finally, it’s ok to be who you are and still excel in whatever you put your mind into.
Connect with Jil Aranas:
by Jacqueline Lauri of My Food Beginnings – a Filipino food anthology project
Bringing people together through food and stories.