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.
Vidalia: (Photo credit: Eater Washington 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
At Timpla, I implement the things I’ve learned from my experiences. My co-chef JR Rena and I tap our memories of Filipino dishes growing up and use our restaurant experiences to push the cuisine further. The story of how Timpla came about is a long one. You can read about it in our blog: http://www.timpladc.com/timpla-stories/29/11/2015/we-have-a-story-to-tell
Timpla’s Kinilaw na Talaba (Oyster)
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
Timpla’s Crab Sinigang (Photo credit: @masterpupeteer)
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?
PD: Just do it! Good luck!
*Timpla is one of the contributing authors of our upcoming book, My Food Beginnings – a collection of Filipino food memoirs.
Connect with Timpla:
by Jacqueline Lauri of My Food Beginnings – a Filipino food anthology project
Bringing people together through food and stories.