The Fil-Am Chef Who Builds a Restaurant Empire (A Q&A with The Food Buddha)

You might have seen him on TV. If you missed him on “Good Morning America”,  you probably caught him on “Entertainment Tonight”. Or perhaps you’ve seen his own show “Food Buddha” premier on TLC?

Or maybe you remember seeing him guest on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”, NBC’s “Today Show,” Food Network’s “The Best Of,” Fox’s “Live Like a Star,” Style Network’s “It’s my Party”… (Huff,huff) and the list goes on and on.

If you don’t happen to watch TV, he’s also been featured in newspapers, magazines, cookbooks, on the web and has also been a repeat guest chef at the prestigious James Beard House. Or maybe you might have eaten in one of the numerous restaurants -some of which are Yi Cuisine in LA, Sunda in Chicago, Sesame in HongKong and Me Geisha Sushi in Italy- that make up his restaurant empire?

The point is, unless you were just born yesterday, you must have heard of Filipino-American Chef Rodelio Aglibot aka The Food Buddha.

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(Photo credit : Kababayan Today)

I will not even attempt to cover Rodelio’s wide-ranging, twenty-year career in food and restaurants around the globe. That in itself would make a book. Instead, let’s seek some Filipino food enlightenment from The Food Buddha in the Q&A below:

 MFB: Please tell me more about your Filipino heritage. Where in the Philippines are your parents from and when did they immigrate to the U.S.?

RA: I was born in Subic Bay. My father is from Zambales. My mother, who attended high school in Hawaii, is from Nueve Ecija. My father was in the US Navy and immigrated to the US via the navy.

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Rodelio (left) with his parents and siblings in Hawaii (Photo credit : Kababayan Today)

MFB: How did your moniker, The Food Buddha, come about?

RA:Two food writers in LA back in 2004 interviewed me and appreciated my take on food and being a chef. I spoke in ways of wisdom according to them and they gave me the name Food Buddha.

MFB: Please describe the Filipino food scene in Hawaii and LA. What is the general perception about Filipino cuisine & Filipino people?

RA: In Hawaii, the Filipino food scene has always existed. The co-mingling of Asian food and cultures is predominant in Hawaii and as a young child you are exposed to Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Portuguese and American cuisine. Today’s young avant-garde chefs are creatively pushing the boundaries of Filipino cuisine.

LA is similar to Hawaii, but more proactive because of the population and more exposure. It’s also where I was successful years ago in including Filipino food to my menus.

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Rodelio’s Adobo Braised Pork Belly (Photo by Kenny Kim)

Some perceptions are that Filipino food is bold, yet salty, sour and sweet. It’s heavy food – something they could not eat everyday. They often love lumpia, pancit and adobo. But more importantly, non-Filipinos have the utmost respect for Filipinos.

MFB: I came across an article in a magazine in Plano,Texas categorizing Filipino cuisine as Polynesian. Please comment.

RA: There is so much misinformed and ignorant food writing out there. We can either put our energies towards addressing “hurt feelings” and “injustice” or be part of a solution to educate and rise above it. Are we Pacific Islanders or Asians? Pacific Islanders could technically be classified as Polynesian. I find that when something is written that benefits all cultures, people will find some connection to be associated and the opposite true as well.

Are we Filipinos in such dire need to be accepted?  Respected? Or acknowledged? Do we even accept ourselves in our own country? Do we promote the well being of all?

Anthony Bourdain’s first feature on the Philippines showed our culture eating delicacies that other countries or cultures would look at as “gross” or “uneatable”. We downplayed that part of the story, yet essentially put him on a pedestal after his latest feature where he praised the Filipino culture.

We take the good with the bad, we persevere, we overcome.

MFB: You have developed restaurant concepts and menus all over the world. Where do you foresee an exclusively Filipino-themed restaurant succeeding in hitting the mainstream outside of the Philippines?

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Another restaurant opened by Rodelio: Earth+Ocean (E+O) in Mount Prospect, Illinois  (Photo by INTRESCO)

Once again, I love Filipino food because it tells me a story. It connects me with my history.  It’s the food of the people. It’s peasant food. It’s real.

What is our objective for this to happen? Acceptance? Recognition? If it does or does not happen are we any less? Is our food then not good?

Twenty years ago, as a Sous Chef of a Southeast Asian Restaurant in San Francisco, I put Grilled Adobo Porkchop with Garlic Fried Rice on the menu. 16 years ago, Adobo Pork Belly, Avocado Mousse and Lumpia. 12 years ago, Taro Bread Pudding, Cassava Cake, Kare Kare, Crispy Pata, Bistek and Pancit on my menu at Yi Cuisine in LA, which was awarded Best New Asian Restaurant in LA by Food and Wine Magazine.

Cendrillon Restaurant was open in NYC as other Filipino Chefs created mainstream dishes. You see, this movement is 20 years old, “pre-social media”.

That question hasn’t been answered in over 10 years. To incorporate true and authentic Filipino food mainstream but bastardize the food in order to be mainstream is not the respect and honor our food deserves. Some Pinoys won’t support this because the food becomes unidentifiable and lacking in authenticity. Would they pay $25 for crispy pata or $20 for pancit? We are also critical and often feel our own parents’ cooking is the best.

Yet to charge more and make money to survive, we as chefs need to evolve with better quality and high end ingredients to cook with.

MFB: If you could only eat one Filipino dish for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

Kare Kare, Bulalo and Dinuguan are the top three.

Diniguan.PNG

Dinuguan- a Filipino stew of pork blood, meat and offal

*Rodelio Aglibot is one of the contributing authors of our upcoming book, My Food Beginnings – a collection of Filipino food memoirs.

Connect with Rodelio Aglibot:

Website: http://www.rodelioaglibot.com/

Twitter: @thefoodbuddha

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The Fil-Am Chef Who Builds a Restaurant Empire (A Q&A with The Food Buddha)

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