Vanessa is a freelance travel writer, digital marketer, and passionate foodie from San Diego, California. As a freelancer, Vanessa travels 100% of the time, exploring sights, sounds, and tastes from around the world. With over 30 countries under her belt, Vanessa has encountered some pretty unique cultures. Although every place she goes takes a piece of her heart, Vanessa is most in love with the countries of Brazil and Austria.
Growing up in Southern California, I’ve always known Filipino culture to be one of the main flavors in our endlessly diverse melting pot. Walking through the mazes of San Diego’s strip mall restaurants, you can satisfy any craving that may have stricken you, from Ethiopian food, to fine French gourmet, to colorful Filipino.
Although you’re definitely able to get your hands on some good Pinoy offerings, the wealth of Filipino food available, especially of a pricier variety, can be tough to come by. Seeing as Filipinos are the largest group of Asian immigrants in Southern California, this realization left me rather puzzled. Why wasn’t Filipino food more prominent in my city?
Andrew Zimmern, of Travel Channel fame, once predicted that Filipino food would be the next craze in American cuisine, and that it would find its initial footing in San Diego. Although I hope he’s onto something, the proportion of Filipino-Americans to Filipino restaurants seems quite low. Some theories for why this may be range from the fact that Filipinos immigrated to the US in large numbers as trained nurses. This allowed them easy assimilation into American culture and may not have fostered the same necessity for using their cultural and culinary skills from abroad to earn a living in California. Others theorize that it may come down to the fact that no one can make traditional Filipino dishes as good as mom, and so most of the cuisine exists now only within the home. Although this theory certainly requires some further investigation, I can attest to the fact that a bustling Filipino household certainly doesn’t hold back for larger family gatherings and that, if you’re looking to experience some authentic Pinoy cuisine, try to saddle up next to a Filipino friend to bring you over for the next Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) feast.
I’ve been lucky enough to have a best friend with Philippine origins almost all my life. There’s nothing quite like sitting down in the dining room with her family to share some traditional Filipino fare. With the lechon, longanisa, and adobo flowing, I’ve had experiences so much more enriching than sitting down at a restaurant. I’ve been able to sit with them as they tell stories from the islands, swap recipes, and chatter away in their native Tagalog. Although we can’t all be so lucky to have a taste of the Philippines from within, if you’re ever offered the chance, TAKE IT!
I can’t say why Filipino restaurants haven’t become more of a dietary staple in the lives of Southern Californians. But luckily I have been fortunate enough to explore the culture and traditions of a large, vibrant, Filipino-American family. As time goes on, hopefully Pinoy restaurants will begin to take hold in California more powerfully and, when they do, I’ll be first in line to continue exploring Philippine fare.
Phillip Esteban is Research and Development Chef of CH Projects, a group that’s set out not just to create restaurants and bars, but “incubators for meaningful interactions”. The company has 12 projects (which they don’t want to call restaurants and bars) in San Diego.
We tapped on Phillip’s food (including a kitchen stint at David Chang’s acclaimed Momofuku Ssäm Bar), and research & development experience to find out what the Filipino food scene is like in America’s Finest City. More on Filipino food and Phillip’s background in this Q&A.
MFB: Please tell us more about your Filipino heritage.
PE: My father is from Mangatarem, Pangasinan and my mother is from Asingan, Pangasinan in Luzon. My father joined the US Navy and helped immigrate our entire family to the US.
MFB: What was it like for you to grow up in the US?
PE: I was born in San Diego, California. I’m a first-generation Filipino here in the United States. When my grandfather moved here, he experienced racism because of the language barrier. He did not want his grandchildren to experience that so I and all my cousins were raised as English speakers. As a consequence, we did not become fluent in Tagalog or Ilocano. However, we kept all our traditions and we were always surrounded by food. One of my earliest memories as a child was learning to cook and bake with my grandmother.
MFB: What was the first job you held in food?
PE: My first job in a professional kitchen was at The Firefly Restaurant in the Dana Hotel, Mission Bay as a prep cook.
MFB: Please tell us about your role as Research and Development Chef at CH Projects.
PE: The R&D chef role within CH Projects is ever evolving. Beyond creativity and menu development with our chefs, I also focus on company culture, development of the young cooks, and leadership with our growing management teams.
MFB: Please describe the Filipino and Filipino food scene in San Diego?
PE: The Filipino food scene in San Diego is filled with “point point” joints. There is a young group of Filipino Chefs who are working diligently to bring our culture to the forefront of cuisine. To be frank, my only concern is that the Filipino culture is also rooted in finding deals and discounts. Why would the Filipino community pay $20 for a “Pork Belly Kare Kare” appetizer at an upscale restaurant versus paying $20 at a “point point joint” and feed your entire family? In contrast, either Filipino food is very simplistic in presentation or too fine dining.
What is actually missing is middle ground for simply plated food, in a space that is aesthetically pleasing and designed for the general public.
The great thing about San Diego is there are many Filipino Chefs that are doing extremely well within the community and are working towards developing our cuisine in the US. It is exciting to see what will unfold in the next few years!
MFB: Describe your perfect Filipino meal.
PE: Nothing beats a home cooked meal. Kare-kare, a traditional Filipino dish of braised oxtail stew with peanut butter sauce is my favorite. But I have had amazing modern Filipino meals too. Qui Restaurant (by Chef Paul Qui, Filipino and Top Chef Winner) in Austin, Texas, (now Kuneho), had a well-executed, Filipino inspired, tasting menu.
Mais con hielo (corn kernels with shaved ice) at Qui Restaurant, Austin (Photo credit: A Taste of Coco)
Connect with Phillip Esteban:
(Named one of the “Top Five Food-Related Instagrams To Follow Right Now”on San Diego Eater)
Great success stories sometimes spring up from the least expected places. Danilo “DJ” Tangalin Jr.’s story is one of such. DJ, former Executive Chef of JRDN Restaurant at Tower23, Pacific Beach is now the Executive Chef of Tidal, a waterfront resort restaurant in Mission Bay, San Diego. But it hasn’t always been snazzy restaurants with haute cuisine, fine wines and sweeping ocean views for this chef. Before stagiairing with renowned chefs around the US, like Andrew Carmelini at Locanda Verde, Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin, Daniel Patterson at Coi to name a few, his first stint in food was a far cry from these kitchens. In the late 90’s, DJ then a fledgling teen, helped out in his family’s roadside, no-frills carinderia in the Philippines. Carinderias are downscale eateries common everywhere in the country, also referred to as turo-turo (point-point joints). At DJ’s family eatery, taxi and bus drivers, students, passersby and mothers who weren’t bothered to cook pointed at the food they wanted from an assortment of cooked Filipino food in pots — for eat in or to go.
A carinderia/turo-turo in the Philippines
DJ has come a long way since then. He, with other prominent chefs of Filipino descent in San Diego, debunks the myth that Filipino cuisine is nothing more than downscale and unsophisticated food.
MFB: Tell us about your Filipino roots.
DJT: I was born and raised in Baguio City. In case you haven’t heard, Baguio is the summer capital of the Philippines because of its cooler climate. It’s often referred to as the city of pines because of the abundance of pines in the city.
MFB: When did you immigrate to the U.S.?
DJT: My family immigrated to the state of Hawaii in 2001. My dad moved there before us —around 1997 —before he petitioned the rest of the family.
MFB: What was the move to the US like for you?
DJT: I’m very glad it was Hawaii where we ended up first because of the rich Filipino community on the island, so there wasn’t a huge culture shock. I had just graduated from high school in the Philippines, but opted to repeat a year in Hawaii to study for the SAT to go to college. I was 16 when I moved to the US from the Philippines.
MFB: Does your heritage have any impact (good and bad) to your career?
DJT: It has a huge impact. Ilocanos are known to be great cooks. Our background and history comes from natives, whose cooking I consider as unblemished by other cultures. It is unique and indigenous.
MFB: What was the first job you held in food? What catapulted you to the Executive Chef position?
DJT: As far as just cooking non-professionally, it started pretty early. When my dad left for the US, my mom opened a carinderia (local eatery) a.k.a. turo-turo. I , together with my siblings, helped run it.
When we moved from Hawaii to New Jersey, I was actually a nursing major. I waited tables to help support myself during college. After a year, I switched my major to culinary.
About becoming an Executive Chef? I think it’s because I was always ready for the next step. I knew I had to develop my management skills as well as my financial understanding of the business. My mindset was locked into creating my own path and never just following somebody else’s footstep.
MFB: Please describe the Filipino and Filipino food scene in San Diego?
DJT: National City and Miramar have a vibrant Filipino food scene that has been here for ages. In 2016 into 2017, we have been making strides in mainstreaming Filipino food with the help of various publications. It is one of the hottest trending food conversations in town. We just need to keep going and spreading the good word.
MFB: In your opinion, how is Filipino food viewed by the general public in San Diego?
DJT: It definitely hasn’t enjoyed the same success as other Asian cuisines. Many know lumpia, pancit or adobo but it hasn’t grown beyond that. With the Philippines being an archipelago, we have so much more to offer and it is our job as Filipino chefs to share our culture and almost educate them about it.
MFB: Please tell us about your efforts to promote Filipino cuisine in the US?
DJT: As the Executive Chef of Tidal restaurant here in San Diego, I’ve been integrating Filipino dishes on the menu. Some are presented traditionally and some are not. As a chef, I have different ways of showcasing this dishes using modern techniques and plating designs.
MFB: Filipino Flavors was the first of its kind Filipino collaboration dinner in San Diego. What was it like for you?
DJT: It was very humbling and exciting. From the spark of the idea to our first menu meeting, the experience was truly one of a kind. The dinner was a huge success and there is already a huge demand for another one.
It was heartwarming to see a lot of Filipinos and encouraging to see a lot who weren’t. It was great to see everyone at the event and we are hoping to get the second one going.
MFB: Describe your perfect Filipino meal.
DJT: Oh man, I just want a nice bowl of arroz caldo (rice porridge). Growing up in Baguio, where it’s chilly and foggy at times, a nice bowl of arroz caldo is all you need.
Connect with DJ Tangalin:
Instagram: dj_tangalin (Named one of the “Top Five Food-Related Instagrams To Follow Right Now”on San Diego Eater)
If I should sum up 2016 in just one word, that word would be “OVERWHELMING” — in the most extreme, positive kind of way. 2016 was the year we launched My Food Beginnings to help promote appreciation of Filipino food and understanding of Filipino people. And the support we’ve received from people around the world has been nothing short of overwhelming. (THANK YOU!)
One of the numerous responses that overwhelmed me was from a third-generation Filipino-American professor, a Plaridel Award-winning writer and a Filipino food advocate who comes from a big family of good cooks. She has been named one of the “100 Most Influential Filipino Women in the World” by the Filipina Women’s Network. She is none other than Lisa Suguitan Melnick.
In “Ampalaya Epiphany”, the story Lisa contributes to our forthcoming Filipino food anthology, Lisa is reminded of the hands of her Uncle Epifanio (Epiphany) as she looks down on her hands chopping ampalaya (bitter melon) usugiri (thin cut) style. She describes how her family “fortifies her delicate third generation ties to her Philippine heritage” and reflects on how she identifies oneness with the bitter, prickly- exteriored vegetable.
I guarantee. You’ll enjoy reading our Q&A with Lisa. Her answers read like a delicious narrative and will make you long for food, family, and Filipino-ness. Find out, too ,why she says, “Hence, it’s NOT Filipino food which needs to evolve…”
MFB: Please tell us more about your heritage. Where were your grandparents from and when did they immigrate to the U.S.?
LSM: My maternal grandfather, Celestino T. Alfafara, was from Carcar, Cebu and came to the U.S. in 1929, and maternal grandmother, Juanita Cayton Alfafara, half Filipina and half Chilena, was born and raised in San Francisco, California. My paternal grandparents, Silvestre and Victorina del Rosario Suguitan immigrated from Laoag City, Ilocos Norte, Luzon, in 1927.
MFB:What was it like for you to grow up in the U.S.?
LSM: My paternal grandparents provided the solid ground to my Filipino roots by having the whole family to dinner at their house in San Francisco’s Richmond district every Thursday and Sunday in addition to Christmas and New Year’s Day. By “whole family” I mean my nuclear family of four, the families of my father’s two sisters, Lucrecia (family of seven), and Lourdes (family of four), my two great uncles, and grandparents. The Uncles cooked dinner — that’s right — for nineteen of us, twice a week! This tradition went on until I was about eight, when the families decided to reduce the gathering to once-a-week—Sundays, and holidays. My mother, who was a very good cook, passed on when I was nine. Among the Filipino dishes of hers, I remember comfort foods such as, arroz caldo, arroz valenciana, oxtail soup,and sotanghon.
My father remarried and we moved to Los Angeles. Seven years later, upon graduating early from high school, I returned to San Francisco, reuniting with the rest of the family. It was during my university years that I learned how to cook Filipino dishes from my great uncles, Epifanio and Serviliano, who taught me Ilokano dishes.
MFB: When was the first time you visited the Philippines? What were your impressions?
LSM: My first trip to the Philippines was in 2012. While there, I celebrated my 56th birthday in Davao with the “Al Robles Express” group—Vanessa V, Kathy B, Nena C–led by author/educator Oscar Peñaranda. As I mentioned earlier, my biological mother, Anita Alfafara Suguitan, passed on at the young age of thirty-three. She had never gone to the ancestral homeland. Unexpectedly, my travel to the Philippines, and meeting our relatives in Carcar, Cebu, allowed a reconnection to her that had been veiled and elusive to me for over four decades.
My impressions of the Philippines? Well…the Philippines is profoundly beautiful, sensuously intense—breathtaking in its level of poverty as well as in its vivid beauty. The myriad and deeply felt experiences inspired the stories in my book, #30 Collantes Street.
My “impressions” I think, resembled that of a first love encounter. That crowing, doodle-ing chickens and baying barking dogs conversed all day. That the distinctive aroma of fresh durian snuck up my nose a half block away and from then on, I experienced its creamy taste in a whole new way. That tropical fish suckled my fingers though turquoise colored water. These experiences, which could never be captured in photo image, fulfill me. All the while, I’m humbly aware that I journeyed as a member from the Filipino- American tribe; thus, having only been to the motherland twice, I am not in a position to comment about politics, economics, or some of the “hard” images I also observed on the streets.
MFB: You’ve been named one of the 100 most influential Filipina women in the world by the Filipina Women’s Network. Please tell us about this and the work you did/do in your respective field that earned you this award.
LSM: I was nominated by longtime community activist, historian, and author Evangeline Canonizado Buell, who knows me as an educator and author. Though I am a college/university professor in the Language Arts division, the recognition was given for my work as a qi gong/yoga practitioner/instructor and the course I designed for my campus community. My work in this area is also influenced by Philippine indigenous healers and culture bearers with whom I have connected through the Center for Babaylan Studies founded by Dr. Elenita Mendoza Strobel. In addition, I served on the American Federation of Teachers Union 1492, and as a faculty advisor for the Filipino Students Association. I’m also an active board member of Philippine American Writers & Artists (PAWA) and a member of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS). One common denominator in these areas is that I work with people to identify personal goals and then create space for them to work on achieving those goals. For the work in these various organizations, I was recognized in the category of Behind the Scenes Leader.
MFB: Based on your observations, how are Filipinos and Filipino food viewed in America?
LSM:On the one hand, I enjoyed celebrating Filipino food through events such as Savor Filipino 2014 which presented our cuisine in new and creative ways, and provided an arena in which to think outside the box of our own mothers’ home cooking in order to elevate Filipino cuisine into the mainstream. I saw pork adobo made with pork belly and served on a crisped rice cake. By assisting chefs Tim Luym (Buffalo Theory, Attic) and Miguel Trinidad (Maharlika, Jeepney), I received hands-on experience on fresh, amazing ways of preparing traditional favorites: sisig tacos, and kinilaw offered with three choices of top grade fish.
This event allowed participants to view Filipino food and consider the notion that the cool platings may not ever be “better” than our childhood experiences, but indeed, it was an exciting new way to present it to the general public. I felt so proud that 30,000 people partook in Filipino food in San Francisco that day. I also admire the events given by young chefs such as, Yana Gilbuena’s Salo Project, and Hood Yums’ kamayan.
But here’s the thing, aside from events and chefs such as the ones I’ve named (and there are many more) in which we celebrate ourselves, I’m not all about sharing Filipino food with a culture which I observe still views my heritage—our food included– through a whitesplaining, privileged lens. Jeez, dinuguan (“dinarduran” in Ilokano or pork blood stew) and balut (boiled fertilized egg) are offered as “fear factor” food challenges! My experience is that most Americans, if they have any exposure to Filipino food at all, still haven’t ventured much beyond lumpia, pansit, and adobo.
Hence, it’s NOT Filipino food which needs to evolve…
MFB: Describe your perfect Filipino meal.
LSM: It hails back to dinners with my grandparents and Uncle Anong at their home in the Richmond district. Uncle Anong would take New York striploin steaks and cut them lengthwise, creating a thinner piece of meat—a perfect portion. A piece of that steak, simply fried in an iron skillet with salt and pepper, pinakbet (vegetable stew), a bowl of boiled mackerel with ginger, garlic, and vinegar and hot rice. That is my favorite meal. It’s very simple, I know, but my heart wraps around the whole memory of its aromas, the place at the table, the time of my life, with them.
*Lisa Suguitan Melnick and White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford are two of the many contributing authors of the forthcoming, My Food Beginnings, a collection of Filipino food memoirs and recipes.
“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.
*Janice Sapigao is one of the contributing authors of our upcoming book, My Food Beginnings – a collection of Filipino food memoirs.
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?
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.
This is more than just a food story. In April, Roland Miranda from Plano, Texas wrote in to Stavanger, Norway -based me of MFB, to share his personal attempt at introducing Filipino food to his fellow Texans. The name of the event rang a bell. It was “Gamatan”, Kapangpangan for “Kamayan” or eating with hands sans cutleries.
I grew up in Angeles City, Pampanga. So did he. But it was only after I invited Roland of Trisha & Roland´s Pinoy Pop-ups ( now Koya’s Place Filipino Restaurant and Grill, a 75-seater restaurantin the heart of Richardson, Texas opening on Feb.1, 2017) for an interview that we connected the dots. Not only did we attend the same pre-school and elementary school in Angeles City, we discovered we’re from the same batch and had the same childhood friends! Too bad. We don’t remember each other. Even a peek at our pre-school yearbook didn’t help jog our memories. It was too long ago (lol).
Roland Miranda: HFA Pre-school Me: HFA Pre-school
Until 1991, Angeles City was home of Clark Air Base, then the largest US military facility outside the US mainland. Roland moved to the US in his teens, after his step-father who worked for the US Air Force was discharged in Texas.
Let’s take a closer look at Roland’s journey from Angeles City, Philippines to Texas, USA. Find out how the tragic death of his eldest son has brought him closer to his family and his roots. How is he making Filipino food the “funnest” and where does he stand in the fight to make Filipino food known in Texas?
MFB: What was it like for you to move to the US in your teens? Please give us an example of a point in your life when you acutely missed Filipino food?
RM: It was relatively easy for me to get accustomed to the move. In fact, I was relieved because I left during my Junior Year. Relieved because the move gave me more years to be a kid. Instead of prepping for the NCEE’s I got to be a sophomore again, with three whole years of high school to go. I embraced the entire experience. Growing up, I always had American friends. We had access to American TV due to the military base nearby. Plus before I left Angeles City, there were stores that rented video tapes of American TV shows. My peers and I got hooked on these shows. American Top 40 with Kasey Kasem was available on local radio, which had me familiar with the music that was popular here in Texas. Country Music, on the other hand, was totally foreign.
The holidays were a different story. The huge holiday here is the 4th of July and as far as food celebrations go, Thanksgiving takes the top billing. Christmas is subdued, as far as celebrations go. I was used to huge feasts: lechon (roast suckling pig), kalame (native cakes) and all other customary dishes. The subdued feasts had me longing for Filipino food and home.
MFB: How did you get started in food? What prompted you to set-up Pinoy Pop-ups?
RM: I’ve always loved to cook for as far as I can remember. Then when I got married, my wife Trisha bought me my first serious grill. I discovered I had a knack for it. Then came the smoker – I surprised even myself on how well I smoked brisket, ribs and chicken. But instead of potato salad and beans, I mixed in pancit (noodles) and lumpia (spring rolls). That combo was a hit with my Texan friends. So our family get-togethers became a chance for me to showcase my new found ability. Later on, I discovered wet aging steaks thanks to Alton Brown and the Food Network. I learned how to create restaurant quality Good Eats. That’s when I started hearing comments from friends and co-workers that I should think of opening my own place. Having our two boys in school, it was easy to suppress the desire to branch out on my own. Plus, I kind of stumbled into a Marketing career. I managed call centers that had 600 customer sales reps to being the Marketing Director for the largest commercial roofing company in the US. Judging from the success of my group and my employers, it proved that I was quite good at it.
Then on Trisha’s birthday in 2009 our family of four took a massive hit. We lost our oldest son, Marcus, in a car accident. Everything in our world turned upside down. What were once important and expected were now nothing more than distractions from the grief. Trish and I decided early on that our focus would have to be us. We knew our loss will be eternal and that all we want is to spend as much time as we can with each other. Sure, extended families are important, but the focus will have to be us three, Alex our youngest son, Trish and I. That’s it.
Last photo of the four of them (Clockwise: Marcus, Alex, Roland and Trish)
Even with this new focus – it still took me four years to walk away from Marketing. To stay closer to home and honor my non-compete agreement, I sold cars at a store less than a half mile from home. That again was eye opening – I realized I love dealing with different people from all walks of life. Another surprise is that I was good at it – over 100 cars in that one year. But as soon as the non-compete lapsed, the recruiting calls increased and soon I found myself back into Marketing. Two positions/employers later proved that I do not have the focus or desire to serve someone else’s interest. The mere act of showing up to work was a struggle and mix-in health issues, it was not very hard to walk away.
During my stint at my last employer is when I convinced Trish to allow me to put-up five events as an audition to convince her that I can do this for a living. Working 60 hours at my Marketing gig a week and putting up events every two weeks, demonstrated to be difficult. I did, however, show the love of my life, that I was right. There was a demand from Fil-Ams for our events and enough of a curiosity from Texans to have our initial seating to be overwhelmingly Anglo or non-Pinoys!
MFB: Please define your concept. How often do you hold pop-ups?
RM: Our concept is pretty simple. Make Filipino Cuisine, Texan friendly. Meaning huge chunks of meat and seafood. Bold flavors and not too fussy. Meat and Fire! That’s when Gamatan came into the picture. I am no chef, barely a cook, but I can grill, roast and fry. Harking back to the cookouts I hosted in the early years of our marriage, I added pork adobo and lumpia. I also added Chicken Inasal as a nod to the new breed of Pinoy Foodie, coupled with the fact that I have never had it before.
MFB: Are there other Filipino food pop-ups/ establishments in Texas? How is yours different from the others?
RM: There are less than ten restaurants in the Dallas area. But none have really made me want to become a regular. Let me take that back, all had me wishing I was a regular, but only one really, Palayok in Plano, do I frequent. I visited it monthly, but now that I am doing a no carb diet, probably even less.
Our events are different, because like our tag line says, Filipino Food not at its finest but at its funnest. I know funnest is not a word, but that adds to the fun. We use whole cuts of meat as much as possible: whole chicken breasts, legs, quarters, even feet! And when we do use cuts like the pork in the adobo – I make sure I explain it to the customers. All of the customers, so I don’t alienate anyone. Whole cuts because Texans love to know what they are eating! No mystery meat allowed (lol).
MFB: Which dishes are the favorites/ bestsellers? What were the comments about these dishes?
The whole fish bring out the most oohs and ahs. Especially when the fish is impressive like a Bonito. Predictably, the Lechon (roast suckling pig) is equally popular. The comment I hear most from Fil-Ams is the authenticity of our Gamatan. I really strive to provide a real experience, from the Milagrosa rice, to the banana leaves and even the sauce or condiments. I insist we use Philippine made products. In fact it is a point of contention between me and my assistant. She insists on using wonton wrapper as lumpia wrapper. It does make a prettier lumpia, but it is not authentic.
MFB: Has far is Filipino food from crossing over in Texas? What else can be done to give it a boost?
RM: Filipino food is sadly years away from becoming a crossover hit in Texas. Sure a bunch of foodies love lumpia or adobo – but I doubt at the current state of Filipino food in Texas, can we supplant a taco or sushi joint in anyone’s Top 20 list. Notice I said Top 20. I think it will take more folks like me. Not to sound conceited but it’s true. Someone who has a great love for Central Texas Style barbecue. Just meat and fire! Our Lechon will be a rage here – just the basics right? Meat and Fire. For my sake, I hope I am right.
As far as boosts go – we need authenticity and unapologetic sincerity. I think I can present sinigang in such a way that even the timidest palates will want to try it. Blanch the veggies separately and use meatier cuts. Make the dishes fun. Explain as much as you can. Have themes. I hate to admit it, but use plants or ringers in your crowds. I have two new friends that I met from the very first GamatanEvent I presented. They are awesome ambassadors of Filipino Cuisine. They are knowledgeable of the cuisine, well-spoken and are true foodies. The ringers help you explain the best ways to eat the dishes or which sauces to use.
MFB: About how many Filipinos are there in Texas? What is the general perception on Philippine cuisine there?
RM: There were 138,000 Pinoys in Texas during the last census. Sadly I cannot tell you how Filipino cuisine is viewed here, because it does not even register a blip on the food radar screen.
MFB: What do you consider as your greatest challenges?
RM: The highest challenge for me is the money worries. I think this will be true until I open my brick and mortar shop.
MFB: If someone asks your opinion about the viability of opening a Filipino-inspired restaurant in your area, what would you say?
RM: I think it can be done. But to be viable you cannot just count on the Fil-Am community. My customers will have to be 50% Fil-Ams and the other half others.I am not a big fan of fusion cuisine. I do not think you have to dumb down the cuisine to gain fans. You do have to admit that certain things will have to be prepared differently. Perhaps even “deconstructing” dishes like sinigang. You have to have themes and a consistent marketing message.