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)
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.