Filipino food is dubbed as one of the “it” cuisines you should be eating now. But where do you go to eat “it”? In many places, including Richmond, Virginia, if you don’t want or know how to cook the food yourself, you might need to stray off the beaten path to find a spot that serves Filipino dishes. Or, you might need to constantly keep your finger on the pulse of the city to catch an upcoming Filipino food event or pop-up . . . Or, you’d better make Filipino friends in the hope of getting invited to their homes to savor home-cooked Filipino fare😊. Having said that (joking aside), Chef Ian Merriman’s first exposure to the cuisine was in the homes of his Filipino friends. The food clearly made a big impact on Ian. Now the executive chef at Millie’s Diner, Ian claims that without his past personal connections with Filipinos—The Jackdaw, his monthly pop-ups, wouldn’t have been born.
Here’s how it all began . . .
MFB: Please tell us more about yourself as a chef, your origins and how you got started in food.
IM: I’ve been cooking professionally for sixteen years and I don’t think I found my rhythm until now. I was born in New York, but my family spans from the South to the Midwest US in origin. My mom was in the military, so home was really nowhere. Cooking started as a way for me to pay my bills, have no real responsibilities, and be able to play music. As I got older, playing music became a little less important than cooking. My professional cooking background has practically always revolved around some sort of Asian cooking.
I had a lot of Asian friends when I was a kid. I had a decent number of Filipino friends growing up and traveling. That was my first exposure to Filipino food. I was a picky eater, but there was something about Filipino food that made me forget about that.
I don’t want to be “that guy” that talks about all his Asian friends he has or used to have, but if it weren’t for them and their families: there would be no Jackdaw. Period. I owe a lot to those home cooked meals, snacks at school, co-workers bringing lumpia…and just checking out the food culture of their relatives and ancestors. I owe Filipino food culture so much. It’s contribution to my professional life has been invaluable.
MFB: Please tell us about The Jackdaw and your Filipino food pop-ups (Kamayan, Pulutan, etc.).
IM: The Jackdaw is more than just food to me. It’s an unspoken social experiment. I’ve never publicly spoken about it until now, but I want to smash this stigma that people are afraid to pay or charge “full price” for ethnic food in general.
Initially, I inspired myself to do these dinners. I was just completely frustrated cooking food I felt nothing about. I didn’t want to just do someone else’s menu. I wanted something of my own. As I strayed away from cooking a predominately Chinese-inspired menu, I started to take notice of all the Filipino food blogs and so many chefs who were stoked on cooking Filipino food. That got me excited about doing the dinners. The Jackdaw has always been super casual, food and community focused…while trying to showcase the best ingredients I can get.
I do these dinners at least once a month. I generally relax in the winter because people seem to be afraid to come out in the snow. The turnouts are always consistently good as long as it’s warm outside, haha. Customer demographics are typically, predominately white people. Over the last few months, I’ve noticed a growing Filipino clientele…and repeat customers at that. I appreciate all the diners equally, but I’m ecstatic to see an expanding amount of interest within the Filipino community. It honestly means more to me than selling out food at every event. Just knowing that I’m making someone’s day and being told I remind them of home is worth way more than money.
Pulutan menu, lumpia, Chicken Inasal, Sisig
MFB: Which were the most-liked dishes? Least-liked?
IM: Anything I do with seafood tends to be the biggest crowd favorite. I have a lot of experience working with great seafood down in Florida. I took everything I learned and applied it to what The Jackdaw is doing. I made an Arctic Char Kinilaw at the Pulutan event with a papaya relish, coconut milk, cane vinegar, and calamansi. That was the big hit from what I gather. My friend Keisler said it was that dish and those flavors that reminded him the most of home.
Arctic Char Kinilaw with papaya relish,, coconut milk, cane vinegar, and calamansi
I don’t think I got any negative feedback. My diners always seem to be supportive and good sports. In return, I promise not to serve them bullshit. Haha. I was told that my sisig needed more crunch to it, which I can totally agree with. I appreciate honest feedback.
What’s the skinny on Filipino food in Richmond?
Filipino food in Richmond…certainly lacking in presence. It’s a damn shame because there is a pretty large community here. You always here of little events through the grapevine, but no restaurants. Vanessa Lorenzo turned me onto a sports bar that actually serves authentic Filipino food. It’s way off the beaten path, but it’s there. I’ve seen a couple of other dinners pop-up here and there, but I don’t feel like they captured the essence of Filipino food or tried to let the scene know there’s more to Filipino food than Adobo and Lumpia (which I enjoy both immensely.) It’s a bummer to me because any time I see something Filipino-influenced pop up, it seems to be a one-time experience. I don’t feel like you can turn people on to this food and it’s growing movement by just doing one dinner.
Richmond is kind of funny. It’s slightly oversaturated with middle of the road Asian restaurants and modern American restaurants with standard Asian undertones. All the restaurants seem to hit the same notes. Its flirtation with Asian food seems kind of forced and safe, if you catch my drift. It’s all the safe, approachable dishes/components in Asian food you recognize served with Southern ingredients and stylings. There are a couple of restaurants that are exceptions, but not Filipino.
I think Filipino food has so much potential here though. I’m hoping I can be a part of driving it forward in Richmond. I’ve got such a small cult following, but my customer base is loyal and consistent. I rely on their word of mouth with my limited promotion resources to push The Jackdaw further. I’m totally down for helping make Filipino food cool in Richmond. It’s not trendy to me. It makes total sense that this food should be popular everywhere. It has everything you need: salty, spicy, sweet, sour, crunchy, chewy flavors and textures…not to mention so much global influences, being Filipino food is the OG fusion food.
Your upcoming Kamayan Dinner on Aug. 21 is your last. Why? Any more Filipino food pop-ups planned in the near future?
It won’t necessarily be the last pop-up, but as far as the kamayan goes, definitely the last (for now.) I just don’t want to pigeonhole myself. The turnouts have been great and I should be going with my most popular dinners, but I like to shake things up and not beat something to death until no one takes notice. I like to end things on a high note and move on to the next. That’s the beautiful thing about The Jackdaw. The name allows me a level of freedom synonymous with the ability to change and adapt.
There are definitely more Filipino-inspired dinners in the works. I’m going to focus more on intimate, supper-club style events after the kamayan. I want to be able to engage the crowd more. I’m also planning a brunch pop-up in the near future as well.
What is your favorite Filipino food? Any story or memory attached to it?
It seems so silly, but Halo Halo. I don’t have too many memories as an adult that remind me of being a kid, but one spoonful of halo halo…and I feel like a giddy child again. It’s everything that I remember from being a kid except a lot more awesome.
Chicken Adobo is another one. It’s not that it is the best Filipino food I’ve ever had, but it certainly left the most lasting effect. One of my cooks made it for me a while back, and while I’ve had Filipino food as early as my youth: this was nothing like I’ve had before. I admire it’s simplicity in terms of preparation, but there’s nothing subtle about the punch of that vinegar and soy sauce. I loved it so much I make a variation of adobo about a couple of times a month for staff meal.
Pork Kaldereta is an ultimate comfort food for me too, especially when I’m feeling sick. There’s something about it.
Connect with Ian Merriman:
*Special thanks to Vanessa Lorenzo of Amusing Maria for keeping her finger on the pulse of Richmond and introducing me to Chef Ian.
by Jacqueline Lauri of My Food Beginnings – a Filipino food anthology project
Bringing people together through food and stories