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)
How old were you when you figured out what you really wanted to do for a living?
At a very tender age of two, Christian Andre Pettersen (CAP) already showed an inclination for his future vocation. Tuxedo-clad, the toddler Christian played waiter in his father’s fish restaurant in Bodø, a town in the North of Norway. At nine years old, he was Dad’s little kitchen assistant assigned to scouring pots and pans, washing dishes and peeling vegetables. Year after year, his duties expanded and by the time he turned eighteen, he was snatching awards at prestigious competitions from doyens of Norway’s gastronomy. Now at twenty-seven, he’s unstoppable. He was honored as one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 for 2017. He has garnered an enviable 11 golds, 8 silvers and 1 bronze like a man with a mission – a mission to live a dream.
Christian’s father, mentor and inspiration lived long enough to see his son live his dreams. Before Christian’s father passed on in 2013, Christian made him a promise – to stand on the podium as the champion of the culinary equivalent of the Olympics – Bocuse d’Or. It’s a promise he’s determined to keep. This year, Christian will be vying for the ticket to represent the country at Bocuse D’Or Europe.
We agreed to meet with Filipino-Norwegian Christian at Restaurant Mondo located by the harbor of Sandnes in Norway, where he’s the Head Chef. He was meticulously plating food at the restaurant’s open kitchen when we arrived. His focus on his work was unmistakable: slightly furrowed brows, head bent over the food on the counter, tattooed arms in motion; it was almost petrifying to announce our presence. As we spoke with him later on, his features softened.
MFB:Please tell us more about your Filipino heritage.
CAP: My mother, Charito Billones , hailed from Carmen, Cebu. My father met her in 1987 in Cebu when he set sail across the Pacific and along the coastal countries of Asia, including the Philippines.
MFB: Have you been to the Philippines? What was the experience like for you?
CAP:I’ve been seven times, but I was very young then. The last time was when I was 12 years old. I don’t remember much, but what stood out to me was the halo-halo. I found its interesting mix of textures and cooling quality in contrast to the hot weather refreshing. I also remember trips to exotic islands.
MFB: How strong is your exposure to Filipino food and culture?
CAP:My mother often prepared Filipino food at home, like adobo, pancit and spring rolls. There was always rice on the table – even for breakfast. My father also prepared Norwegian food so I grew up with food from both worlds. That’s why I’m referred to as the East meets West Chef.
There is a big Filipino community up there in the north. We attended many get-togethers. Sometimes traditional Filipino dancing using bamboo poles (Tinikling) was showcased.
I also had a very Catholic upbringing and attended mass every Sunday. I served as an altar boy.
MFB: What was it like for you, of mixed heritage, to grow-up in Norway?
CAP:I was born and raised in Norway. I never felt like an outsider. As a boy, one of the starkest differences I noticed was in our religious practices. We went to church every Sunday, while most Norwegians didn’t. It was tempting to sleep in and relax on Sundays, but not for us, we were in church at 11am. No excuses.
MFB: Please tell us about your father, who inspired you to be a chef.
CAP:My father, who was a chef and restaurant owner, was my inspiration and mentor. Actually, he urged me not to become a chef. As a chef himself, he knew that it is a very demanding occupation. The job requires a lot of hard work and can take over your life. My father and I had a discussion about this. After proving my skills and passion, we settled that if I was going to pursue my career as a chef, I should be the best of the best.
My father inspired me to do great things. He taught me that life has no limitations except the ones you create for yourself. That’s something I always keep in my mind. I’m living my dream right now, thanks to those words.
I’ve competed 20 times and won a medal each time, making me one of the chefs in Norway with the most participation in professional culinary competitions. My father lived to see me reap awards. In the end, I became his inspiration.
MFB: Which one among the 20 competitions you participated in stands head and shoulders above all the rest?
Nordic Championship June 2015 Denmark
The Norwegian Culinary Championship I won in 2011 is the most memorable. I was the youngest chef in Norway to win it. I was only 21 at the time and competed with the country’s seasoned chefs. It helped me become who I am today.
MFB: Bochus D’or is said to be the most prestigious gastronomic competition in the world. How close are you to getting the most coveted golden trophy?
CAP: Bocuse d’Or World Finals will be held in January 2017. I am going with the Norwegian team represented by Christopher W. Davidsen. I will also be vying to join Bocuse d’Or Norway on Sept. 12, 2017 at the Mathallen in Oslo. The winners at this event will represent Norway in the European Selection in 2018. Winners at the European will compete in the Bocuse d’Or World Grand Finale in Lyon in 2019.
MFB: Can you give us an example of a dish you created where you incorporated Filipino flavors and cooking techniques into the food?
CAP:I made pancit, but instead of using noodles, I used thinly sliced cabbage. I infused it with flavors and served it with crispy pata (pork leg). I gave crispy pata a twist by using pig’s ears, which I popped to achieve a very crispy texture. I crushed it and coated the meat with it. I’ve served this to top chefs in Norway and they really enjoyed it.
MFB: Mondo opened in June 2016, while Stavanger is still suffering from an oil crisis. What prompted the opening of Mondo? What is the concept and how is it unique? Any plans of introducing Filipino-inspired dishes at Mondo?
CAP: The price of oil is low now so the only way for it to go is up. Mondo was born during an economic downturn and positioned to be stronger in an upturn. So far, we’re doing very well. The restaurant is full every night.
In Mondo, which means world, we use local ingredients and take inspiration from cooking techniques and spices from around the world. We have a changing 5-course and 9-course menu and occasionally include my takes on my Filipino favorites: halo-halo, crispy pata and adobo.
MFB: What is your advice to aspiring Filipino chefs in Norway.
CAP: Winners never quit and quitters never win.
*Christian Andre Pettersen is one of the contributing authors of our upcoming book, My Food Beginnings – a collection of Filipino food memoirs and recipes.
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.
“No one can have too many cookbooks,” wrote Marilyn Donato in a letter that came with her autographed cookbook, Philippine Cooking in America. More than just to teach the uninitiated how to cook Filipino dishes, the cookbook adorned with the Philippine map on its front cover, aims to alleviate homesickness through food.
A full-blooded, Philippine-born and raised Filipina who moved to the U.S. for her post graduate training in Dietetics, Marilyn knows what it’s like to long for our homeland’s food and be paralyzed from preparing it due to lack of experience or know-how. Growing up in a country where live-in maids are not only a privilege reserved for the rich, many Filipinos took kitchen work for granted until they have to live abroad. Lucky if you move to a place where Filipino food vendors exist. Otherwise you are left at the mercy of your own cooking skills to satisfy your hunger for your native country’s food – unless of course you can afford a Filipino cook abroad.
The first edition of Philippine Cooking in America hit the market in 1972 when there were hardly any Filipino cookbooks published in America. In fact, according to The Roanoke Times, this is believed to be the first published Philippine Cookbook in America. Forty-four years later and now on its eighth revised edition, Marilyn’ s cookbook with about 200 recipes, addresses the availability of new food products that make cooking a lot more fun and convenient.
MFB: What was it like for you to live in the US in your twenties? What did you like most and what did you like the least about living in America then?
MD: Travel is and has always been a positive adventure for me. I just loved meeting many new friends both Filipinos and Caucasians who were like family to me. I was so excited with my first snow fall, the autumn leaves, spring then summer. It is hard for me to think what was the least I liked, maybe becauseof my “Pollyanna” attitude or “anything goes”. I loved spontaneous invitations to visit a place, shop or eat someplace else.
MFB: When was the first edition of Philippine Cookbook in America conceived? Please relate to us the story that prompted you to write this cookbook?
MD: Philippine Cooking in America was conceived in 1963 in New Haven, Connecticut. I was shopping for my cooking ingredients in the store owned by a Chinese lady, whom I’ve become friends with. Her two daughters were my food servers at Yale Medical Center Hospital. In one of our conversations she said: “Marilyn, your country is the only one I do not have a cookbook from, why don’t you write a Philippine cookbook?” My pride was hurt a bit and I answered her back, “The Philippines has many published cookbooks!” But she planted the seed for me to do as she said.
MFB: Was this the first cookbook you authored? Please tell us about the challenges you went through to get a Philippine cookbook published and made available in bookstores in America.
MD: Philippine Cooking in America was the very first cookbook I authored. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagine that one day I would be publishing anything, and a cookbook at that. There were challenges but they were eased by my friendship with Mr. Glick who owned a publishing company for cookbooks in Boston, Massachusetts. According to him, next to the bible, cookbooks are the most published books.
Mr. Glicked helped and guided me on how to gather recipes from our Filipino friends, and how to distribute the finished cookbooks. My dear mother-in-law, my Ilocana live-in maid and my husband tested the recipes with me in the kitchen, writing down the procedures and measurements of ingredients. The several Filipino organizations, associations in America used the published “Philippine Cooking in America” cookbooks as their fund-raiser project and helped distribute them to Filipino stores and book stores. And since I was the syndicated food editor for several Philippine-American newspapers and magazines, a caption after each article, showed where the cookbook can be ordered from.
MFB: Who are your target readers for this cookbook?
MD: The target readers for “Philippine Cooking in America” are the whole Filipino population in the United States, Canada and Europe.
Marilyn Donato with thousands of her cookbook fan mail
MFB: You’ve sold tens of thousands of books and received thousands of letters from your readers. Which ones among the letters you received are the most memorable?
MD: I remember letters about how their meals have become more delicious and reminiscent of their meals in the Philippines and about how they never thought they could cook like “experts”. I also remember receiving a letter from a mixed household where the wife is American/Caucasian. She was so happy when her Filipino husband exclaimed: “Wow! How did you learn how to cook Filipino!”after tasting the Filipino dishes she prepared.
MFB: About how many percent of the population of Roanoke are of Filipino descent? What is the general perception on Filipinos and Filipino food in Roanoke?
MD: The population of Roanoke, VA is about 200,000 and about 5,000 are Filipinos….about 2.5 %. The general perception on Filipinos and Filipino food in Roanoke is admirable. The Filipinos in Roanoke are mostly physicians, nurses and wives of Americans. The hospitable and friendly characteristics of Filipinos in Roanoke predominate as we share our Filipino dishes with our American friends at work and in the community; when there are food festivals, church activities and school programs. We celebrate our Philippine Independence with parade and food galore as well as sale of Philippine decorations, wooden bowls, blouses, and my book “Philippine Cooking in America”.
MFB:Please describe the Filipino food scene in Roanoke? Virginia? Is Filipino food visible in the mainstream?
MD: In Roanoke, since most Filipinos are in the health field, there are no Filipino restaurants. But in Norfolk or Virginia Beach where Filipinos abound (maybe 50,000); there are Filipino eating places, markets and stores.
MFB: What advice can you give inexperienced and reluctant Filipino cooks abroad who long for Filipino food?
MD: It’s never too late in life to learn and perfect Philippine cooking. Be creative. Use substitutions the best you can, i.e. anchovies for “bagoong”. Or bring the jars of “bagoong” or bottles of ‘patis’, soy sauce, etc.When I was new in Roanoke, I talked to the managers of the supermarkets to stock fresh ginger, soy sauce, some oriental vegetables and fruits, and they did!. There is no longer a lack of oriental food products.
If it weren’t for the Filipino noodle dish, Pancit, Alexa Alfaro, her siblings and Filipino food in Milwaukee wouldn’t probably exist today. Sounds far-fetched? It won’t be after you read this story.
Once upon a time, in a faraway and sparsely populated land called Alaska, there lived a Filipino immigrant named Ray Alfaro. Ray, born and raised in Caloocan City, worked at a hospital where he met Deb Fucile, an Italian-German nurse from Wisconsin. Ray fell head over heels for Deb. Problem was he couldn’t muster the guts to ask her out. Then an idea formed. Why not get someone to do it for him? And so he asked a colleague, an avid pancit fan, to be his messenger in exchange for pancit. Long story short, Ray and Deb wed and had three children. One of them is Alexa, who now with her brother Matthew, owns Meat on the Street, the first and only Filipino food vendor in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Matthew and Alexa Alfaro
Filipino food in Milwaukee? Who would have thought that there would be a demand for this previously obscure food in this sparsely Filipino populated city? Meet Alexa Alfaro and find out how she introduced and created an addiction for Pinoy food in a city in the Midwestern U.S of A.
MFB: Have you been to the Philippines?
I visited the Philippines when I was in 5th grade for a six-week trip that turned into eight weeks. It was a trip I remember to this day. The culture and infrastructure from a developed country to one that’s just developing is permanently engraved in my memories. It was magical and heart breaking.
Our drive into the Tondo area was the heart breaking part. Along the sides of the roads were children living in cardboard boxes and tires. I’m talking three, maybe four- year old orphans.Some of these children had younger siblings, whom they had to take care of. At a very young age, they had to work and provide for their younger siblings. It was an eye opening experience for me at 10 years old.
Prior to this trip, I had taken for granted a “normal” shower, drinkable water, and Wisconsin summer temperatures. My Philippine stay included showering with a large plastic bucket and a pot. You fill up the large plastic bucket with cold water, scoop the water with the pot and dump the water on your head. Now in 115 degree weather, one shower is not enough so this was the routine usually a couple times a day.
Now let’s talk magic, aka food. To me food is magical, in taste and how it can make you feel. First experience was the street food in the Philippines. Now the US only had ice cream trucks at the time but the Philippines had everything. My cousins and I constantly snacked on mango lychee flavor ices and ate pork BBQ from the street vendors.
Next was the fish market. Now while the smell was rancid and could make you gag, the visual trumped it. Fish hanging, fish on tables, fish on bins, fish in buckets, fish in crates, nothing is refrigerated, no ice in sight, just fish for as far as the eye can see and the nose can smell.
Also, I was lucky enough to see one of the vast rice fields in the Philippines. Getting there was an adventure on its own. First, the AC went out. Second, it took forever to get there. Third, as breathtakingly scenic as it was it was equally breathtakingly terrifying – single lane road along a winding cliff. But once we were there it was an amazing sight. Level upon level upon level of green. Terraces holding water. Military with semi-automatic weapons. I now know I had the privilege to see one of the wonders of the world.
MFB: What was it like for you, of Filipino heritage, to grow up in Wisconsin?
AA: Growing up in southeastern Wisconsin and being Filipino made me stick out.
It started when myself and two younger brothers were babies. People would constantly ask my mom from where she adopted her beautiful children. My mother is Italian-German. She viewed this as an insult, replying she carried each of us for months and gave birth to us. It’s still a sore subject to this day that we all like to tease her about it.
In elementary school, I was constantly confused with another girl in my grade who had an olive skin tone. Emeli is Puerto Rican and we look nothing alike.
Growing up we always had a pot of rice with dinner and my dad would not accept macaroni and cheese as a dinner choice. My dad would allow us to eat with our hands. I only eat my rice if it has soy sauce on it which must be Kikkoman.
Other Filipinoness? My dad would crack his wing bones in half to suck out the marrow. Lastly, we started eating sushi, the raw stuff, at a young age. Overall, very Filipino.
I realized how different Filipino food culture was from American food culture when my friends would come over for dinner or go out to eat with my family. One of them referred to sinigang as lake water. Fine, more soup for us.
Also, it was a little hard to explain to your friends why your dad had a fish head the size of a football in your fridge. Yes we eat it, no it’s not that weird.
For my birthday, every year I would request as much Filipino food as my mom would allow us to make. Usually the menu consisted of pancit, lumpia, and pork BBQ on a stick. At first my friends were hesitant to try it. Now they are proudly addicted to Filipino food.
MFB: About how many Filipinos are there in Milwaukee? What is the general perception on Philippine cuisine there?
AA: There are approximately, 1,700 Filipinos in the Milwaukee area according to the Internet.General perception of Filipino cuisine is dependent on your experience. If you had it, you remember it and love it. If you are lucky, you know someone who will get you your fix or invite you over for a Filipino family party. Otherwise you were SOL (sadly outta luck) until late June of 2014…
MFB: How did you get started in food? What prompted you to set-up Meat on the Street?
AA: I began formally working in the food industry at 15, my first job was scooping ice cream. I was paid $5 an hour. From there I always worked in the food industry, Famous Daves, Buffalo Wild Wings, a raunchy beach bar, and an upscale steak house in Milwaukee. This might sound weird, but I enjoyed making people happy with food, it felt comfortable and a lot like home for me.
My early years and informal food beginnings started with my dad in the kitchen. He taught me how to chop, dice, slice, roll, skewer you name it. We would stay up late rolling eggrolls or skewering meat. He would tell me stories about his childhood and family. To this day my dad brags of my lumpia rolling ability. He would make all sorts of different food with different flavor and spices. I am almost always willing to try it.
Meat on the Street began in late June of 2014. It started when I was working as an engineering sales intern. My summer project was to determine if the company was losing money based on their current quoting procedure. Based on my data and results I determined they were and it was a lot to me. They told me awesome job and they might present it to the big wigs at their yearly meeting. I thought if a company can potentially be losing X amount of dollars and run while profiting I can definitely run a business.
I knew engineering was not going to be my long term happiness and I asked myself what would make me happy. I kept gravitating back to food. It had been a running joke since I was 12 that my dad would open up his own restaurant. I thought, well, why not make that joke a reality. I researched food trucks on a national level, then at the local level. I looked at competition in Filipino cuisine, Asian cuisine, and then food truck wise. It was a no brainier. People loved our food. We would serve it at every big party and there were no leftovers. Guest would ask, when is the meat-on-a-stick arriving? That was when the idea of a Filipino food truck was born.
Now telling your Filipino father who is an electrical engineer when you are in engineering school that you want to drop out 22 weeks from a degree to pursue a Filipino food truck is downright gut wrenching. That’s why you start with your mom. Her reply, “That’s interesting.” Thanks for the words of encouragement mom. Finally I worked up the courage and pitched the idea to my dad. His response was the purchase of a used WE Energies truck in the middle of December.
Three seasons in and it still feels like a dream. We have been so well received by the city of Milwaukee. People love the food. Whether they are first timers or looking for a little home cooking.
The name came from my brother’s friend, Josh. He is insanely intelligent and I do believe you will know his name one day. My brother Christian asked him for suggestions. Meat on the Street was one of them. It was a done deal.
MFB: Please define your concept, target market and goals for Meat on the Street. Long-term plans?
Alexa and Matthew Alfaro in their Meat on the Street Filipino food truck at Kilbourn Park, Milwaukee, Wis., Tuesday August 16, 2016
AA: Meat on the Street’s concept is authentic Filipino food and traditional American food with Filipino twists. Our menu consists of BBQ sticks, aka meat on a stick. This is common street food in the Philippines. We serve beef, chicken, or pork. We have white rice, our delicious garlic rice, and pancit, a traditional Filipino rice noodle dish with vegetables and seasonings. We also serve pork adobo, chicken binakol, and lumpia rolls. We sell an American version of kimchi which is our veggie slaw. It’s a green and red cabbage, carrots, and onions with a sriracha, soy-honey dressing.
Our target market is anyone who is hungry. Our menu has been designed to provide meals of substance, meat and carbs and/or veggies. We have elder Filipino who enjoy our food and little kids whose parents come back for 2-3 orders because their child enjoyed it so much and they didn’t get any.
As for now, Meat on the Street is Milwaukee’s only Filipino food vendor. We are expanding this year into a food court styled location at ELEVEN25, 1125 N. 9th St. Grand opening is on Dec.5. This space will be open Monday through Sunday from 10am to 9pm. Our menu will include our current truck menu, with plans to add more Filipino dishes and ramen. There is seating inside and we will offer take-out.
With our Milwaukee location underway, I am looking at Madison for our 2nd location with some type of mobile cart. Chicago area is a 5 year plan for us.
MFB: Which Filipino dishes are the favorites?
AA:Meat on the Street’s best selling dishes are garlic rice, pork adobo, and the meat sticks.
Meat on the Street’s Adobo Bowl
The number one question for the garlic rice is, “What’s the secret ingredient?” To which we reply, “Garlic.” There is no secret to our garlic rice. It’s white rice, garlic, oil, salt and pepper. We have customers who come back for seconds or have eaten with us before and purchase two orders right away. One for now, one for later (maybe a few minutes later, wink, wink).
The adobo is like a blast from the past for many Filipinos in the area. I’ve found that the younger generations of Filipinos are less likely to be able to cook the food. They find the truck and are ecstatic. For them, it’s as close to being in their nanay’s or lola’s kitchens. We’ve heard our adobo is out of this world, I would die for this dish, and more.
A conversation I was lucky enough to overhear was a guy eating our pancit at a Milwaukee County Zoo event we attend. He took a bite, looked at his wife, and said, “I miss my mom.” For us, there is no greater compliment.
The meat sticks is where it all began. Our first year of the truck, this was the only item on the menu, meat sticks with a side of white rice, garlic rice, or pancit. People of all ages love them. Children will come back three, sometimes four times. Their parents are willing to buy their children as many as they want. Other times, adult men will order two sticks, come back for three, and then come back for three more. The most we have ever sold to a single person is 21 in 15 minutes. He claims his family kept eating his; we never judge how many sticks you order.
MFB: How far is Filipino food from crossing over in Wisconsin? What else can be done to give it a boost?
AA: Unfortunately, Filipino food has awhile to go in Wisconsin. We are the only Filipino food vendor in Milwaukee. There is a Filipino cart with American-Filipino cuisine, and possibly one more location more north-west?
The best thing for Filipino cuisine is awareness. Once you have it, you know it and are addicted to it. We have people who will glance at the menu; a Filipino dish catches their eye and BAM! They are ordering and excited.
MFB: What do you consider as your greatest challenges and accomplishments as the co-owner of Meat on the Street?
Greatest challenge in the beginning was getting people to try our food. We are seen as ethnic food and Matt and myself look Filipino. This sometimes makes people wary to try us. We have had our friends come down, given them free food to stand outside the truck and eat. People will then stop and ask about it and are more willing to give us a try.
The other challenge, as anyone who has worked in a family owned business is working with family. It is great, don’t get me wrong. I feel very blessed to be able to do this with some of the people I hold closest to my heart. However, you try working with your siblings and parents on a 90 foot square box in the midst of a crazy event with 50 people in line on a hot day. Let me know how it goes. It can get heated. We are all able to laugh about it after the fact but in that moment it’s a different story.
Meat on the Street in Milwaukee
Our greatest accomplishment is where we are today. We have met so many individuals who love our food, Filipino’s who have flashbacks when eating our food, and the success we have had to this point. It is truly amazing to me that I can say that I own and operate a food truck for a living with my brother. That is great accomplishment, being able to have a personal and working relationship with Matt. The business strains it for temporary moments but it also strengthens it.
My mom tells people when asked, our greatest accomplishment is legacy, the present lives on through the past. Our legacy as American-Filipino sibling entrepreneurs is to be able to simultaneously share our culture and have each other’s back. It brings tears to her eyes.
MFB: If someone asks for your opinion about the viability of opening a Filipino-inspired restaurant in your area, what would you say?
AA: I would say there definitely is viability. This was our goal and we are excited for this next chapter in our business. We think our ELEVEN25 location will be well received in the downtown Milwaukee area.
I definitely think starting with a food truck was the better route. It got our name out there, we were able to market ourselves to a large audience all over the Milwaukee area as opposed to settling in one permanent location and getting people to come to you. I believe if you are passionate and willing to put your heart and soul into it, anything is possible.
*Alexa Alfaro is one of the contributing authors of our upcoming book, My Food Beginnings – a collection of Filipino food memoirs.