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)
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(Named one of the “Top Five Food-Related Instagrams To Follow Right Now”on San Diego Eater)
What does it take to make your food business idea come to life? For Chicago-based Fil-Am Rampelle Aguilar, it took guts, creativity and resolve to reconnect with his roots. In order to get his project off the ground, Rampelle pitched his story and concept on a crowdfunding website where he successfully rounded up the money he needed ($5,000) to host his first pop-up under the name, Oxtail Filipino Inspired, a concept he co-founded with his brother-in-law, Ben Sussman. On May 3, 2015, Oxtail launched its first official event, a dinner service held in a cooking class venue in Chicago. It was sold out.
What was on the menu? Though Rampelle associates his Filipino food memory with his grandmother’s cooking, Oxtail’s food is not like the food your grandma would serve. Their repertoire includes Oxtail Ragu in Almond and Peanut Kare Kare sauce, Shiitake Lumpia with Green Mango Slaw, Calamari and Longaniza Sisig and a lot more.
Oxtail’s Shiitake and Carrot Lumpia with Green Mango Slaw
Oxtail’s family in their first pop-up event venue
Now a little over a year since their first event, let’s find out how Rampelle, Oxtail and Filipino food, in general, is doing in Chicago. Take a read at the Q & A below.
MFB: Please tell us about your Filipino heritage.
RA: My mom is from Bulacan and Quezon City and my dad is from Aliaga,Nueva Ecija. My mom came to the US when she was 16 years old with my grandmother and some of her siblings. One uncle joined the US Navy from the Philippines and convinced everyone to come over. As for my dad, he was forced to leave the Philippines due to political issues and was able to find refuge through the US Navy as well.
MFB: What was it like for you, of Filipino heritage, to grow-up in the US?
RA: The neighborhood I grew up in as a child was culturally diverse and filled with many 2nd generation Europeans and Latinos. Everyone held onto their cultural heritage in some way. I learned to appreciate different households and how each family did something different.
Sometime in high school, I moved to an area which lacked any diversity. I went from having culturally diverse friends to being buried in a generic white demographic. This part of my life also made it difficult for me to stay in touch with my Filipino heritage. Filipino food was inaccessible; my mother worked late nights and I learned to appreciate American fair as majority of my meals. The lack of Filipino influence forced me to adapt to American food culture more.
Skip ahead about 10 years and I found myself trying to rediscover my Filipino heritage. Out in the suburbs of Chicago, Filipino food is not very accessible. My family relies primarily on house parties and family celebrations in order to keep the culture alive. It was a struggle growing up to keep tradition alive.
MFB: How did you get started in food?
RA: My first food job was server at a fried chicken restaurant in the suburbs of Chicago. It started as a summer job and led into a lot of other opportunities. Through High School and part of College, I was interning with my dad as a Junior Consultant at his practice. After a couple years of shadowing my dad and taking random jobs, I found myself working at Chipotle. This is where I learned everything about restaurant operations. I eventually left Chipotle to finish undergrad with a degree in Entrepreneurship and Small Business Management.
I initially had the goal to leave food completely behind and try to transition into a full time consulting position. Majority of my clients ended up being from the restaurant industry. After a couple years of supporting and starting, closing and selling other people’s concepts, I made the decision to sell my own concept.
MFB: What is the concept of Oxtail?
RA: Oxtail is Filipino American. I identify with American cuisine more than Filipino cuisine. For the better part of my growing up, my mom was the only person to teach me about Filipino food. It was largely inaccessible and almost lost in our family for a long time.
Oxtail is a reflection of my Filipino roots working with other culinary influences. I’m not trying to be traditional, I’m not trying to be fusion, I just want to cook food that reflects my upbringing.
Our menu has some Filipino flavors, as well as dishes that are not Filipino at all. Our pop-ups are intermittent. We have been focusing on finding a partnership with another restaurant in order to create a more regular appearance. Most of our work has been for private catering and events.
MFB: How close are you to achieving your food truck and brick-and-mortar restaurant dream?
RA: We had to change our strategy several times and decided to start as a catering company. We still have a little way to go on the food truck and restaurant. Once we have a consistent following, we can start finding partners to help get the truck off the ground, then a restaurant group from there.
MFB: Which Filipino-inspired dishes are the favorites?
RA: Three of our signature dishes: Pork Belly Adobo, Ramen Fried Chicken and Oxtail Kare Kare. We get a lot of excitement about the flavor profiles for each dish. The amount of time and technique for the initial prep is always a wow factor. The reception has been mostly great.
Oxtail’s Braised Pork Belly Adobo with pickled green mango
Oxtail’s Ramen-Fried Chicken with Togarashi Pickles
The biggest complaints we get are the lack of authentic ingredients. I prefer to use something fresh, vibrant and in season, rather than using mediocre, out of season, wilted, authentic products.
Majority of the customers that try our food have never experienced any Filipino food. We tend to attract a lot of younger foodies who are adventurous eaters that are interested in trying all different foods. MFB: Has Filipino food crossed over in Chicago? Why or why not?
RA: Filipino food is on the cusp of breaking through. There are about 18 Filipino restaurants in the entire Chicago land/suburban area. This includes grocery stores, mom and pop operations, as well as popular chefs working under a larger brand.
For non-Filipinos, the entry into Filipino food can be difficult. There is a disconnect with the Filipino population in Chicago vs. the amount of food that is represented. Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Korean and Indian food have somehow seen a huge growth in representation, but Filipino has been left behind.
MFB: What is the general perception on Philippine cuisine in Chicago?
RA: In Chicago, Philippine cuisine is still exotic to many people. I still meet many people who’ve never eaten at a Filipino restaurant. Most people I meet have only tried the cuisine at a friend’s party.
Oxtail’s Coconut Leche Flan with Ube Cream
MFB: What do you consider as your greatest challenges and accomplishments?
RA: My greatest challenge is building a consistent presence. I would like to make more consistent events, rather than once every several months. One of my greatest accomplishments is finding a cuisine that fits my style. I love working with Filipino flavors and look forward to applying them to different cooking techniques.
MFB: What’s your goal for this year?
RA: Our goal this year is to be a regular food vendor at a local farmer’s market and build on our catering events.
MFB: If someone asks you for advice about opening a Filipino-inspired restaurant in Chicago, what would you say?
RA: People are waiting to experience Filipino food. Filipino food is ready for the spotlight. It’s just waiting on people to take the chance and make it happen. With any restaurant concept, do your homework and be confident in your style.