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.