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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Up Close and Personal With Yana Gilbuena: Kamayan and Filipino American History

Self-proclaimed gypsy chef Yana Gilbuena, held a pop-up dinner in Downtown Houston’s Henke and Pillot on December 27, 2015.  I was able to grab a moment of her time before she headed out to Bogota, Columbia for her next adventure.  I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. Gilbuena is a kindred spirit and guardian of the Filipino identity.  Learn the deeper meaning of the SALO Project - reconnecting the world to the Filipino in all of us through the treasured cuisine.

"I want to inspire people to keep spreading the word and spread culture through food.  I am not saying I am a world class Michelin star chef.  I am far from that, this is my language and food is my currency.  For me, being able to share that experience with people and give them a concept of what Filipino food is and Filipino culture, I think that is one of the best rewards I can ever get."
Yana Gilbuena wearing a Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project t-shirt. The back of the shirt says, "No History, No Self, Know history, Know self." - Jose Rizal #FilVetRep

CP:  I want to bring more visibility to the Filipinos who come through town and our own Filipinos here -  to identify those little pieces of history that define us and the food is a big deal.  I was watching Mind of the Chef the other day and Season 3 Episode 2 - have you met Paul Qui?



YG:  He was very busy; I was not able to meet up with him when I was in Austin.

CP:  There is a serious problem we would like you to solve, which Paul Qui actually talks about.

YG:  Which is what? 

CP:  The identity of Filipino food in Texas. 

YG:  Oh Good!

CP: If you have not seen Netflix Mind of a Chef: American Season 3 Episode 2, imagine Chris Shepherd sitting with Ed Lee and Paul Qui at Cajun Kitchen in Chinatown Houston, TX.  As they eat spicy crawfish, Chris Shepherd asks Paul Qui, “what is up with Filipino food in Texas?” Qui responds “they are still trying to get their bearings”. This angered me, but then I thought about the ambiguity of our understanding of Filipino American history, the scattered communities in Houston, I get it.  People outside our own culture want to know. 

If you want access to Filipino food in Texas, you have to go to steam table; it is not like Jeepney of New York. 

YG:  What does that even mean?  What is a steam table?  It’s turo-turo.

CP:  It’s basically Mom’s house.  Filipino history and Filipino food.

YG:  It goes hand-in hand.  When I came from the Philippines, graduated from university, I decided not to go to Medical School.

CP:  Do you realize how many times I have heard this story of every Asian out there?

YG:  It’s the classic Asian story.

CP:  Mom and dad want you to either be a doctor or lawyer or marry one.

YG:  More history - my dad was a doctor, my mom was a nurse.  They separated when I was not even one.  I was raised by my grandmother. 

CP:  In the Philippines, that is like wow.  You are already throwing the dynamic.

YG:  It was like a teleserye waiting to happen.  Obviously I went to an all-girl Catholic School throughout my formative years.  Then I went to the most radical university in the Philippines, Quezon City University of the Philippines-Diliman.  From there, everything was awakened.  I always had these thoughts.  Why should it be this way versus the other way?  It got me thinking.  I’m not really happy with that decision.  What fueled my decision to want to become a doctor?  Who am I doing it for?  Am I doing it for me?  Am I trying to do it for someone else and make someone else happy?  At the end of the day I was like, this is my life, and I want to be happy.  I want to steer my life.  I made that difficult phone call to my mom and I was like, ‘Yep, I am not applying to any med schools.  I am just going to finish my degree in psychology.’

CP:  After you were disowned…

YG:  I was punished.  Punishment was uprootment.  Uprooted from what I was familiar with, what is home.  From there I was made to move to Los Angeles.  For me, this is like Manila.

CP:  You didn’t really go very far.  You might as well go to Daly City, it’s the same thing.  They have Kamayan there and the different restaurants there.

YG:  Exactly.  I met so many young Filipinos, more like Filipino Americans.  One answer that really annoyed me, I moved when I was 20.  Most of my peers were still in college, I was already done because they are a little bit later in the states.  So, they were applying for grad school and checking the boxes – like ethnicity.  We had a big discussion about it and they would say “we are Pacific Islanders.”  If you look geographically, you are not.  You are Asian. 

CP:  East Asian.

YG:  Southeast Asian.  If you look geographically, you are not Pacific Islanders; I hate to break it to you. 


CP:  Well there is no other box for that.

YG:  You are Asian.  You are part of Asia.  And they would say, “No, we are not.”  Where does this even come from?  You, as a Filipino, should know you are an Asian.  Ever since I was a kid, I was drilled to think that where we are geographically is what defines us as a country, as a citizen, or as a culture. 

I stayed in LA for seven years.  I did not know what to do with myself.  I have never had a job my entire life.  Finding a job at twenty with no internship to back me up was kind of crazy. I ended up being a behavioral therapist for autistic children because that was my background in Psychology.  Then I ended up having a major car crash at the age of twenty-three.  This was a major wake up call.  If I had died, I would have nothing to show for.   That is when I pretty much decided I want to change something about this and not just cruise through life.  I went back and studied architecture and I thought that was what I wanted – to be in design and that was my life during those seven years.

Even when I moved to New York I was in the architecture design field.   I was doing SALO, my pop-ups as a hobby, my creative outlet.

I loved to cook, I never thought about it.  Cooking was a natural thing to me.  I don’t read recipes.  It is just one of those things.  I just know.

CP:  Did you learn when you were growing up?  Were you watching your parents?

YG:  I didn’t realize it, but most of my childhood was spent in the kitchen.  I was the only child.  My grandmother was too old and could not play with me. 

CP:  That is what you do; you chop the veggies and make yourself useful.

YG:  Exactly.  If she could not control my temper, I would be sent to the kitchen kind of like a punishment.  Ok. I am chopping garlic and onions, tending the charcoal, the dirty kitchen in the back.  I actually enjoyed it.  We would go to the market, get fresh fish.

CP:  This isn’t punishment?

YG:  A part of me subconsciously tried to be makulit so I could be sent to the kitchen.  I like being there.  So for me it came so naturally I didn’t even think about it. 

When one of my friends started doing farm to table, I was thinking no one was doing anything culturally.  There was no aspect of culture in these dinners.  It’s great, but what is that cuisine?  New American?  So what is New American?  Oh, ten different kinds of beets.  Great.

 

I appreciate they were trying to innovate and trying to innovate fresh veggies and translate to a new palatable cuisine.  When you tell me American, I think of burgers and fries.  You can’t undo that for me.  We all have our concepts of certain cuisines and that got me thinking what people perceive Filipino food to be.  Nobody else has defined that. 

I have been to Jeepney, I have been to Maharlika.  I have been to Purple Yam.   I sat down, tasted their food, looked at their menus and this is still not home for me.  This does not bring me home.  You know what I mean?

Maybe I am speaking on my own, as someone born in the Philippines, our only connection is food.  Food, like flavor or any odor, is a big memory invoker.  Why do we go to these mom and pop places?  It is not because the food is amazing.  It is because it reminds us of home.  Since you are so far away from home, this is your only way to connect.  It is so precious.  For me, I wanted to share that.  I wanted to share what home is defined for me. 

It made me think how many dishes out there are not represented.    So many people don’t come from Manila.  What if they come from Mindanao?

CP:  That is so different.

YG:  It is still part of the Philippines, but they didn’t grow up eating bopis. 

CP:  Obviously religion is different there.

YG:  Even the ingredients that they get.  I grew up eating batchoy, nobody else even knows what that is.  It’s Filipino ramen.

CP:  So here when everyone says “Filipino” they think of…

YG:  “Pancit. Lumpia”

CP:  “You guys throw really good parties and the food and you can sing and dance.”  When we define ourselves, it is so different.  How do we marry the two to try to represent ourselves?  We are actually people with thousands of islands with thousands of languages with thousands of kinds of food.  It is this huge untapped resource.  Where do we start?  So we start with Kamayan.  How did Kamayan come into play?

YG:  I had a huge backlash on how I do my dinners.  They were like, “oh it’s kitschy, like American food.  You are serving it off the chuck wagon”.

CP:  Of course, Filipinos are going to criticize.

YG:  It’s so weird.  These are comments coming from Filipinos who have only lived in the city, in Manila.  I grew up in the province, eating with our hands?  Normal thing.

CP:  I was raised by a Lola from the province and we didn’t get to eat burgers.  She would say “you better eat your sinigang and your bittermelon.”

YG:  And pinakbet!  It’s a punishment for food.  For me these eating rituals, food rituals, they take you back through time.  It makes you think we have this on Sundays.  I wanted to share this with people.  If you go to Ethiopian restaurants, they eat with their hands.  You dine very close to the floor, same with Japanese cuisine.  No one tells them it’s kitschy.

CP:  It’s the opposite of kitschy if anything.

YG:  I want people to accept this is the way of things.  I don’t want to apologize anymore for the way we do things.  For the way we like our things to taste.  I have always encountered people who say, “That is too spicy or too vinegary or too sweet.”  And I say, “You eat it right?”  If you enjoy eating it in this certain manner then why are you wanting to – how do you even say that?

CP:  Bring it down?

YG:  Bring it down or take other people’s consideration of what they think it should be.  You yourself should define what that cuisine is.  There is a dish called Bicol Express.  That thing is spicy as shit and you can only take a spoonful because that is how spicy it is.  I have been to so many restaurants where I was like “this is not Bicol Express.”

I want my mouth to burn; I want my face to turn red.  That’s how it should be.

CP:  It should taste like home.

YG:  My presentation is a little on the modern side.  I don’t like overcooked meats.  I don’t like overcooked vegetables.

CP:  Which is what they like to do.

YG:  At the same time, I don’t want to compromise the flavor.  As long as the flavors are intact, I don’t see why I can’t make the sauce separately.  I don’t see why you can’t cook the meat separately and it come together as one beautiful dish.  It is different for people because they are not used to seeing such beautifully plated Filipino food.  They are used to seeing it as brown mush.

CP:  So tell me what it is like going to fifty states.  I am assuming you are booking fifty hotels ahead of time.  Or are you doing it Filipino style - the nearest person who is going to take you in.  My father was pre-Facebook and he could always find the nearest person in any state we were somewhat related to.  He would invoke the “you must give us shelter” card.

YG:  We are related!

I can only count the times I stayed with Filipino families in the fifty states.  I could count how many times I have been helped by Filipinos.  What warms my heart more than anything is that it extends beyond Filipinos.  This project has had people who have never even known what Filipino food is or what a Filipino even is.  They would ask, “Where is the Philippines?”

YG:  It translates cross culture and it’s great.

CP:  How did you decide to go to each state?  What was the defining moment you decided, “I am going to do this”?

YG:  I think it was when I got laid off from my real job and I went on a four week experiment.  I was on the West coast already.  In my head I initially wanted for this hobby of mine to become a bi-coastal pop-up event, quarterly so I don’t drive myself crazy. I would spend two weeks in LA producing a pop-up and two weeks in New York and do a pop-up and ideally it would expand to Chicago, Texas, Florida.  It accelerated, because -  well, I don’t have a job now, what can I do?  My friends thought:  you have four weeks; you can go to a pop-up in each city.  I did it and I want to continue doing this.  There are 52 weeks and 50 states.  You go figure it out.  I said, “that sounds fun; I am going to do it.  I am going to figure it out!”


CP:  How do you even find calamansi in each state?

YG:  I wasn’t even worried about that.  I wanted to eliminate as many problems as possible.  I am going to source everything locally and seasonally.  I am going to carry the most minimal things that I can and work with what I’ve got.  That is part of the challenge.

CP:  I can’t imagine you have your bag of halo-halo preservatives.

YG:  That would be kind of crazy, “just checking it in!”

CP:  You would probably be in the Department of Homeland Security.  “It’s just jackfruit!” (Filipino accent)

YG:  Or Durian, “what is that smell?”

I feel like after I set the parameters of the journey for me, I was like “Ok, let’s go.  Let’s do it.”  It did not mean I knew people in each of those fifty states.

CP:  What was the first state you didn’t know anything about?

YG:  Florida.  I didn’t know anyone in Miami.  I didn’t know anyone in Tampa.  I didn’t know anyone in Jacksonville.  I knew someone in Key West, so, I said, “I am going to start my pop-up dinner in Key West.”  The Southernmost point, how poetic is that? 

CP:  It is the ultimate place to be. You don’t need to bring anything to Key West.  You can just sleep on the beach.

YG:  The best part is that it is so tropical and easy to find products there.  It is ironic because they have to bring products from the mainland.  They don’t really have farms out there.

CP:  It’s conch.

YG:  Shrimp.  They had markets there.

CP:  How did you get the leaves? 

YG:  We had to chop those down. 

CP:  You had a bolo?

YG:  I had a cleaver.  You know what?  We can’t find banana leaves at the store.  There were a ton of banana trees outside.  “Come on guys, let’s go chop it down.”

CP:  It grows back in like thirty seconds.

YG:  It’s like a gecko!  I didn’t even know you were supposed to put it over a fire so the wax melts away and it flattens it out, otherwise it will stay like a boat.  That was the first lesson I learned.  I was so used to buying them frozen and they were already flattened.  Then I went to South Carolina.  I pretty much planned the entire route according to the season chasing the sun.  I started in March and I left New York.  It was way too cold.

I love New York, but it was so cold. 

CP:  I don’t think Filipinos are supposed to be in cold and frozen areas for long.

YG:  You would be surprised.  There are a lot of Filipinos in Winnipeg.  It was by request.  It was some random dude by request.  It was not on my list, but I was like, “Sure!”  I really didn’t know anyone, but he let me stay with him and his wife.  They made it happen.

I heard there are Filipinos in Nunavut, Nova Scotia

CP:  Iceland

YG:  Everywhere.  Sometimes it’s great when I find Filipinos, but sometimes they are like,” who are you?  I don’t know you.” 

CP:  Your blue hair?

YG:  Yes it throws them off.  They are like “What?  You speak Filipino?”

CP:  We are so used to putting ourselves in containers, which is sad.

YG:  For me, I’m a Filipino.  They would say, “No you don’t look like a Filipino.”

CP:  My dad looks like a Tejano Mexican.

YG:  That is the beauty of it.  We are so diverse in language, culture.

You’re from the North; I am from the middle part.  Obviously we have different influences.  There is more Malay here in the Visayas and that is where the Spanish actually came first.  So we have more Spanish in our blood.  I am a quarter Spanish and the rest, I have no idea.

CP:  My family, they were butchers and they measured the success of an event by the number of animals butchered.  They would say “it was a four chicken, three goat and two pig event.”  They brought that old school here and we would watch the slaughter on the swing set.

YG:  I remember the first time I saw a pig butchered in front of me.  I was three or four.  My grandfather took me to the Mercado.  I remember the stench, the stench was so unbelievable. 

CP:  The burning of the hair?

YG:  The burning of the hair, the blood, the fish. 

CP:  The excruciating sound of pain the animal is in when it is being…

YG:  Well yes, that is the only time you can get fresh blood.  It’s part of the life.  As Filipinos we honor the animal.  We don’t waste anything.  We eat everything from the snout to the tail.  Even with chickens, same deal banana peel.  I have eaten the helmut, the leeg, the adidas.  It is beautiful how our cuisine is. 

People ask, “Oh you eat that?”  Dude, it’s freaking yummy.

CP:  Sometimes when other cultures eat it, it becomes gourmet.

YG:  A delicacy.

CP:  In suburban America, I had memories of the neighbors asking, “what’s’ that smell?”

YG:  There is Texas BBQ.  What’s the difference?

CP:  Getting back to your journey.  Have you done all fifty states? 

YG:  It’s done.  I have done Canada too. 

CP:  Imagine all the things you have learned about all the different Filipinos across the United States.

YG:  Not just Filipinos, the food systems. 

CP:  How they get their food or some fusion things to make their food happen, because of the lack of local ingredients they are used to having.

YG:  That is the beauty of Filipino cuisine, it is very adaptable.  The reason we have pinakbet is because those are the only vegetables you can grow.  So, what if you grew other vegetables?  You would still make pinakbet, but with a different mélange.  Why would it not be a pinakbet anymore if I put kale in there or turnip root?  You know what I mean?

CP:  What was the most interesting thing you have seen where they tried to fuse local ingredients?

YG:  It was the local food.  I had chicken fried steak before in Little Rock Arkansas.

CP:  My Tita always thought it was chicken.

YG:  I had no idea what it was.

CP:  The nurses, when they came to Texas in the 70’s, my Tita ordered chicken fried steak and thought it was chicken.

YG:  I thought it was chicken too!

CP:  It is cooked like the chicken, but it is beef.

YG:  I don’t understand the name.  At the same time I have had beautiful food like shrimp and grits.  Oh my god, where has this been all my life?  I love shrimp and grits! 

CP:  Have you had them here or Louisiana?

YG:  I had it in Charleston, South Carolina.  Best shrimp and grits all my life at this place called Amen Street.  I dream about it.  I need to learn how to make that on my own.

CP:  Do you write down your experiences?

YG:  I tried to keep a journal, but I have not had the time to sit down and go through everything.  Right now, while we are talking, this is great because it brings out so many memories of the things I did.  I know I need that time also to do it for myself.  Sometimes I would write while I am on the road or on a plane.

CP:  So what does keep you up at night?  What are you worried about?

YG: I am worried about that I don’t know enough Spanish to go to Bogota tonight. 

The next step is a two-sided exploration   It would be good to see how these people receive Filipino cuisine.  We have traded so much with them because of the Spanish trade.  We shared a colonizer.  It’s like sharing a father.

CP:  They literally had routes from the Philippines to these areas.

YG:  We are connecting with lost brothers and sisters.

CP:  Culturally we see everyone as a cousin.

YG:  It would be interesting to see how they would receive it or how many Filipinos are there or how they were recognized.

CP:  Were you able to draw on a Filipino network there, maybe like the United States?

YG:  I always wonder why there is no universal platform that connects all these amazing networks together.  I can see different groups trying to do that, but there has to be a bigger platform to help people connect – no disrespect to the consulate.

The best part of Canada was how receptive the Filipinos there were of me than the Filipinos in the United States. 

CP:  That is interesting and that speaks a lot.

YG:  They have a stronger Filipino community in Canada; they are more progressive and about collaboration and helping each other.  It is amazing to see it.  Toronto has this amazing Filipino community.

CP:  It is like a clean version of New York.

YG:  They are not cliquish.  I was introduced to them and they were like “Yay!  This is so cool.  You are here!”  They were so welcoming.  They are more connected to their heritage than the Filipino Americans.  They did a Filipino weekend to celebrate Filipino culture in Toronto and they did it in Yonge-Dundas Square.  That is the equivalent to Time Square of New York.  It is mind-blowing.  How come we don’t have that in New York?  Why haven’t the Filipinos taken over Time Square and why haven’t they done something similar to that?

CP:  What are we doing wrong?  There was a whitewashing for me growing up, you don’t rock the boat.

YG:  That is old school.  You experience those times, but are we losing our heritage?  If you watch Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang, we ask “do we now want mash potatoes and steak versus rice and adobo?”  When I was growing up, I would say “I want cereal.  I want toast.” 

My grandmother would say “What are you, Americana now?”

“No!” like an angsty teenager.  Now tosilog is my jam.

CP:  Now you miss it, when I moved out on my own I would be like “I just want an egg on rice.”  Just even that.

YG:  “and just a little magic sapor.”

CP:  I was by myself and my mom was not there to cook for me anymore, I am like starving!  My friends would be like, “why would you eat rice for breakfast?” and I would say “why wouldn’t you?”

YG:  Why wouldn’t you?  It gives you so much energy.

YG:  I was with friends before and they would say, “You are having cured pork.  And rice. For breakfast?”  Well I question back “You are eating an English muffin?  Mmmm.  I like mine better.”

Going back to what is happening next, I want to finish the Americas and two continents.  Done, and then go on to the other five.


Gilbuena with her Houston host Tina Zulu and American-Filipina blogger Christy Panis Poisot.


CP:  You just want to conquer the world eventually.  Are you by yourself?  How do you enlist others?  It just happens organically?

YG:  No.  I travel on my own and am lucky to have found people who believe in me and my vision and who are willing to help me with the goodness of their heart.  It really is amazing.

CP:  I think, she must have a mass marketing firm scheduling away.

YG:  That mass marketing firm is me.  The PR firm is me.  Social Media is me.

CP:  I want to publish this and make sure that the next time someone asks Paul Qui about what is Filipino Food in Houston, he will say, “The next best thing is this.”  Maybe the future in Houston is more pop-ups.

YG:  I want to inspire people to keep spreading the word and spread culture through food.  I am not saying I am a world class Michelin star chef.  I am far from that, this is my language and food is my currency.  For me, being able to share that experience with people and give them a concept of what Filipino food is and Filipino culture, I think that is one of the best rewards I can ever get.

I meet people who are like “Oh my god, I cannot believe you made a dish from my region.  Thank you so much. It just brought me home.”  Or “A soup that you made, it reminds me of my Lola’s soup.”


Yes.  That is what I want.






Gilbuena at Henke & Pillot in Houston, TX putting the finishing touches on the Deconstructed Halo-Halo. 
Photo by Judy Trent


CP:  I saw that you posted you found…

YG:  Calamansi?  It’s year round, it’s amazing.

CP:  That is what we give for gifts, a calamansi tree.

YG:  I would love a calamansi tree.

CP:  Where would you take it?

YG:  A mini one.

CP:  So how long has the journey been going?

YG:  Officially it is almost two years in March, but I started travelling September 2013.

CP:  So what is the longest you have stayed in one place?

YG: I stayed a month in Hawaii.  It is so easy; I met so many people who were like “We have a studio we can rent out to you, no problem.  If you want, you can stay here until you figure out what you want to do.

This was so tempting.

CP:  If you think of all your experiences, and you thought to yourself, going back  or going forward, what do you visualize your most perfect experience to be?  It’s a two prong question, looking back and looking forward.

YG:  Going back, ideally Hawaii is great.  It is so easy to find ingredients and recreate the whole Kamayan feel would be so easy, but I always pride myself in the fact that I love challenges, so the more challenging the better.  The most remote place in the United States, I would love to do that.  I did one in Red Lodge, Montana which is the last city before you enter Yellowstone National park on the Montana side.  Guess what?  There was a Filipina there.

CP:  There was one?

YG:  A Filipina and she was a cook in that restaurant that hosted my pop-up.  So in a population of 20,000, I got twenty people to come.  That’s not bad.

CP:  Then other cultures come to your table, not just Filipinos?

YG:  It was 80% non-Filipinos at all my dinners.

CP:  What is the interesting revelation you have heard them have?

YG:  They would say “I didn’t know Filipino food was this complex and so varied.”  In my dishes, I try to have the different dishes come from different regions of the Philippines.  One dish is from Mindanao.  One dish is from Visayas.  One dish is from Luzon.  Like the dinner you were at, siniglaw is from Davao.  Ginataang is from the Visayas region and from the North I had sisig which is from Pampanga.  The halo-halo turon was my own thing.

CP:  How do people receive your deconstructed version?  You don’t necessarily stay very old school, which I think is a bit revolutionary and kind of cool.  Have you ever had anybody go, “That’s not halo-halo.”

YG:  I think it was in Chicago, someone posted a photo of my deconstructed halo-halo and someone commented on Instagram, “That’s not halo-halo, that’s just like a turon.”

First of all, you were not even at the dinner.  You are in no position to say that is not what it was.  Plus, the whole catch is it is a deconstructed form and it still has all the halo-halo fixings.  The condensed milk, you have the ice cream, the beans.

CP:  Everything is in there.  If you ever open a restaurant, my recommendation is that deconstructed halo-halo needs to stay on the menu.

YG:  I was in Toronto and I was pouring over the menu and I had a two-day pop-up.  I was thinking about what I was going to do about dessert.  Dessert is not my strong suit.  I hate baking.  I hate the thought of making a cake like a sans-travail.  I have to whip the egg whites into what?  I just want it to be simple.

Jollibee has a peach mango pie and peaches are in season and found these mangoes.

CP:  What is the weirdest ingredient you ever found that you thought, “Oh my god, I have to do something with this?”

YG:  The weirdest thing I ever had to incorporate was these mini eggplants.  They were circular, not long.  I have seen it in some Indian stores and I wonder what they are, really.  I tried to roast it, it just got worse.  I tried to boil it.  It did not work.  One thing I was obsessed with – sun chokes, Jerusalem artichokes.  I love their taste.  I would put them in caldereta.  Any time you need potatoes, you can use sun chokes instead.  I like the romanesco cauliflower.  They are so pretty.  I like to put that in a pinakbut.

CP:  So you are pretty flexible.  I have not heard you say that you did not know what to cook because a region did not offer something.  You seem to look at the DNA of the vegetables of the land and you map into it.

YG:  The other thing I was trying to explain to friends is that cuisine in general, you need to know the foundations before you can jazz it up.  It is like music or art or a form of art.  Picasso trained traditionally before he started doing all his crazy modernist stuff.  As long as people understand the foundations of a certain cuisine, they understand the flavors; therefore they can jazz it up.

CP:  The chemistry of it.

YG:  I don’t have the problem substituting something because you know what this dish is supposed to taste like.  I know that adobo is made with six different ingredients:  soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, bay leaves, peppercorn, and garlic.  All of these six things have to be there in order for this dish to be called adobe.

CP:  A certain flavor signature has to happen.

YG:  Exactly.  These ratios can vary from one region to another.  Ours is sweeter in the Visayas.  Tagalogs are more are on the vinegary side and that’s a thing.  As long as we understand that, I think it is easier to do that.  The same for kare kare, it is peanut based.  As long as you understand that it can be any nut and as long as you get the sweetness and the saltiness of the bagoong in there.  It is a flavor balance of sweet, salty, creamy.  Same with sisig.  You have the tanginess of the calimansi, the heat of the thai chillis, this creaminess of the chicken liver and the added creaminess of the egg.  It all comes together with all these textures and flavors.  As long as you understand what it is, you  can deconstruct it or play with it as much as you want.  Someone asked me, a lot of young chefs who want to try their hand at doing Filipino food.  I said, “You need to learn your history.”

CP:  Amen to that.

YG:  You need to learn why certain things are cooked a certain way.  For me, I understand adobe.  The reason why adobo was created was there was no refrigeration. 

CP:  You have to vinegar everything.  That is why they cook the hell out of everything, it is well done.

YG:  A lot of these things have a purpose of why they are that way.  I think people take cuisine for granted.  “It’s just food.” 

No,  there is a story about this food.

Like when Disney did Ratatouille, the food critic was taken back to his childhood with the simple taste of the ratatouille.  It is great.  That is what it is; there are always stories behind these dishes.  If someone wants to make these dishes, you have to connect with your food beyond the ingredients.  It is beyond food.  I am just here as another story teller.

CP:  Your pen is the Kamayan.

YG:  And the knife.

CP:  We are reading it with our taste buds. 

YG:  That is what it is.

CP:  Is that your hope then, for Filipino Americans in general?

YG:  My goal is for Filipino Americans to appreciate their country and where they came from.  How they got here.  The struggles we have been through to get where we are.

It sometimes makes me sad that people don’t even know their own history.  Like who were the first settlers in the Philippines?  Do you even know?  Not everyone can tell me who they were.

CP:  It is even deeper than that.  When I talk to the next generation, do you even know who Ferdinand Marcos was?

YG:  It disheartens me.

CP:  Part of us has to take responsibility.  We can’t change those bigger things, just what is around us.

YG:  Hopefully what I want to do is inspire them to look a little bit deeper, but not because Filipino food is trendy, but assimilated as Filipino now.  We are a nation of beautiful and amazing people.  Look at where we are and what we have accomplished.  It is a gateway.  Food is a gateway.  It is another medium to communicate to people.  Obviously there are other ways.  I could be a full on activist if I wanted to.  I could picket things and join all the rallies, but I chose a different path.

CP:  Your food is a tool for the change.  Everyone has got to eat.  People remember what they eat.

YG:  It is also a way to change the way of what people refer to as dining.  Now there are no plates or utensils.  Is this still considered dining?  What is food?  What is our definition of dining out and sharing a meal?  It is crazy to think about that.  It all comes down to being able to share food with or without utensils without the pomp and theatrics at the table.  Breaking barriers and making connections while you are eating.   I feel that is lost in society.

CP:  The art of conversation.

YG:  We are at the same table together.  Why are you texting me and tagging me when I am right in front of you.  I love the fact it is Kamayan style; it is hands off (your phone).

CP:  You probably should not be touching your phone.

YG:  Take all the photos you want before you start and that is it.

CP:  I noticed you had the ground rules to pick up with your left and eat with your right.  When my grandmother taught me, you pick it up and push with your thumb.  You are not supposed to make a mess.  That was your spoon.

YG:  Pack and push.  One swift move, no rice flying g off, it is an art to be able pick things up delicately and not be like an animal. 

CP:  Maybe people think that when we eat with our hands.  It is so native.

YG:  Other cultures eat with their hands, far more cultured than us, some of the oldest civilizations ever in the world. 

CP:  Tell me about Cuba.

YG:  I connected through a friend.  I wanted to get a more historical angle in Cuba.  It wanted to have more purpose beyond this journey. 

CP:  I treat Filipino history here like an Indiana Jones episode; there is always stuff to discover.  When we do discovery, I look to everyone and say this is American history; this is a part of history.  They are not learning this in school.  This is like an archeological expedition.  You can use food to get in the door, but in a way you are uncovering something even deeper.

YG:  It is amazing when I found out about the Filipinos in Alaska, the Filipinos in Stockton and how they are all connected.  California, Alaska, Seattle, they are all connected.

CP:  I am trying to bring that down here.  Nobody knows about the Delano Manongs.

So, what is your dream?

YG:  I want Filipino food out there.  Everyone wants to order it and you can actually find it.  It is accessible.  My dream is to be able to share my culture through food.

CP:  One of these days, I will see you on TV, Mind of a Chef, Yana Gilbuena talking to our Texas Chef about where the cuisine is at.  It would be great to hear Paul Qui say “it is totally integrated, we totally embrace it.”

YG:  I might continue doing this for the rest of my life.  Home is where the kitchen is at.  I carry home with me.


Join Yana on the Salo Project Goes to Cuba for her next adventure!

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