Three Filipino chefs discuss the rise of Filipino food in the West.
Kinilaw, Nilaga, Adobo, Halo-Halo. For many Filipinos, hearing these names alone brings comfort and stirs up fond memories of boisterous dinner tables surrounded by family. Historically, our Asian neighbors, particularly China and Japan, have ranked in the top three most popular cuisines in the world, typically leaving the Pearl of the Orient waiting in the wings. However, recently, the Philippines seems to finally be earning its spotlight. An increasing number of establishments and chefs serving Filipino food are gaining acclaim. Locally, three restaurants have each earned a place among Asia’s Top 100 list for 2022.
The late Anthony Bourdain himself dubbed Filipino food “underrated,” noting that it was one to watch after the explosion in popularity of Korean eats in the last decade. This traction is novel to our cuisine, which for the longest time struggled to be represented. In the West, from New York to Paris, more Filipino restaurants are cropping up, introducing more of our dishes to Western palates. Culinary stars Pilar Valdes, Erica Paredes, and LJ Almendras each contribute to spreading awareness on Filipino cuisine in their own unique slices of the world. Below, these three chefs reflect on their experiences starting out and weigh in on the recent rise of their motherland’s fare.
In 2010, Pilar Valdes took a leap of faith and switched careers, founding a bespoke catering company called Kickshaw Cookery. 12 years later, she’s the senior culinary consultant and mainstay on The Drew Barrymore Show, a recipe developer, and caterer. She even co-authored The New York Times bestselling Rebel Homemaker alongside Barrymore.
“I think it’s a tremendously exciting time for Filipino food,” the New York-based chef tells us. She remembers how different the landscape was just two decades prior, wistfully saying, “In Manhattan, I remember Cendrillon and Elvie’s Turo-Turo, great restaurants at very different ends of the dining spectrum. And, of course, a vibrant and established food scene in Queens.” With a new crop of players in the scene, Valdes muses that these days, “there are more and more chefs who are continuing to build on that reach—celebrating their heritage and defining, for themselves, what Filipino food is.”
She attributes part of this increase in popularity to exposure on food media and social media, citing writers like Yana Gilbuena and Harold Villarosa who have helped bring recognition to Filipino recipes. Valdes says, “We continue to carve and create spaces for the multitude of experiences and identities vis-a-vis what it means to be Filipino or Filipina-American in the food space today.”
Filipino elements like ube and patis are also making their way into the mainstream—with traditional ingredients used by establishments of all origins. Valdes notes, “Staples that are traditional to our cooking that have been folded into the dialogue over the years: coconut milk, rice, lemongrass, and fish sauce is everywhere, happily so.” She also shares her excitement seeing other flavors Filipinos are accustomed to trickle into the restaurant scene. “I’m [seeing] more coconut vinegar and people recognizing its sweetness and complexity. Calamansi is one of my all-time favorite flavors, and I’m always happy when I see it pop up in menus—either in a savory dish, a cocktail, or a dessert.”
Despite living more than half her life in the United States, Valdes says she identifies first and foremost as a Filipino. Her way of remaining connected to that identity is through food. “How I move in the world and how I cook in the world is shaped by that, even when it doesn’t overtly show up as a recognizable Filipino dish.”
The Kickshaw Cookery founder, however, remains wary of calling this Filipino renaissance a “trend,” since these labels imply a fleeting nature. Rather, she says, “I believe that this moment really crystalizes something deeper than that. This moment is a reflection of the work of people who have fought to claim the space to tell their own narratives, through the lens of food, on their own terms.”
Parisienne restaurateur, Erica Paredes, says that as little as seven years ago, she felt zero representation of Filipino food. However, since then, that notion has turned on its head. Just this year, Paredes opened her very own restaurant called Reyna, which serves classic and contemporary Filipino eats. The former beauty editor-turned-chef says, “It’s always nice to see people trying out our flavors. I think we’re finally breaking free from that fear that our food isn’t as good as western food and really embracing, being proud of, and sharing our roots.”
Her restaurant serves epicurean delights infused with creative twists that will ring a bell to Filipinos—Huitres: oysters served with sinigang consomme; Poulet Frit: fried chicken with adobo sauce and yogurt with roasted garlic; Cabillaud: cod cooked like Bicol express with coconut milk and shrimp paste.
Paredes believes in order for Filipino cuisine to become ubiquitous, there needs to be space for experimentation. “As someone who lives abroad with access to local and seasonal produce, I would rather use something local and in season to replace a certain ingredient that’s not readily available but will give the same flavor profile or feel of the dish. For instance, I use carrots and fennel to make atchara instead of green papaya or I replace mango with nectarine in salads sometimes,” she says.
“There are so many other ingredients out there that match with our flavors so well it would be a shame not to discover new pairings for the sake of tradition,” Paredes shares, adamant that there are many ways to present Filipino food. “There should not be just one kind of representation of Filipino food.”
LJ Almendras, a former public relations professional-turned-chef, knows he made his career shift at the right time. “Five years ago, I had just moved to the US, specifically Seattle. I was in graduate school trying to figure out what my next career move would be. I was homesick, and cooking or eating Filipino food was how I coped,” he tells us.
Despite coming from a completely different background, Almendras found his next career calling after meeting chefs in the area. “I met a community of Filipino chefs who were celebrating our flavors in the form of pastries, tasting menus, and kamayan popups. It was very nourishing and inspiring,” he recounts of the moment he was inspired to find his “place in food.”
Almendras explains, “As I was making this career shift, food made by immigrants and people of color started to gain the recognition they deserved. Our flavors were finally seen and celebrated alongside highly-regarded cuisines like French and Italian.” Since, he had moved to New York and launched a successful career in food design for restaurants like Chinese fast-casual Junzi and Nice Day Takeout —a trade that involves researching and crafting new foods, recipes, or even branding, for restaurants. The food creative has since shifted from design, and is now the chef for an upcoming Vietnamese concept.
He also holds popups, where he does both the food and creative direction. His latest series, Dila, references both the writings of Filipino food historian Doreen Fernandez and his own reflections on Filipino staples. Dila serves artfully crafted, thoughtful plates that will take you through Almendras’ memories of home in the Philippines, including dishes like rosa radicchio dressed in preserved duck egg, orange juice, basil, and red onions, which invoke the bright pink Bougainvillea leaves from his birthplace.
That this Philippine cuisine has gained traction is a moment of pride for us all. Almendras muses, “While other cuisines have made a mark in the food scene, Filipinos were working hard and finding ways to introduce our food in every possible way. Then again, Filipinos are very good at making a good impression.”