Self-Taught Chef Abi Balingit is a James Beard Award Winner
Food

Self-Taught Baker, Author, and Trinket Collector Abi Balingit Makes The World A Little Bit Sweeter

Abi Balingit accepts her James Beard Award for Emerging Voice 2024. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

In a conversation with Vogue Philippines, Abi Balingit, the 29-year old baker and recent James Beard award winner for the Emerging Voice Award 2024 demonstrated that she wears a lot of hats.

Sometimes, it’s literal: on the night she won the prestigious James Beard award, Abi Balingit wore an octopus hat by artist Rae Swon. “That was the main conversation piece, honestly, besides the little medal,” she humorously recalls. Albeit a little subtler than her tentacled fascinator, she also wore the colors of her book, Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed, glowing in hues of green and fuchsia for the event.

Balingit’s joyful, creative, and passionate personality shines through best as she expresses herself through both fashion and food. “It’s just fun,” the baker and author says about her style. “I have so much fun with both food and with fashion and my personal style. It’s an opportunity to express myself in creative ways: what I look like and what I make speaks for myself.”

Abi Balingit poses with her award alongside her partner, Jason Dessalet. Photo courtesy of Abi Balingit

In her speech, the winner of the 2024 James Beard Emerging Voice Award says, “As a member of the diaspora, yes, I am American, but first and foremost I am proud to be Filipino.”

Abi Balingit’s road to the James Beard Awards started during the summer of 2020 when she launched her baking blog, The Dusky Kitchen. Initially a home baker, Balingit has now expanded her reach through pop-up events and online interactions. “I’ve been doing more pop-ups because I’m a self-taught baker and don’t have my own bakery or shop,” Balingit tells Vogue Philippines. Despite lacking a permanent commercial space, her experiences have allowed her to connect with people, share her creations, and grow as a self-taught baker. Since then, she compiled her recipes into a cookbook, Mayumu, and the rest is history.

Her journey as a self-taught baker also opens up a discussion on what makes a successful culinary personality. “I’ve seen how predominantly white institutions fail you in higher education, the workplace, and the upper echelons of the food world,” the self-taught chef says in her speech. “No matter what, Filipinos have made spaces where we support and take care of each other.”

Mayumu is a cookbook where Filipino flavors from Balingit’s fond memories are remixed with American techniques, capturing her experience growing up as a Filipino-American. Courtesy of Abi Balingit

Apart from cooking and baking, Balingit shares that she also has a penchant for collecting unique and meaningful items, from tiny glass objects to ceramics. One of her recent favorites is an In-N-Out mug that looks like a Double Double Burger. “To me, it reminds me that I’m from California. When I go home, my parents always drive me to the drive-thru to In-N-Out,” Balingit shares. She enjoys the sentimental value these trinkets hold and how they reflect her personality and heritage. “They don’t have to be expensive. I think that’s the beauty of trinkets. It’s just sentimental value to you,” Balingit says, adding that she wants to explore this fascination by visiting friends and seeing their collections. “For me, it’s like always the smaller things give me a lot of joy,” she explains.

Sentimentality plays a significant role in her life. She fondly recalls family recipes and the vibrant flavors of Filipino desserts that inspire her creations. “I am very proud, first of all, to be Filipino and then to be Kapampangan where food is such a staple of my identity,” Balingit says, alluding to her parents who were both from Pampanga, the culinary capital of the Philippines. From maja blanca to cassava cake, these traditional treats are a staple in her family, and Balingit has adapted some of these recipes in her cookbook.

Visiting her parents’ hometown in Pampanga has given Balingit some of her favorite culinary memories. She reminisces about New Year’s Eve celebrations filled with an abundance of kakanin. “When I visited a few years ago for Christmas and New Years’ Ever, my auntie Aida, made all of these rice cakes,” she recalls. The constant presence of food and the joy of family gatherings are experiences she treasures deeply. Her close-knit ties to her family and these occasional visits inspire her work and keep her connected to her cultural heritage.

One of the standout recipes from Mayumu is the Adobo Chocolate Chip Cookie. This unique creation blends savory and sweet flavors, incorporating bay leaf, pink peppercorn, and dark chocolate. “That recipe came out of wanting to incorporate a lot of savory notes into my desserts,” she explains. “I also feel like it’s a Filipino thing to meld different cultures. The chocolate chip cookie is very American, and adobo is very Filipino. I always thought that it was the perfect recipe that encapsulates my background as a Filipino-American.”

Adobo Chocolate Chip Cookie. Courtesy of Abi Balingit
Halo-Halo Baked Alaska. Courtesy of Abi Balingit

Beyond her Filipino-American heritage, Balingit draws inspiration from her daily life, work, and the people she meets. Living in New York, she feels surrounded by a melting pot of cuisines, where you can “try everything.” Growing up in California, she was influenced by the large Mexican community and the popularity of Vietnamese food in San Jose.

Throughout her journey, the young dessert chef has also been overwhelmed by the support and warmth from the Filipino community, especially in Chicago. “I was so surprised in how welcoming everyone is from the Filipino community here. It has been so cool to see.” Despite this accolade, Balingit is grateful for the opportunities and recognition, proud to be a Filipino-American contributing to the culinary world. “I’m overall just very grateful to be in this position, able to spread kind of awareness about what Filipino food could be.”

“The thing about being American that’s so cool is the global aspect of that: having the opportunity to meet different people from all walks of life,” she reflects. Every meal and new culinary experience fuels her imagination and inspires her future creations. “Every time I try something new, I think ‘Oh, I would love to have this in another way, or file it away as a wonderful food memory,’” she says. Balingit emphasizes the importance of constantly learning through eating, stating, “For me, I am very happy to eat other people’s food and to say, ‘Wow, you inspired me to make my food better.’”

Filipino-American self-taught baker Abi Balingit. Photo by Marisa Langley courtesy of Abi Balingit

Balingit is thrilled about the increasing popularity of Filipino food in the United States. She sees this trend as a wonderful and inclusive expansion, bringing more visibility to the rich and diverse flavors of Filipino cuisine. “I feel like it’s really an exciting time to be a Filipino in food,” she remarks. “I think the scale of what Filipino food could be is just expanding at a rate that is just a wonderful thing to witness.”

However, Balingit also notes that despite the traction Filipino food is getting at the moment, Filipino food has always been here, and through collective action and preservation, it is here to stay. “I hope for a future where you wouldn’t be discredited for your youth, or for being the only woman of color in the room,” Balingit continues in her speech at the James Beard Awards. “The myth of individual exceptionalism tells us that society only values you if you are the best person standing, but my journey has taught me that we must always advocate and uplift each other to survive.”

To see a Filipino person like Balingit unapologetically fill up space is reflective of the current cultural zeitgeist, which is driven by personal expression and passion. Through empowering people to follow their dreams and embrace their quirks just by being proud of her heritage and through amplifying her communities, Abi Balingit is truly an emerging voice: one that everyone should consider listening to.

Interview by Celine Lagundi and Patricia Villoria.

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