James Beard Award winner Erwan Heussaff on his food journey, stumbling along, and doing something that his kids would think is cool.
The biggest chip on Erwan Heussaff’s shoulder is that he’s still trying to get better at speaking Filipino.
It may be easy for some to take a cheap shot, a low blow at him for this, but with it Erwan saw an opportunity to aim higher, or deeper, rather, in understanding his Filipino heritage beyond the aspect of language. While he was born and raised in the Philippines, his work in food and media has placed him in fascinating places around the world for a large part of his life. Now, he’s set on exploring the less-traveled parts of the Philippines and he’s bringing his camera to take the country’s eyes with him.
At The Fat Kid Inside (TFKI) Studios in Mandaluyong, Erwan sneaks up to his office upstairs to squeeze in a bit more work during break times for his shoot. He wears many hats: He has a lot on his plate: a husband and a father, a manager at TFKI Studios, and a host for several shows at the studio’s YouTube Channel, Featr.
Up and down the stairs, he switches between working, changing outfits, and posing for his photos without missing a beat. His career in the past years has found him juggling tasks managing as many as 10 restaurant concepts at the same time; and as someone who’s spent the last decade under the limelight, too, a shoot like this must be a walk in the park. He first debuted as a restaurateur in 2013 with the Hungry Hound, which had Taguig howling for Duck Fat Fries then. The opening of the Niner Ichi Nana bar next door followed, then Pink Panda in Makati, Crisp on the 28th, Hatch 22, and several more restaurants and cafés.
Looking back at his time in the restaurant industry, he’s not afraid to say that he has stumbled along the way. “I kind of had this warped vision of the world in my 20s,” he admits. For a young, hungry, and ambitious balikbayan with years of experience running large food operations in many corners of the globe, opening a restaurant upon returning back home felt natural to him. And while none of his concepts could be considered as failures, they weren’t perfect either. He says that a lot of them were hinged on his own personal preferences of food and not the diners’. He needed to have more conversations with his patrons to understand what they expected and what certain dishes could mean to them. So now, he takes those lessons from his first restaurants to the latest concept he has opened with his brother-in-law.
Perhaps one of the boldest business moves he has made was to close most of his restaurants to focus on TFKI Studios.
Before moving into the large space on Pioneer Street, Erwan worked with a lean team operating out of The Red Light in Poblacion, Makati. “That first studio was kind of a nod to how unsure I was. I didn’t want to let go of [either creating content or managing the restaurants],” he admits. At the time, his YouTube channel was doing well but it was seen as more of a gig to keep on the side. Full time content creators were not common in the country during those earlier years, so he was reasonably hesitant to dive head first into this foreign territory. In the daytime, the nook served as a kitchen studio and office space, and when he would switch on their red light by dusk, it would turn into a pop up restaurant and bar. After a few years of leading this double life and a streak of successful video projects, he realized it was time to fully commit to content creation. This meant trimming down the restaurants under his belt to make room for something bigger.
In 2022, he and his creative team made the move to their studio in Mandaluyong, where the space is dedicated to producing videos for Featr as well as their custom clients. He has turned what was once his hobby into a full career, and a fruitful one at that. The Featr channel has over 3.25 million subscribers to date. This year, Erwan has also won a prestigious James Beard Award for his work on his Instagram account, which he uses as a platform to talk about regional Filipino cuisine.
His interest in food shines with Featr, where he has cultivated a team of storytellers that uncover parts of Philippine culture and cuisine that fly under mainstream radars. They’ve visited surf spots in Bicol, bakeries in Ilocos, and blacksmiths in Basilan to produce short documentaries that paint a picture of how diverse Filipino culture is. “We try to show beauty where people didn’t necessarily know it was there. When we go to provinces and shoot in karinderyas [eateries] or restaurants, they’re all so shy at first. But when they start trusting us, you can really see the sense of pride that people have for their work,” he says.
His channel’s milestones are a marker for how far he has come. The Fat Kid Inside started out in 2010 as a written blog where Erwan shared healthy recipes for his friends. After years of using the same name for his YouTube channel, he decided to rebrand to Featr in 2021 so that he could turn the spotlight away from him. Before the change, he felt a strain from all the work he was doing in front of and behind the camera. “Sometimes, I just want to watch what’s happening,” he says. “It just came to a point where [being on camera all the time] became completely unsustainable for me, so I wanted to take a step back so I could focus on finding my love [for production] again.”
There are few who are lucky enough to be able to do what they love for a living but monetizing your hobbies comes with its pitfalls as well. On the internet where viewers’ attention spans get shorter and shorter, creatives like him are pushed to increase the volume of content that they produce so that their work stays relevant.
With this, Erwan realized how important it was to preserve the essence of being a creator even as his business grows. This means sharing the platform with other food content creators so that he could find breathing room to return to producing videos for himself or a particular mission that he wants to accomplish.
“As a creative, I always say you create first for yourself,” he says. In whatever field you are in, you need to define what your north star is.” With Featr, he is able to tread the line between growing a business and following one’s passion. By producing videos that he believes in without the pressure of engagement numbers, he has created a solid identity that the channel is founded on. In turn, this identity allows clients to believe in TFKI and offer commercial projects that financially sustain the studio.
While he’s as busy as ever, it’s clear to see that everything Erwan does is oriented toward his own north star.
It started because of the chip on his shoulder and now it’s grown into something bigger since he’s a father now, too. He and his team are elbow deep into doing work that will hopefully make a difference in the country.
Before he goes back to the shoot, Erwan talks about one of the many projects his company has set their sights on: completing a documentary series on Philippine artisanal salts to raise awareness for farmers across the country whose livelihood are heavily affected by the ASIN Law. Currently, legislators are mulling over amending the law to revitalize the industry. In a country with 36,000 kilometers of shoreline (the fifth longest in the world) Erwan deeply believes in pushing for this cause.
“We create these videos because we want to put the right pressure on the right places so that [the necessary changes] eventually are passed into law. If the farmers we shot see it, maybe that sense of pride can convince them to keep on doing their work too. Or you know,” he lightens up and laughs, “…maybe my sons or daughters in the future can think that what I do is sexy and cool.”