I hadn’t been in Manila long enough to adjust to the climate or even recover from the twenty-hour flight from Chicago before I met up with Chef Sharwin Tee of Lifestyle Network’s Curiosity Got The Chef. To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t heard of him. My mom had to give me the lowdown on who he is and what he does so I wouldn’t look like an idiot. I didn’t know what to expect from this meeting. Was I supposed to interview him? About what? Did he have a new project? Should I ask about his zodiac sign? His preferences on how to cook scrambled eggs?
It was my own fault that I hadn’t done my usual due diligence to prep for our meeting. So, I threw caution to the polluted wind of Manila and decided to just find some common ground and let my talkative self do the rest.
We met at LRI Design Plaza, where you can find all sorts of upscale home decor. We started talking about what made him want to cook and he said that it was the TV show “Wok with Yan”. I had fond memories of the same cooking show! Chef Sharwin explained, “This Chinese guy in Vancouver had a cooking show and by just cooking, he was able to mesmerize his live studio audience with just cooking and jokes. I was in awe that cooking could do that and so began my interest in it.”
As we talked more about his path to the culinary world, from watching Nora Daza, the first Filipino celebrity chef, (dare I say our own Julia Child?) to his side trip as an English teacher to being back on track on his culinary journey, he mentioned that he would be coming to the US on vacation.
That got me thinking--I suggested doing a series of pop-ups while he would be in the US. As we ate suman, we mapped out a pop-up and my mere suggestion became a reality.
Filipino Kitchen: A lot of your peers in the food industry are focusing on foreign cuisines, so why focus on Filipino cuisine?
Sharwin Tee: I think most chefs, when they grow older in our business, will gravitate towards the food that they grew up with. I started my career cooking French food, which I was trained for, but soon, I became more and more interested in local cuisine. First, with Filipino cuisine then now, more recently, Chinese Filipino or Chinoy (Tsinoy) cuisine. I love balanced flavors, dishes with sweet, salty, sour, bitter and spicy flavors, and I find that Filipino cuisine has the best exemplifications of that.
FK: What is your favorite adventure on your show “Curiosity Got The Chef” and why?
ST: I have been blessed to have gone around so many places in season five of Curiosity Got the Chef and I have loved every minute of it. One of my favorites would have to be in Cavite. With the help of my friend and proud Caviteno Ige Ramos, we got to visit Angelo Aguinaldo, the grandson of General Emilio Aguinaldo and learned all about the national hero's favorite dishes. The cherry on top is that apart from touring the General's home, I got to cook one of his favorite dishes on his lawn where he used to hot his parties.
FK: What is your favorite Filipino food memory and why?
ST: Oh man, I have so many awesome Filipino food memories that it'll be hard to pick. Perhaps it was in Davao, where I cooked Filipino food using Canadian ingredients and Canadian dishes using Filipino ingredients for the Embassy of Canada. I created a dish, Durian Nanaimo Bars. Nanaimo Bars are a dessert in British Columbia but I added a Filipino twist using local chocolates and durian. The Ambassador of Canada was a native of British Columbia and I got to convince him to taste my Filipino Nanaimo Bar and he loved it!
FK: You mentioned focusing on Chinese Filipino food; what drives this focus right now? How is Chinese Filipino food different from Chinese food and Filipino food? What makes it special or localized to the Philippines?
ST: My family is Chinese, so naturally I did pick up a lot of Chinese recipes and I got to taste them too while growing up. I feel like, with my background, I am in a unique situation to cook and create Chinese Filipino recipes and introduce or reintroduce them to the public. This was then enhanced when I realised that so many of our favorites classified as Chinese food are actually unique or most popular to the Philippines only. Things like the ma chang, siopao, Kiam pung and others may have gotten their start in China or Taiwan, but they have been so beloved in the Philippines that they have become a part of our culture. A lot of these recipes have now been adapted for the Filipino palate. For example, it's perfectly alright in the Philippines to have banana catsup with your oyster cake or radish cake, hot sauce with your ma chang. That means that it is, true Filipino food, since the Chinese have such a presence in the Philippines.