“Be careful how you sit on those chairs.”
We were at Chef Chrissy Camba’s condo, having agreed to be the guest chef at the January installment of her pop-up series Maddy’s Dumpling House. As project manager I’d already put a moratorium on events until at least March, preferably April, so that Filipino Kitchen could get its business in order without the pressures of a commitment on the immediate horizon. But then Chrissy e-mailed us in December to propose a collaboration and even I had to respond in the affirmative--my reply may or may not have been in all caps. I don’t remember.
So with caution definitively thrown to the wind, we flipped through Sarahlynn’s cookbooks while precariously perched on chairs with a tendency to tip forward if we didn’t balance our weight just right. Both Chrissy and Sarahlynn had recently returned from trips to the Philippines and were brimming with new insights, new ideas, new (to them) recipes and a general sense of wonder.
“What are we calling this thing?” Chrissy asked, referring to the pop-up’s title.
“BAGO!!” Sarahlynn saw my blank stare and clarified, “That means ‘new’ in Tagalog.”
Gotcha. Chrissy divvied up the menu: we would be responsible for one-third of it; she and her business partner Chef Adam “Soigné West” Wendt would take care of the remaining two-thirds. That meant coming up with three items for the dumpling course, one side dish and one main dish. To keep things interesting, we’d also be a woman down; Natalia was leaving soon for the Philippines.
Lumpia was a shoo-in for the dumpling course. While not technically a dumpling, we figured one- or two-bite morsels in some kind of wrapper were close enough. Ain’t tryin’ to out-do the dumpling lady at her own event. With that reasoning in mind, Sarahlynn proposed ukoy (a shrimp and vegetable fritter) and I suggested binalot na ginataan isda (fish and coconut stew in banana leaf). Green mango salad was a minimal-effort side.
As for the main, I managed to talk Sarahlynn out of Filipino tamales. I’ve seen people make tamales by the bushel and wanted no part of it. My catchphrase isn’t “bring it back down” for nothing. So when she told us about the bringhe (sticky rice with chicken, chorizo and vegetables) she’d had at Claude Tayag’s restaurant in Manila and produced a straightforward, one-pan recipe, I said, “Solid.” Menu complete.
Enter phase two: the test kitchen. There’s a reason an entire brand exists around this concept. It’s not in your best interest to show up the day of an event, throw a recipe together for the first time, cross your fingers and say a prayer for the diners. Sarahlynn tinkered with the size of our mini lumpia and the components of its dipping sauce. We made a resoundingly successful batch of ukoy. Binalot was a breeze once we settled on a size for the banana leaf wrappers and a method of keeping the little bundles of love pinned together. I learned to use a light touch with bagoong: apparently a little goes a long way and I ended up doubling the green mango salad recipe to dilute the flavor. But hey, no biggie. I took notes for future reference.
Then came the bringhe. We went through at least three iterations before we were satisfied. I will offer this pro tip: do not attempt to buy chorizo at a white people grocery store. If it is shrink wrapped next to the kielbasa, that’s a red flag. Just keep moving.
I let my mild OCD tendencies out of their cage and made lists: shopping lists organized both by dish and by grocery department, a prep list including day-before and day-of instructions and an equipment checklist. With an oven mit and an abundance of caution as my knife roll, I joined Sarahlynn’s carpool to Salero for our day of prep. Even with an itemized prep list, I did not expect prep to take the entire day. I was a moron. I elevated my feet before going to sleep that night.
The day of the pop-up was remarkably smooth. We assembly-lined the binalot, bringhe and lumpia. I played it cool when Adam called me chef, out of what I can only presume is habit, even though it was exceptionally flattering. As an aside: if you’ve ever wondered about the musical preferences in the kitchen, I can tell you at least one bearded chef prefers Rihanna’s complete discography.
There was one slight hiccup just before service when our ukoy started falling apart in the fryer, but Chrissy swooped in and julienned more sweet potatoes like a champ. Crisis was averted and all our dishes made it to the dining room unscathed. Sarahlynn even had time for a quick interview with the Momma Cuisine crew, who had come to do a feature on Chrissy.
As I thizz-faced through my after-service shot of whiskey, which was definitely more than an ounce-and-a-half, it occurred to me that this experience was not entirely unlike a charming, if temperamental, folding chair. Conceiving and executing a third of a pop-up menu as non-professionals was a delicate balance of experimentation, achievable aspirations, and graciously, or even nonchalantly, accepting an accidental compliment without necessarily claiming it for myself.