A great meal is like a great photo: it makes you see the world and yourself a little differently. The exceptional ones make you act differently, too.
With a spirit of collaboration, photographer and humanitarian Bryan Alano produces pop-up dinners that he hopes leave diners with a satisfying meal, thought-provoking ideas to take action in his hometown of Cagayan de Oro, Philippines, and in his adopted home, Los Angeles.
I met Bryan Alano through mutual friends while he was in Chicago on business in October 2014. In the following months, I followed his Fishermen and Moving Portraits humanitarian/photography projects via social media. In January 2015, Bryan picked my brain about a new pop-up dinner series he was helping his chef friends start in Cagayan de Oro, southern Philippines. The next time we met, in March 2015, he was paddling out jasmine rice from a steaming pot for patrons of Yana Gilbuena’s SALO Series pop-up in the alley adjacent to his former downtown LA loft studio.
Bryan is the kind of person who, in a different era, might have been a Gatsby. He’s a self-made man and a self-taught photographer who came out of the 2008 financial crisis better than most: he saw the writing on the wall and left the banking industry to pursue his dream of professional photography. He started in wedding photography but now Bryan shoots campaigns for major brand name clientele. He attributes his success in commercial photography to collaboration. In the early days, Bryan traded services with set designers, models and other creatives who collaborated with him on more artistic shoots to broaden his wedding portfolio to other areas. In exchange, he supplied his collaborators with head shots and help on their projects and portfolio work. His community of creatives became better at their crafts together.
In January 2015 Bryan was introduced to a group of chefs in Cagayan de Oro. They wanted to do something together and elevate the profile of the culinary scene there but weren’t sure what to do or how to go about it.
“A lot of it in the Philippines, they’re very iffy when it comes to sharing ideas, sharing skills. Collaboration is not so big over there. Maybe other cities, in Manila, but in the province, people never really adapt collaboration. It was all like, you do your thing, I’ll do my thing," Bryan shared. "It was really getting their heads together and letting them know that if you guys work together you guys could accomplish so much. You guys could empower each other and work as a team. I think that triggered them. They have to do something, and if they do something, they have to really be helping out each other. They have all these ideas, nothing really gets executed.”
Bryan suggested that the chefs work under a common banner and collaborate on a series of pop-up dinners. But what about that adage about too many cooks in the kitchen?
"[A]ll the egos is just so high. It was like, Hey, cut it out! Let’s showcase one person, and then every month we showcase all these other chefs. And then you get to get your time to shine. At the end, it’s a group of collective people, and branding yourself as part of that just makes everyone stronger, that you belong to that group, you belong to that collective. It’s shared responsibility, shared recognition. They understand that concept of it. At first it was really hard. It was really so hard on them."
After agreeing on a collective vision for how the pop-up dinner series would work, the Cagayanon chefs adopted the name Plato. With advice from SALO and Filipino Kitchen and Bryan's consultation and connections in the creative world, Plato threw its first pop-up dinner in January.
Bryan described the overall process of Plato's pop-up production.
“I made sure they would have a strong presence online. That’s where I use my resources. [Contacting] you, getting information, trying to get all that, getting a photographer to get strong images for them, getting a videographer to get strong videos, organizers which I’ve already worked with in my non-profit. Have them to collaborate with them, to organize logistics, marketing, social media and all of that in place.”
While the concept of pop-up dinners was new to Cagayan de Oro, it didn’t take long for a restaurateur, several creative collaborators and, most importantly, customers, to sign on to Plato. Cagayanon diners gave over their expectations and their 1500 PHP (Philippine Peso) tickets quickly. The thirty-seater pop-up dinner sold out in 48 hours. Said Bryan, “It was very new to the people. Nobody knew about it. Nobody knew what a freakin' pop-up is.”
In true collaborative fashion, Bryan took on hosting and wait staff duties during the dinner while encouraging the chefs to give diners a new experience.
“I really wanted to empower the chef. At first they were like, I really don’t wanna introduce my dish. But you’re the chef! So I was really pushing it. They introduced it every time they come in. Our next dish, just a little preview, and then the chef will talk about all the details of the dish,” Bryan recounted. “People were like, this is so cool, we get to see it.”
The first pop-up dinner in January was followed by local media coverage, social media buzz and sell-outs for their second and third dinners in March and June. Plato plans to continue its momentum with a fourth dinner, though details have not been announced (see the Plato Facebook page).
While the Plato organizers took the baton from Bryan and ran with it, he set his sights on producing collaborative pop-up dinners at his home in Los Angeles. In March, he collaborated with Yana Gilbuena of the now-global mobile kamayan pop-up dinner series, SALO, in downtown Los Angeles. The dinner was part of Kain Na Cali, a month of pop-up dinners by Filipino American chefs throughout California.
“Yana was still about to launch SALO. She didn’t have a fan base yet. It was very premature when she was starting. I reached out to her already, Hey, by the way, I’m from LA, your idea’s really great, I’d like to help you, whatever I can do, I’d love to offer my place. It was all just back and forth conversations.”
They looked for locations to host the dinner in downtown Los Angeles, though none panned out. But then a crazy idea took shape.
“So we’re like, why don’t we do it in the alley? Nobody’s here, nobody would care. Let’s do it flash mob style! Let’s do it. We get kicked out, let’s move upstairs! No permits, block the street, had everyone park there, set up when it was dark, put the lights on the table, start cooking. It was really random but we were able to do it there and I’m glad it turned out really great.”
In exchange for Filipino Kitchen's help at the SALO dinner in San Diego, Yana invited Filipino Kitchen as her guests at the downtown LA dinner. They gave us patrons instructions to bring our own chairs and beer, a lovely grey area between legal and illegal. Bryan’s downtown loft was in an old jewelers' alley, built wide enough to fit armored vehicles. With folded lawn chairs slung over our shoulders and beers in a plastic bag, we wandered down the dark alley. From the main street, the alley looked as if nothing was amiss. Not a peep. As we walked a few meters closer, we could see the twinkling filament of lightbulbs strung across in arches, the waxy banana leaves full of shine and ready for food, as were the sixty-some patrons milling about. A little closer and we could hear the DJ’s grooves.
“It was great, be able to build relationships with other people and getting to meet Yana as a stranger. Now we’re really good friends," remembers Bryan. "It was a great vibe. The weather was great. The food was great, lots of beer, lots of drinks. It was fun. Hopefully next year or this year again, we get to do it in the house. Now we got a big backyard.”
Inspired by his collaboration with SALO and the Next Day Better “Food for Thought” event in Los Angeles he attended earlier this month, Bryan is converting his new North Hollywood backyard into a permanent home for a monthly pop-up dinner series. He envisions it as another outlet to build community, with the help of creatives, around food. Bryan’s ultimate mission is to show others how a difference can be made in the community.
“This whole Filipino food movement needs to keep rolling,” Bryan wrote me. “I think it’s going to get bigger… I just wanna build that community, connecting people, empowering each other -- this is gonna be fun.”
Bryan will announce details of his new North Hollywood pop-up series in mid-September.