"Yes, REALLY," was our oft-repeated reply to inquiries on the No Guts, No Glory pop-up dinner menu, scheduled for January 23 and 24, 2015.
When friends and curious diners kept asking us pointed questions, we knew that we'd created a very different pop-up dinner proposition than the Not-Your-Nanay's brunch franchise, RICE & SHINE, that Chef AC Boral brought to Chicago last October.
We fell for the gorgeous Ampersand, the separate dining space and kitchen tucked in the back of the Kinmont restaurant dedicated specifically to popups, at Chef Chrissy Camba's Filipino Pork dinner in December. For our January popup, we wanted to try something new and subversive with the offal-centric Filipino comfort and street food dinner menu in Chicago's well-heeled River North district.
To take full advantage of the chalkboard walls and blank slate dining room, we invited artists from local art collective, Escolta Street Snatchers Social Club, to interpret our vision. Stephanie Camba, Tasha Camba, Crystle Diño and Angeline Mascareñas were the Filipino American artists who translated the concept into a warm atmosphere full of vibrant Filipino aesthetics and humor.
Said writer and spoken word artist, Stephanie, “I think it takes a lot of guts to pull this off and to elevate Filipin@ cuisine and the parts of our food that are not as celebrated. When you and Natalia told us about the concept I felt it was honoring our culture by giving respect to these underrated food parts. I love the aspect of community collaboration and even the process of meeting over a homemade meal.”
The No Guts No Glory menu centered around offcuts of meat that Filipino cuisine often uses.
From the menu:
Necessity is the mother of invention. Needing to make your peso stretch further on the family dinner table provided the conditions for Filipino culinary ingenuity with inexpensive, previously-unwanted cuts of meat. Filipino cuisine and other post-colonial culinary traditions take the throwaways of the oppressors and create dishes that were not just palatable, but delicious and satisfying. Filipino cuisine makes marrow into sublime, delicate broths; tames tripe and oxtail into rich peanut stews; transforms feet, skin, ear, organ meats and other offal into addictive street food snacks.
To lure Chicagoans out of hibernation during winter, the hook's gotta be well baited.
We put two comforting, hearty soups on the menu: a sour-savory salmon broth and red snapper head and head-on prawn sinigang and bulalo, a rich, beef bone marrow broth. We added a third main dish, kare kare, which is normally a stew, but instead we made a roasted peanut sauce to match the slow braised oxtail, shaved asparagus and baba ganoush.
Evoking the streets of the Philippines, we added a platter of street snacks as an appetizer: crispy pig ears (Walkman) and savory chicken feet (Adidas). Unable to source chicken blood for Betamax (coagulated blood squares), Chef AC instead prepared a jicama-shelled pork cheek adobo taco to honor his own Southern Californian background, with a simple pile of salted, boiled peanuts.
Completing the meal with a dessert of calamansi and Katherine Anne Confection dark chocolate champorado, cocktail and wine pairings from Printer's Row Wine Shop to add a flush tone to everyone's cheeks, we believed the menu was strong.
Postscript: Should Filipino food be cheap?
With mentions by food writers Michael Gebert in the Chicago Reader and Melissa McEwen in Chicagoist and Eater Chicago along with our own promotion, we were sure that the food and culture crowd, Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike, would see the message and come to the Friday and Saturday dinners.
On the Wednesday before the dinners, we learned that only four tickets sold for Saturday. Apparently the proposition wasn't enough to convince more patrons to buy. Perhaps the issue was the ticket price, $70 for a five course meal plus four drink pairings? Or was it that patrons felt that Filipino cuisine was undeserving of a premium value?
Added Stephanie, "I think the only point of concern (as always) is affordability. I'm all for the growth, revitalizing, first introduction of the "western world" to what our cuisine truly is, but I always worry about access. Is this reaching the ones whose identities and traumas from colonization, assimilation, all the -ations would be validated, comforted, brought on a starting point of reconciliation/healing through seeing the importance of the food we've been ashamed of from our ancestral motherlands."
A sobering tone dominated our phone call that Wednesday among the realities of best/worst case scenarios, break-even points, what-ifs and shouldering risk.
We killed one of our darlings to give its twin a better chance at survival. We canceled the Friday dinner and soldiered on with the Saturday one as planned. Those are the tough choices one makes in the popup restaurant business. No guts, no glory, after all.