Filipino Kitchen started in my kitchen -- a long time ago, on a different blog -- with a bowl of lugaw that became my most visited post. The idea of spinning off a Filipino food website that linked culture to cuisine to current events and history brewed and simmered in the long polar vortex-frequent winter of 2013-2014, as Natalia and I made dinners in, steeling against the cold. Although the starting point for Filipino Kitchen was a multimedia blog, the immediate satisfaction of working with our hands, cooking our food together and eating together as a celebration of our culture is where we really started. Natalia and I always had catering, popup dinners, farmers' markets and cooking classes in our broader vision. Though after only two weeks of publishing our first blog post, opportunity came a' Tweeting.
First, you need a chef. And not just any chef.
Last August, San Diego-based Chef AC Boral of so good & delicious was one of the chefs in the first annual Filipino food event, Savor Filipino, held in San Francisco. At this historic event, Pinoy chefs from across the US gathered together, cooking side-by-side to show off Filipino cuisine to a broader audience.
By September, Chef AC had Chicago in his sights next. He and relish underground chef and friend, Julia Pham, planned a three-dinner friendship series based on Asian American identity, collaboration and the hip hop duo Outkast. He planned on staying in the Windy City a full month and wondered what other culinary connections he could make.
The tweet that started it all.
Chef AC reached out to Joanne Boston, co-founder of Savor Filipino and the Filipino Food Movement. And then Twitter happened.
Our first meeting with AC was so 21st century, a Google Hangout. We asked him to talk about his food and his approach to it, why he was coming to Chicago, if we did an event what it might be like, and what each of us would be responsible for.
Said AC, "When we first "met" via Google Hangout, I remember it being really professional and formal. For a first conversation, Sarah and Natalia seemed very accommodating to me, asking me what my expectations were for my trip, and, to be honest, I hadn't gotten that far yet! I was impressed by the 'get sh*t done' attitude they brought to the table almost immediately.
"I was coming off of a tough week and was exhausted," AC continued. "And yet, they extracted coherent communication from me and nailed down some key details and expectations for one another. Talking to them made me more excited for my trip to Chicago because I felt like I'd gotten in with the right people."
Now granted, agreeing to host a popup dinner with a chef sight unseen (or food untasted, as it were) would be considered more than a bit foolhardy. But we had a very good impression of AC, also knowing that he worked with Joanne and the top-notch chefs at Savor Filipino and local Chef Julia, and a little birdie who recently transplanted from Chicago to San Diego vouched for his food at one of his popups, we decided to take the calculated "risk."
Streets of Manila: "It's like you guys are the Welcoming Committee."
After we cooked the Family Meal for our new friends at Sunda, Natalia and I headed over to meet AC for the first time IRL at an event called Streets Of Manila, one of the last in a series of art events in unconventional downtown spaces thrown by the Chicago Loop Alliance.
The gangway just across from the Palmer House Hilton transformed into a street scene reminiscent of the Quiapo in Metro Manila: curtains of rainbow-colored, leaf-woven fans waved, murals of bright jeepneys and palm tree flocked sunset ombres.
As we hung out by the dumpsters (or the entrance to the festival as it were), we greeted the Pinoys we knew walking in or out, and introduced AC to several of our friends in the Chicago Filipino community, including visual artist and dancer Crystle Dino, chefs Jess de Guzman and Edson Miranda of Sunda, journalist Yvonne Hortillo of Philippine American Community Builder, and lead singer of Sama Sama Project, Louella Caballona, Lakhi Siap of Isla Pilipina, and many more. AC also introduced us to Jester Jungco, a fellow Pinoy and accomplished photographer who AC had met on the plane into Chicago! We watched the line dancers toro toro, checked out the art, talked and talked. And ate, of course. The beginning of a beautiful prenship.
Location, location, location: Isla Pilipina
In the months prior to the popup, Isla Pilipina, 2501 W Lawrence, became our de facto dinner spot, where we met with allies, friends and collaborators when we weren't able to host them at my apartment. We'd gotten to know owner Ray Espiritu and the Isla menu over this time, his art and work with artists' collective Escolta Street and their charitable work. Because of all these reasons and it's reputation with the Fil-Am community, Isla was our first choice.
Said Ray, "I was excited at the opportunity. The collaboration allowed us to showcase the versatility of the cuisine through the eyes of another chef. It's definitely a change of pace for us and our customers. I fell in love with the idea of providing a different take on what we normally provide, while maintaining the philosophy and flavors rooted in our culture. AC is a great guy with great ideas, and I couldn't wait to work with him."
Ray agreed to a kitchen takeover for the pop-up on their usual day off, Monday, and after-hours as necessary -- so long as it didn't interrupt their normal service. Not Your Nanay's (Mom's) Brunch for dinner was born!
Everything is cool when you're part of a team
Chef AC's brunch pop-up menu, under the name RICE & SHINE, was unlike anything we'd ever seen being served in Chicago. He asked us and Ray for our input to the menu -- from which bread to use (Bang Bang biscuits were my idea and we sourced pandesal from Chef Jing Palasigue's Cookies N' Cakes in Morton Grove, who we met at Adobofest) to recipes to add (Natalia's ube halaya made into a cream cheese schmear). Here's the final menu (see left, photo credit Ryne Dionisio of BakitWhy.com on Instagram at @ryne_ee):
- Ube Halaya and Ensaymada Butter Schmear
- Longganisa Scotch Egg with Seasonal Salad
- Kare-kare Eggs Benedict
- Adobo Fried Chicken and Garlic Rice
- Maja Blanca Pancakes
To save time and take advantage of the wholesale food costs, AC sourced as much as possible from the Isla larder based on the common ingredients, while other items we sourced from the butchers off Lake Street and the Asian markets near Argyle.
Says AC, "Being a pop-up chef comes with so many challenges that most chefs don't deal with. There is never a "home-court advantage" when you're a pop-up chef, since you have to constantly adapt to a kitchen's layout, equipment, and capacity. Whether you're in an ice cream shoppe or a full-service restaurant, things need to get done. Fortunately, Team FK and Team Isla Pilipina were there to make sure that I had everything I needed and that nothing fell through the cracks; this allowed me to deal with my unfamiliarity of Isla's kitchen with more time than I usually do. More than any other pop-up I've done, I felt comfortable in the space and able to put out good food."
no woman or man is an isla
Isla provided the space and some ingredients, consultation and day-of staffing with Ray on expediting (that's firing the plates, quality checking the plates, moving the dishes to the right tables at the right times), Lakhi and Nikki with front-of-house, and contacts to local chefs. We had to find local chefs that could pinch hit and help AC in the kitchen since none of the Isla chefs were available to work on their usual Monday off (who could blame them!?).
Ray and Lakhi introduced us to two chefs -- Chef MaRanda Holland of Lincoln Park's Coppervine and an alum of Chef Chrissy Camba's Filipino modern restaurant in Lincoln Square, Laughing Bird (recently shuttered, sadly). "Working with AC was amazing. His energy, along with the rest of the Rice and Shine team and the team from Isla is amazing. It's always a good thing when you work with people who believe in their work, who work and "be" from their souls. That's always amazing, plus the food was just as good. You could taste all of the love that was put into it. It's always amazing to me a great group of people."
Said Pinoy Chef Anthony Luis, pastry chef at the Caffe Moderno at the Art Institute of Chicago, "For Philippine cuisine cooking, Rice & Shine was my first pop up, but from previous restaurant jobs that I had I did some similar things to pop up events. It was a very nice experience sharing and discovering cooking techniques with chef AC."
AC met Chef Tony Wright through Julia Pham, who cooks at Cafe at True Nature Foods with Chef Dacia Lang and Paula Companio, an independent small business that provides local and organic foods to the community. Chef Tony said, "It was a unique challenge working in the kitchen at Isla Pilipina due to the fact that I had no idea what I was working with and a very small amount of time to execute AC's menu. With a great amount of teamwork and some kitchen ingenuity we came together to put out an awesome dinner. The staff showed strong support and were really good people that I could tell put heart into what they do. I look forward to doing more collaboration with AC in the future."
Added Ray, "It was odd to see an entirely different crew working in the kitchen. I'm always in awe at the chemistry between chefs. It can go incredibly well some nights, and conversely it can be almost nightmarish. It must have been challenging to have such a short time to build chemistry among strangers in unfamiliar grounds, but they new how to dance...an elegant waltz beyond the ritual."
FILIPINO KITCHEN NOT CONFIDENTIAL
Filipino Kitchen took lead on promotion -- social media, pitching the story to local media, inviting all our local friends, food lovers and fellow Pinays and Pinoys to the dinner.
My day job boss says to me, "Your name is in the Chicago Reader."
James Beard award-winning food Reader columnist and filmmaker Michael Gebert pub'ed our pop-up... ahead of Fat Rice, Publican Quality Meats, and Little Goat Diner?!? This is incredibly flattering and amazingly helpful to get the word out, I thought, but SHOOT that's some big shoes to fill!
Said AC, "Knowing who my business partners were, I had little doubt that we would make a big splash in the community. Still it is humbling to see your pop-up being written up in local publications and getting booked to capacity less than a week after being announced. It all happened so quickly. As an outsider, it was a beautiful thing to feel so welcomed."
I never had a doubt we would sell out, as the team effort grew and everyone's positive energy carried through.
let the RICE'N & SHININ' begin!
Between the gorgeous photos of Rice & Shine dishes we shared on social media, and with the Chicago Reader plug, we sold out the eighty seatings in five short days.
Except that 80 covers (that's restaurant speak for diners) were too ambitious for the seats available and the five course menu we were serving. As soon as we realized this, we sent out an email to our ticket holders telling them we mistakenly oversold, that we were committed to providing each diner with a high-quality experience but that there may be some waiting to get their table ready.
Luckily for us, our diners came in with much enthusiasm despite some waiting, and the weather goddesses had our backs because it was unusually warm for late October. The two parking spots in front of Isla became an informal lounge, under the green neon lights.
Of course we knew from eating the food we would serve before service that our customers were going to be very happy -- but there was still a little doubt the brunch may not translate. Ray said, "There was a part of me that was curious as to how the menu would be received. Diners would either 'get it' or find that it was completely detached from their understanding of 'authentic'. Ultimately I was overwhelmed by the fact that most (if not all) of the diners embraced the variety but completely understood and discovered the splendors of the Filipino cuisine that inspired it. I don't have any empirical evidence of this by the way, I was strictly judging on body language and clean plates."
Natalia and I leaned a lot on the Isla pros: Nikki with front-of-house duties, Lakhi on our host stand and Ray as our expediter. It was great to be in the trenches with them. The evening was not without a few hiccups but I think we overcame these tests with aplomb and cheer.
Natalia and I helped with front-of-house duties: greeted guests, acquainted them with each dish and answered their questions. It was a real pleasure for us to be such direct ambassadors of Filipino cuisine that evening, a joy to meet lovers of Filipino cuisine and those new to our food face-to-face, to see everyone's delight as we brought plates of delicious food and their content upon our clearing their empty ones away or giving them to-go containers to enjoy the leftovers at home.
It was also a real pleasure to see the bloggers and media out in full force and showing Insta-love to RICE & SHINE, like friend, Pinoy and blogger Ryne Dionisio of BakitWhy.com. So, too, did the uninitiated to Filipino cuisine and food-enthusiastic show us some Insta-love.
We invited radio hosts extraordinaire Brian Babylon and Molly Adams from Vocalo's 91.5FM The Morning Amp to come try Filipino cuisine for their first time. Brian live-Instagrammed their dinner with Diptic, an iPhone app that split-screened a picture of the culinary cheat sheets we gave out with the great food photos Brian took.
The following morning -- as exhausted as we were -- Brian and Molly invited AC and I on their show to talk about Filipino food.
We appreciated the opportunity to share with listeners the building block flavors and ingredients of Filipino food as well as a bit of food history and influences.
Molly and Brian, thank you for your great questions and hosting the conversation. But you know, it doesn't matter how digital we get, being on analog radio is friggin' cool.
The "What's next?" question is what the partners are asking ourselves, and I take that as a sign of a job well done. Several customers asked when our restaurant was opening *welp* which is a huge, humbling compliment.
Isla opened again per usual on Tuesday following RICE & SHINE and continues to succeed.
AC finished his dinner series with Chef Julia Pham and then headed back to California.
Natalia and I took an amazing road trip to DC and New York City to meet old friends and make new prens with the Filipino culinarians: Chef Romy Dorotan of Purple Yam, proprietor Nicole Ponseca and Chef Miguel Trinidad of Maharlika and Jeepney, Chef King Phojanakong of Kuma Inn, the team at Lumpia Shack under Chef Neil Patrick Syham. (Don't worry, we'll tell you all about it!)
Looking back our partners had some thoughts. "Pop-up restaurants are like trying to play that Top Chef challenge, "Restaurant Wars," in real life. There's so much chaos to be managed but the energy and excitement and risk of doing one carries you through," recalls AC. "The night of the event, I felt the love from the guests in the dining room and my team in the kitchen. We were bringing something to the table that people wanted. Seeing people excited and satisfied from their experience gave me a strong sense of accomplishment."
"For one night, to operate with a different menu and staff was like watching an episode of Twin Peaks. It was strange but delightful," said Ray. "Overall I was happy with the turnout, and the fact that each of those diners walked away from the place with a new story to be told, and a refreshing perspective on our culture and cuisine."
As for us, we'd love to serve for Filipino food to our cuisine's lovers again and become those direct cultural ambassadors. To be sure, I'll be cooking Filipino food at home for friends and guests, and of course, turning out stories and Natalia's pictures for our followers. Thanks so much for being a part of RICE & SHINE to everyone who came, and I hope this may inspire more Filipino culinarians and entrepreneurs to pop-up in other cities around the world!