Editor's Note: An abridged version of this article was published by Philippine Daily Inquirer on October 7, 2016. Writer Lydia Neff has shared this unabridged version with Filipino Kitchen, reprinted with slight edits. Filipino Kitchen was also interviewed for this story.
OAKLAND, CA -- The Filipino Food Movement (FFM), established in 2011, has used social media to popularize Filipino food by Filipino American chefs. Founder PJ Quesada formed the organization from a research project where he said he realized that “there was a gap between the new generation of Filipinos that were born in the US and their culture.”
“The Filipino Food Movement is an all-volunteer organization that collectively works with chefs and other purveyors of Filipino cuisine to increase popularity and demand,” Quesada explained.
The organization’s mission is “to create a new community-driven market dynamic around the appreciation of Filipino Culinary Arts by creating brand equity in the global concept of Filipino Cuisine.”
As the group prepares for its second year of Savor Filipino, first held in 2014, the Filipino Food Movement has received some criticism from the Filipino food community regarding operations of the upcoming event and how they reflect issues of gentrification in Oakland.
Vanguards of Filipino gentrification?
Anita de Asis has been serving Filipino and Afro-Filipino food in Oakland since 1993. She has been known as the “Lumpia Lady” because of the unique lumpia she serves, including jerk chicken lumpia, berbere beef lumpia, sweet potato ginger lumpia and curry tofu lumpia.
With her history in Oakland, de Asis has been aware of the social issues surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area and has been deeply involved with the urban community. She came to know FFM a few years ago during a Filipino event and claims that she thought their vision sounded good. “I’m always down to promote and support Filipino culture and history and businesses,” she said.
Early last week, de Asis, also known online as Maowunyo de Asis, criticized the Filipino Food Movement in a Facebook post on September 21, 2017. Wrote de Asis, “The vanguards of Filipino gentrification is the Filipino Food Movement (which is also a vanguard of Filipino Gentrification in San Francisco). This event will be coming to Oakland next month. And not a single Filipino chef from Oakland who has been throwing down before gentrification is involved. Every Filipino chef involved that I have researched either arrived in Oakland after 2010 or isn’t even in Oakland.” (full post seen in picture)
These sentiments caused a lot of outrage and revealed a lot of issues within the Filipino food community. Chefs and other Filipino food organizations shared their sentiments about the operations of the Filipino Food Movement and questioned its mission.
The Filipino Food Movement promoted de Asis on their social media page a few years ago, but despite the promotion, she perceives the organization as catering to the middle- and upper middle class audiences and finds that long-established Filipino eateries are not getting any FFM support.
“It’s been a long time saying that Oakland is a ‘union town’ meaning that Oakland is a working class town,” she said. “The social changes and issues of gentrification made a huge impact on the Pinoys who have been here before. Over the past years of knowing FFM, I find that they are not catering to this demographic.”
There are Filipino businesses in Oakland that have been around for more than 20 years, including No Worries and Lucky Three Seven. de Asis believes that newer Filipino restaurants receive so much attention from the Filipino Food Movement when they’ve only been around for a few years, compared with the long history of other Filipino restaurants in Oakland.
Could this be a question of FFM’s lack of research into Oakland’s Filipino restaurants? Was this a missed opportunity to perform due diligence and become familiar with the local community? Or could it be that the working class and the low income population are not FFM’s target demographics, whether partners or audience?
de Asis explained, “There was a huge story about FFM where every single Filipino eatery featured in the article was a high end establishment. Not a single mention was given to a long time working class Filipino restaurant and the line that the article and the FFM folks was toting was that until that moment Filipino food was unknown to San Francisco and Oakland.”
Pacifica Radio talk show host Davey D questioned de Asis’s Facebook comment: “Who is the person behind this? It sounds like a small clique…”
When asked about de Asis’s comment, PJ Quesada found of FFM responded, “While we have not formally worked with this person before [de Asis], we received her application. We have since learned about a pre-existing conflict between this person and another chef that we have a relationship with.”
Are interpersonal relationships or conflicts parameters that FFM used as criteria to include or exclude chefs from participating? Could there be a way to be objective about chef selection?
working in food is community work
Community work can be laborious in many ways with lack of proper leadership and the fact that most of these non-profit organizations are volunteer-based like the Filipino Food Movement. Could this be a question of communication and transparency to the community? Could they enhance more relationships to expand and improve the food community while aligning vision on how far we want to take Filipino food?
Quesada added, “Our committees are all volunteers. We respect the opinions of other food ambassadors and encourage a constructive dialogue about our difference in the hopes that we can understand each other’s perspective. We are early in our roadmap and we hope to support the opening of a culinary center which would host educational seminars, pop-up events for upcoming talent and a lab for experimentation with Filipino flavors and ingredients.”
When asked what could FFM have done better, de Asis said, “They could have done a better job in understanding the uniqueness in Oakland. We have values and realities that don’t exist anywhere else. They could take time to learn history of Filipinos in places where they want to host their events and rather than reinvent and recreate the story of the Filipino food experience, they could start by supporting existing businesses who have been here for decades.”
On the topic of gentrification, some may see this issue as a way of improving a city or location, but it could have some social implications including displacement of low income families.
When asked about the topic, de Asis explained, “To arrive to a place you are not from and assert yourself as a leader or a spokesperson from that place without working with the people isn’t the right behavior. What they should have done (and still can do) is approach folk who are established leaders of Oakland’s Pilipino community and build a partnership. If FFM embraced the bayanihan spirit, they would have come here to lift us up and move forward as a group.”
When asked about Savor Filipino and its relationship to gentrification, FFM said, “We strive to foster an understanding that there is a spectrum of Filipino cuisine. We expand this to unlocking the potential of Filipino cuisine by enabling the chefs that want to express their own style and interpretation using the food as a medium. In our eyes the chefs are artists and we want to bring to them an audience that appreciates their work.”
“We featured Oakland based chefs in 2014. We chose Oakland because we identified the ideal venue that had what we needed to execute our event. Oakland’s vibrancy and diversity was a big factor as well. Part of our work is to encourage dialogue and highlight various contributions to Filipino food. We have an open invitation to anyone that can contribute to the discussion,” founder PJ Quesada added.
opening the dialogue
A dialogue is indeed needed but to what extent can FFM execute a dialogue? How far has it really brought Filipino food and are its visions and operations really aligned with what could advance the diaspora? Is FFM envisioning too much beyond the resources it has? Or is it a lack of immersion that could give the organization a better position in the community?
While one might understand what the Filipino Food Movement is doing to raise awareness of Filipino food, these statements from de Asis brought out a lot of similar sentiments from other chefs and Filipino food organizations.
Sarahlynn Pablo and Natalia Roxas of Filipino Kitchen, which has partnered with FFM on the ‘Kain na Cali’ campaign in March 2015, state:
“We can see our missions aligning in promoting Filipino Cuisine. It’s the execution that is different. Filipino Kitchen is a food media and events group that strives to connect Filipinos and Filipino Americans to their heritage through our cuisine. It seems that there is a lack of transparency and communication between the Filipino Food Movement and the community.”
They added, “Food is political, not just Filipino food, in fact. It's access to resources, ingredients, ability to transport goods, and the ability to have surplus time or money to spend on eating at restaurants, or the ability to provide for one's family. We see accusations about gentrification as a lost opportunity to build relationships between chefs.”
When asked what FFM could have done better, Pablo and Roxas added, “Awareness and fostering understanding of our cuisine are goals that we share with FFM, but what metrics are they using to measure progress? Is it good for the community? Is it good for our partners? Is it good for us as an organization? They should work on identifying shared goals with all stakeholders before embarking on a project.”
Chef Rob Menor is executive chef in Stockton at Filipino fast-casual restaurant Papa Urb’s Grill. He’s had various kitchen experiences cooking with French technique, soul food and beyond that made his craft different from others’. He is known putting his food into context by describing the history of the ingredients and serving them with a story of how our ancestors used them.
Menor was part of FFM’s Savor Filipino in 2014 and said:
“I perceive FFM as a large market focused group of Filipino food enthusiasts whose goal is to make Filipino food a mainstream draw using social media reposts. I have worked with FFM for two events in the past including the original Savor Filipino. It was a great learning experience as far as having a lot of media focused stuff around myself, the food, and other chefs which I have become close with as time has passed. I'm currently involved in personal culinary projects with relevance to the full culture and my community.”
“I don't believe that FFM’s goal is to trigger gentrification on purpose. However, for those unfamiliar with their platform, or perhaps people who don't share their ideology I can see how they feel FFM encourages it. Partly because Oakland has become one of the largest battlegrounds for gentrification over the past few years and with the pricing and market targeting of Savor Filipino, an Oakland local or blue collar Filipino food enthusiast might feel they encourage gentrification or bourgeoisie.”
Tickets to the Savor Filipino event range from $65 - $120.
When asked about his opinion on the outrage, Menor used musical analogies. He described the organization as a social media-based group whose niche is home cooks and casual foodies who are more “top 40 pop.” He said, “I think for them, it’s about validation from certain audiences.”
“The Filipino food community is going through this because Filipino food right now is what hip hop culture went through once record executives saw how commercially viable it was,” Menor continued. “Money or love? Fame or fortune? We have to find balance between it all. Once you make your goal for Filipino food to go mainstream you have to be careful what you wish for. That's when people start ‘columbusing.’ That's when people ‘discover’ what your culture has always done, pimp it and cash out. Are there non Filipinos who show respect? Absolutely. These are the risks of mainstream wishes. It's not just white faces doing it either. I think it's a beautiful thing to see Filipinos find identity in food. But if it's your goal to cash out and ignore everything else then you will have problems. The universe reacts and what's happening now might be a sign from our ancestors to examine ourselves and what we're doing.”
There are clearly different topics touched in this criticism, applicable both to the Filipino food community and to different groups like the arts and academia. It could be a question of examining ourselves and whether we know what our capabilities are and how far we can take them as Filipinos/Fil-Ams.
About Lydia Neff: Neff is a campaign manager for iHeartMedia's Brand Integration Group and is the co-founder of Pixelfront Studios LLC. Neff is a marketing consultant and a correspondent for Inquirer.net, one of the Filipino Community's biggest online publication, and is the founder of OPM Republic. She is a performing artist and featured cultural dancer for Kularts and Fusion Dance Project. She has served as a member of the San Francisco-Manila Sister City Committee and a board member of the American Center of Philippine Arts. Currently, Neff is the President for the Your Filipino Professionals Association and a External VP for the Philippine American Press Club.