Manifesting what it means to be Filipino American in Chicago in 2015.
Kultura, a modern Filipino American food and arts festival, was meant to reimagine Filipino cuisine for those of us lucky enough to grow up with it and to introduce it to new audiences. We were creating our own space, our own symbols of what it means to be Filipino American As Fuck.
Showing Off Our Talents.
We wanted everyone to know where to get Filipino food in Chicago. We wanted everyone to know the names of these Filipino American chefs in Chicago: Kristine Subido of Pecking Order Catering, Chrissy Camba of Maddy's Dumpling House, Bryan Collante of Untitled Supper Club, Joelen Tan-Kenny of What's Cookin', Chicago?; Kevin O'Connor, Gilbert Paule, JR Runez of Hapa Chicago; EJ Kim of E+O Restaurant for the traveling Chef Rodelio Aglibot AKA The Food Buddha. It didn’t matter to us if the chefs had their own restaurant or worked in someone else’s resto, threw pop-up dinners, had a catering company, were private chefs or anywhere in between. As long as they were throwing down great Filipino food, we wanted them at Kultura Festival.
We invited Fil-Am chefs we'd worked with before who live outside Chicago like Chef Yana Gilbuena of SALO, Chef Rob Menor of Papa Urb's Grill in Stockton, California, and Chef Roland Calupe (see below). Chef Cristina Quackenbush of Milkfish in New Orleans came to party, not to cook (see postscript).
Look at this menu, there's no where else you could have gotten this.
A Taste of Home: Chef Joelen Kenny
Chef Joelen Kenny is a food blogger and caterer. We attended her last kamayan dinner of the summer in Wicker Park. Her proposal to prepare lechon lettuce wraps and a tropical cupcake trio for the Kultura guests were just what we were looking for: dishes that had strong Filipino flavors presented in a new, interesting and accessible way to all diners. We had just approved her proposal and were eager to taste some of Chef Joelen’s work.
At her kamayan, we noted that the sister didn’t pull any punches with her traditional presentation. At a few intervals during the dinner she talked with us about Filipino cuisine and her very personal connection to it.
“What do you think of when you think of Japanese cuisine? Of Thai cuisine? Vietnamese?”
“Sushi,” the diners said quickly. “Pad thai. Pho.”
“What about Filipino cuisine?” The room was quiet.
“Adobo,” someone added after some time. “Pancit.”
One of Chef Joelen’s goals, she said, was to make Filipino dishes just as well known as other dishes from other cultures.
Her parents, husband and several extended family attended and helped set up the dinner, too. She shared a story of how her love of Filipino cuisine was passed on to her from her parents. Growing up near the Naval Station Great Lakes, there were always many Pinoy servicemen and women around their house. Their home had become an ad hoc community center or safe haven for these Filipinos far from anything familiar. The servicemen and women would do odd jobs around Chef Joelen’s childhood home in exchange for the hospitality and the homemade meals that Chef’s mother made for the family and the new extended family. Even as a child, Chef Joelen could see how meaningful and powerful food was.
Her execution of flavor and obvious care for how our cuisine is presented impressed me the most about Chef Joelen.
"I felt very proud to be a part of such a great event. Allowing me to showcase items that are very approachable and familiar with a Filipino twist made it easy for people to engage, accept and welcome," Chef Joelen wrote about Kultura.
11th Hour, 11th Chef: Chef Roland Calupe, Boston, Massachusetts
Chef Roland Calupe, a native Chicagoan now living and working as a private chef in Boston and greater New England, joined the Kultura chef roster less than 48 hours before the event.
You’re sure you know the event is in two days, right? we asked. He confirmed, signed contracts, sent necessities. He had just returned from a trip abroad, heard what we were doing in his hometown, and decided to book a plane ticket, assemble a crew of sous chefs, write and execute a menu, and be a part of Kultura. We were familiar with Chef Roland’s work at Maharlika’s Guest Chef series in New York City last summer. I knew that if Kultura was attracting talent of his repute, we had to be doing more than a few things right.
“I couldn't believe it to be honest,” said Chef Roland about Kultura Festival. "It was wonderful; it wasn't just friends and family in familiar places. It was inspiring to see the response, and to be a part of that event in Chicago, growing up in the area and having such a connection to the city."
Chef Roland completed his undergraduate studies at Purdue University, where he was active with Filipino American groups on campus. “We had all these conversations: What is this dialogue we're gonna have in the US? We were diverse, ambitious and driven. It all sounded good then, but we didn’t have the skills yet. All of us went our different ways — my path led me to culinary — but now it's great to see everyone contributing. It's great to be a part of that, spreading the passion of our culture.”
Chef Roland recently began a pop-up series called The Milagros Project. His first event was a sold-out Filipino dinner paired with craft beer at a specialty bar in Boston.
Worst thing to happen at a Filipino party: running out of food. Mea culpa. It happened at Kultura.
We sold 576 tickets, and did not expect 400 more attendees to show up. We didn’t expect each person to show up with their whole barangay/barkada either. Everyone wanted to eat everything.
"People were ordering one of everything," said Chef Kristine Subido of Pecking Order.
Filipino American Adjacent. Our allies.
Just like any Filipino party, we invite our friends no matter their backgrounds. If they showed up, we helped them to understand the food, the titas and the culture. A few of them, maybe, learned to love this culture like we already did.
We collaborated on flavors with our longtime friends in food, Puffs of Doom and Jo Snow Syrups. They did so respectfully, with curiousity and energy. It wasn’t something they took from us; we shared it. We invited them and they answered the call.
You see me.
Stories about Kultura Festival were in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Reader. We had listings in the RedEye for a few weeks. We were on WBEZ broadcasting from Navy Pier. We were in the WGN Studios in the glass booth right on Michigan Avenue. Something about that validation felt so good. Like we made it. Like finally, FINALLY, you see me, too. Justice had been served after a long, cold wait.
We want to think that some kid out there having a "Lunchables" moment with her Tupperware of adobo, dinuguan or sinigang and rice might not feel as bad because Filipino cuisine is a big deal right now. That possibility makes it worthwhile.
Strangely subversive. No ba-wrongs, only ba-rights.
Defining Kultura is also defining what it is not. We honor the past, but we are not living in it.
To be Pinoy, we don’t have to wear a barong or a Maria Clara dress.
We don’t have to listen to rondallas.
There are no pageants, and no tinikling dances.
There is no unlimited rice. There are no tita discounts.
We are Filipino American by our very being.
We are our own community, and we are part of the larger community.
We invited community partners to engage with our patrons. We invited organizations that advocate for and/or provide direct services to the Filipino American community like AFIRE (Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment) and the Field Museum co-curation project.
We included organizations that serve Filipinos as part of their broader outreach to Asian Americans like National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA), Invisible to Invincible Asian Pacific Islander Pride of Chicago (i2i) and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago.
We also included groups that served the broader community through food, like Dill Pickle Cooperative. We want these organizations to see how the issues they work on affect the Filipino American community, and how the Filipino American community can work with them, too.
Play what I want to hear.
Not only did we want to give our chefs a stage, we wanted Kultura to be a showcase for Filipino American working artists in the music scene and in visual arts. Not just because they are Filipino Americans, but because they are Filipino Americans doing great work in their chosen genres.
Many of us turned away from whitewashed pop music and towards other genres.
DJ RTST is in a long tradition of Filipino American turntablists that includes household hip hop names like Qbert and the Invizibl Skratch Piklz.
By email, he wrote, "My memorable experience was the fact that it was so packed that I wasn't able to get any food from the vendors there. It was a bit of a bummer, but I think it was really cool that a lot of people came out to experience different kinds of Filipino food. I think Filipino food is some of the best in the world (and I'm not just saying that because I'm Filipino). To see a whole festival packed with that many people made me proud of who I am culturally. And the crowd was diverse, too! Even if Kidragon (who DJ'ed with me) and I had to grab burritos down the street, it's super dope to see Filipino food being enjoyed by so many people.
"It made me happy and proud to be part of an event that celebrates such a crucial part of our culture. Filipino food is something I ate nearly everyday for 18 years before I moved out of my parents' house. I miss it because I don't eat it as regularly (although I do make some bomb pancit). There's a lot of work involved when it comes to cooking Filipino food. But at the same time, there's a lot of love put into it as well. So much so that Filipinos always share their food to have others experience the love. You could see it at this festival. I'll DJ and scratch to celebrate Filipino food any day!"
We want to thank the Kultura Festival musicians and DJs: DJ RTST, Little Miss Ann, DJ Kristin, DJ Czboogie, and DJ Joey Figueroa! Thank you to our stage manager extraordinaire, Emma Cullimore. We want to likewise thank our visual artists: Bryan Becares, Jen Buckler, Nasstasha Camba, Stephanie Camba, Crystle Diño, Ray Espiritu, Chris Gallevo, Raven Guerrero, Andrew Leonardo, Trisha Martin, and Josh Ong.
We want to thank our volunteers whose cheeriness and quick-thinking were critical to making Kultura a success: Jenny Ansay, Jeff Alton, Bryan Becares, Gillian De Guzman, Bernadette Del Valle, Lauren Gill, Rachelle Johnson, Anna Kluza, Victoria Kraft, Andrew Leonardo, Diego Marin, Marijka Muñoz, Kathryn Navarro, Julieanne Trias, and Kristin Viloria.
Thanks to our friends at Emporium Beercade Logan Square: Alex, Ruley, the bartenders, bouncers and staff.
Thank you to our sponsors, the Philippine Daily Inquirer and HMart.
Last but not at all least! Natalia, Caitlin and I want to thank our Executive Board, whose talents, time, patience and humor made this experience amazing: Michael Barin, Mark Calaguas, Nasstasha Camba, Bert Ganzon, Kevin O'Connor, Gilbert Paule, JR Runez, and Ryan Viloria.
Postscript: Where else is Kultura?
Our Filipino friends in food want us to bring the festival to New Orleans and London in 2016. We've been asked to throw the event again in Chicago, will be hosting a Christmas Market version on December 13 and again for Filipino American History Month in October 2016. Keep your eyes peeled for the details on our website and social media! Thanks!