Kaliwa’s former chef Paolo Dungca and current chef de cuisine Julie Cortes | AJPress Photo by Momar G. Visaya

EVEN when he was still at Bad Saint, James Beard award-winning chef Tom Cunanan has been dreaming of coming up with a group of Filipino American chefs in the Washington, DC area for a gastronomic event.

Because they don’t get to cook together, he looked at it as an opportunity to be able to collaborate and work with other chefs in the city and showcase Filipino cuisine to a broader market.

Tom Cunanan, former chef of Bad Saint and James Beard Award winner | AJPress Photo by Momar G. Visaya

Then the pandemic happened, and with it the lockdown, making it almost impossible to hold big events like the one he thought of. Over virtual meetings and phone calls, the organizers waited it out and when it was safe to do so, announced that the project dubbed ‘A Taste of the Philippines’ was a go.

“We wanted people to have that smorgasbord of Filipino food and just enjoy it, whether they eat it outside or take it to go,” Cunanan told us as the event was winding down.

“We’ve all been friends for the past five years and collaborating with them is amazing, I am glad that this is successful.”

Patrice Cleary of Purple Patch | AJPress Photo by Momar G. Visaya

Cunanan collaborated with the who’s who of Filipino American chefs in the Washington, DC area Patrice Cleary of Purple Patch, Paolo Dungca, Julie Cortes, Javier Fernandez, Jerome Grant and honorary Filipina Rosie Nguyen.

With the success of the event, Cunanan and his friends are looking forward to making it an annual October event to celebrate Filipino American History Month.

“I love Filipino food and I’m a proud Filipino, I guess wherever I go, I will always carry the flag no matter what. It’s a natural, organic thing that just happens,” Cunanan shared.

The Philippine Department of Tourism invited him and a couple of other chefs last year to do a two-week food tour around the Philippines to sample regional dishes and treats.

Among the cities they visited were Davao City and Bacolod City, which was where Cunanan got inspiration for what he served in the event.

The 37-year-old chef prepared mushroom sisig kaliskis empanada, made with royal trumpet mushroom and cremona mushroom.

He said that when he saw this place in Bacolod where they made kaliskis empanada, he told myself that this was what he wanted on his menu when he got back.
“There was so much inspiration there,” he quipped.

Collaborative effort

‘A Taste of the Philippines’ is something that other Filipino chefs across the United States could use as a model for collaboration in their respective cities.

The smorgasbord of Filipino food that Cunanan mentioned earlier is actually a seven-course dinner. Aside from his empanada, the tasting bento box included Cleary’s braised short rib adobo served with atchara and pandesal; Fernandez served pork shoulder with Bicol Express gravy; Cortes had her beef kaldereta skewers; Grant served arroz caldo; Dungca had palabok shrimp dumplings and Nguyen served halo halo Japanese cheesecake.

The event was held at The Block, which also curated and served Filipino inspired cocktails, with ube, balut. pandan and sago at gulaman flavors.

For Patrice Cleary, the tasting box is a gift from them to the diners and guests as each chef was given a spot on that box to showcase what the chef felt was a dish worthy to be highlighted.

The tasting box had each of the chefs’ creations, from the kaliskis empanada to braised beef adobo and arroz caldo, along with a halo-halo Japanese-style cheesecake for dessert.

“It was about time that we as chefs came together to represent our cuisine and help each other out,” Cleary told us. “It is important specially right now because the restaurant industry is struggling.”

Cleary shared that she wanted to serve something that was not on her menu so she came up with braised short rib adobo, a labor intensive stew which she slow cooked for hours.
Julie Cortes is the current chef de cuisine at Kaliwa. She worked at Del Mar for a year and in the Philippines, she was a junior sous chef at Wildflour.

Filipinos love barbecue so she thought of serving beef and vegetables in skewers and drizzling them with kaldereta sauce.

“This is my first to collaborate with these chefs, I am the youngest and newest here so I am just overwhelmed and honored to be cooking with them,” the 27-year-old Cortes said.

Paolo Dungca worked previously with Cunanan at Bad Saint. He was also a chef at Kaliwa.

He has been doing a series of pop-ups in DC for the past few weeks and just got married the Sunday before the event.

Dungca cooked palabok shrimp dumplings because he wanted to “try it out, see how it is” and was happy “it tasted like it [palabok] but doesn’t look like it.”

“We’ve been wanting to do this for the longest time but everyone was just so busy, now that everything slowed down, we had more time to think about it and make it happen,” he said.

Jerome Grant said he was super excited to be a part of the project. He was the inaugural executive chef of Sweet Home Café at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which received a James Beard Award nomination for “Best New Restaurant” in 2017.

Grant prepared arroz caldo, because it was something that reminded him of home. He did not do the traditional version though since used salted hen of the woods mushroom for his bowl.

“I wish I could do this all day, to be with like minded folks who converse about food and what it means to us because that’s where great synergy happens,” he said.

A James Beard Award nominee, Grant currently works as executive chef at Jackie, a new restaurant in the Navy Yard. He put pork cheek adobo, Spam fried rice and crab fat pasta on their mostly American menu, which he said reflects global influences, including his own heritage as a Black Filipino American.

What the Future Holds

As the restaurant industry continues to reel because of the pandemic, chefs, restaurant owners and cooks need to adapt and adjust, from doing popups to special events and focusing on DIY recipes at home to selling their specialty products online.

Cunanan’s advise to Filipino cooks and chefs is to “keep pushing and keep thinking outside the box.”

He cited the numerous ways Filipinos across the diaspora cook the national dish, adobo. Even empanada and sinigang vary from town to town, region to region, depending on the availability of ingredients in their respective places.

“Keep cooking adobo that’s different, I love eating different kinds, I never judge and I never criticize. Our adobos are going to be different, there are so many different kinds out there. I want to know, I want to be inspired,” he said. “If the naysayers are saying that’s not adobo, tell them to go screw themselves. It’s not for them to say that. We come from different parts of the Philippines.”

For Cleary, it was more than just collaborating with fellow chefs to celebrate Filipino American History Month, it was also about extending a helping hand to fellow chefs who may be struggling because of the pandemic.

“We all could use a little bit of cash right now, and when all of us come together and collaborate, the more that we could bring it. As resilient as we are, we have to continue our efforts. We have all worked so hard for so long and we have to continue the fight,” she said.

The group is thankful to everyone who came in droves to support the project, despite the rainy and cold weather and the limitations set forth by the pandemic.

Cunanan turned a little nostalgic and remembered how Washington, DC gave him an opportunity when he started in the industry. Now, he has more than two decades of training and experience tucked under his belt.

“Filipino food has been such a hot buzz lately and they just want to try our food. All these locals came out, from DC, Maryland, Virginia. I’m so blessed for all the support we’re getting here,” Cunanan shared. “This why I love my city. I pretty much grew up in DC, my first job when I was 15 was here.”

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