FILIPINO American chef Rodelio Aglibot died over the weekend of an apparent heart attack and tributes and testimonials continue to pour.
He was a man who wore many hats: as a chef, restaurateur, TV host and personality, entrepreneur and food consultant.
“Our hearts are broken. We learned yesterday that my big brother, favorite chef, best uncle and lolo ever, the always-smiling, never-met-a-stranger, family-to-everyone passed away on Friday, due to an apparent cardiac arrest,” Aglibot’s sister Ruby Byers posted on Sunday, March 29. “In his 52 years on earth, he touched so many lives all around the world. He had the best time no matter where he went, what he was doing, or whom he was with. If you knew him, you loved him. If you knew him, I know your heart is broken too.”
The last time Byers saw Aglibot was about a month ago when she visited him in Cincinnati, right after his latest restaurant opened.
“It was really good to see him back in his element and he was really excited about some upcoming projects,” Byers told the Asian Journal. “He cooked my daughter and me a breakfast of spam, eggs, and rice before we left for the airport. It was the perfect last meal to share with him as it was reminiscent of our childhood and just felt like home.”
Aglibot introduced Filipino food to mainstream America in San Francisco back in 1996. He was then working as a sous chef at E&O Trading Company, a pan-Asian restaurant, which served wood-fired adobo pork chops and Filipino egg rolls. He moved back to Los Angeles as the chef of Zazen, another pan-Asian restaurant where he infused more Filipino dishes and flavors into the restaurant’s menu.
He became more famous in the Los Angeles area when he became the opening executive chef at Koi, a celebrity hotspot. Then he opened Yi Cuisine, where he wrote a menu that mirrored his biography as a young chef and served a number of Filipino dishes. He then moved to Chicago and became the founding chef at the hotspot Sunda. Years later, he opened Me Geisha Salerno in Rome and Salerno.
The Fil-Am chef goes by a number of monikers: Den or Denden to his close friends and relatives, Tiny to his UCLA pals, and Chef Rod and Food Buddha to those he fed and mentored and to the culinary world. He also starred in the TLC show eponymously called “Food Buddha,” which became famous because he would go to restaurants with some friends and order OOE, or “one of each.” He is the man behind various restaurant concepts like E+O and FireFin Poke.
“My brother’s impact in the restaurant community extends beyond the four walls of any restaurant,” said Byers. “It’s the relationships he built, the personal touch he gave, and how he made his colleagues, team and customers feel. As I read through Facebook post after post, it was obvious to me that he made every person feel like they were indeed his very best friend. It’s that kind of legacy that we all hope to leave and he achieved it with humility, love, and the biggest smile that will not be forgotten.”
Byers also requested Aglibot’s friends for more prayers for their parents, who are in the Philippines.
“I rest in the fact that he’s reunited with our younger brother and know I will see them both again. I have two guardian angels now, even though, honestly, I would rather have them here,” she wrote. “Please keep our family in your prayers, especially our mom and dad. They will be traveling home to CA in the next few days from the Philippines. No parent should have to bury their child, let alone two. They will especially need to feel your love, prayers and God’s presence in the coming days, weeks, months.”
Among those who expressed grief and sent their prayers and condolences on social media are people he had worked with, from fellow chefs and customers to colleagues in the culinary industry.
Billy Dec, the TV personality and restauranteur who owns Sunda, shared photos of a trip he and Aglibot took around Southeast Asia in 2007.
“We bonded immediately both being of Filipino descent, in love with the culture and culinary of the Islands of the Philippines, and the rest of Southeast Asia,” he wrote on Instagram.
Dec also shared that Aglibot helped him with his bouts of panic attacks during the trip.
“That’s Rod — for everyone, that’s the level of happiness and comfort he brought with his smile, empathy, talent, and love for food, family, friends and fun,” Dec added.
Jacqueline Chio Lauri, editor of the book “The New Filipino Kitchen,” recalled the day when he invited Chef Rod for an interview, along with a recipe and a story for the book.
“I didn’t expect to hear back from him at all, let alone hear back from him quickly. You see, he was a celebrity chef, running an empire of restaurants. Why would he bother giving me or my little project the time of day?” Lauri said. “He had nothing to gain and a lot of precious time to lose by participating in the project. Apparently, I didn’t know him at all. Chef Rod was not in it to gain, he was in it to give.”
And he, indeed, gave wholeheartedly. He organized and joined events last year to launch the book, bringing people together and advancing the goal of having the group’s diverse voices heard through Filipino cuisine.
In the book, Aglibot shared the recipe for Avocado Mousse with Raspberry Sauce and Lychee Granita, a dessert he created at Yi Cuisine, which was the first upscale Filipino restaurant in Los Angeles when it opened.
The inspiration behind this signature dish was the avocado dessert that Aglibot’s parents used to serve them back in Hawaii, something which he called “a piece of his childhood.”
He also grieved the time when they had to close the restaurant for good.
“But there’s one thing I’m certain of to this day: of all the restaurants I’ve opened, Yi Cuisine is the one I’m proudest of,” he said. “I am proud of it not for the accolades it earned, but for what the menu stood for and the story it told. Filipino cuisine, after all, is like the pear-shaped avocado. The fact that it is lesser-known as a fruit in culinary preparations doesn’t make it any less of a fruit.”
It was at Yi where Aglibot said he completely embraced and promoted his heritage.
On the menu then were dishes that highlighted his Filipino background such as chicken adobo, oxtail kare kare, crispy pata using Kurobuta pork served with a complementary vinegar dip enriched with foie gras and his own take on sinigang, using seafood soured with tamarind.
Fellow contributors to “The New Filipino Kitchen” book also honored Aglibot’s memory.
“When I learned he was part of the ‘New Filipino Kitchen’ Cookbook, I thought how dope it was to be part of a project with someone who did so much for the Filipino food community,” wrote Joanne Boston Kwanhull, who remembers seeing him on TV. “He opened doors for the Filipino food community long before it was the ‘cool’ or ‘IG-worthy’ thing to do.”
“My memories of you will remain strong, and as nourishing as the lugaw you made for our book launch in Chicago, as delicious as the crab fat aioli you whipped up at my birthday party (to accompany the prawn paste chicken) and sweet like your signature avocado dessert,” said writer Vanessa Hangad, who contributed the recipe of kare kare, which was one of Aglibot’s favorite dishes. “My deepest condolences to your family & everyone who loves you (there’s so many of us) “You made the world a better place as an internationally renowned (yet down to earth) chef, entrepreneur, trailblazer & friend.”
Byers told the Asian Journal that there are no funeral plans yet.