On Pinoy Heritage - Episode Transcript
Find the transcript of my interview with Francis Ang below.
Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.
Today we’re talking with Francis Ang about Pinoy Heritage, touching on what it means for him, and how his experiences led to the Pinoy Heritage pop-up dinners that he organizes with his wife, Diane.
I’ve got to confess, I’ve been following Francis online for awhile – mostly on Instagram – and I love how he plates his renditions of classic Filipino dishes. The colors, the textures, the brightness, somehow it evokes this sense of movement on a plate, and it’s so interesting to see homey Filipino dishes like adobo or kilawin plated in such a way. But it never feels out of touch – at least for me – and I’m pretty particular about that kind of stuff! What I mean by that is, it’s not strictly fine dining food, but it totally merits – in my mind – like a full spread in one of those glossy food magazines I subscribe to.
The plates that are served to people during these Pinoy heritage pop-up dinners are beautiful to me in representing Philippine cuisine, because I get the sense that Francis puts a solid understanding or getting a solid understanding of the cuisine first. After chatting with him, I realized that the knowledge gap I’ve been trying to identify and address these last couple years – specifically about Filipino food – is an actual problem that exists, and it’s not just me with my crazy book collection. Simply put, there’s a lack of accessible resources on Filipino food for those who are interested it. Whether you’re in the Philippines or some place else across the globe, a lot of younger Filipino chefs – I’m hearing – are coming across this issue and hopefully this kind of knowledge gap is something we can address soon.
Anyway, today we’re going to hang with Francis Ang, to talk about how the Pinoy Heritage dinner series started, where he finds inspiration for his take on Philippine classics – very Bay Area inflected – and about introducing Philippine food traditions and recipes to diners who aren’t really sure what to expect when they go to a “Filipino pop-up dinner” – this very newfound way of sharing some time and crowd-tested food traditions from the motherland.
FA: Hey, my name’s Francis. Hello everybody! We run Pinoy Heritage, as Nastasha mentioned. It’s me and my wife, and Danica, our other partner.
NA: Could you tell us a little bit about where you grew up? Maybe some of your early cooking experiences and how that led to what you’re doing right now.
03:20 Training at culinary school and in San Francisco’s best kitchens
FA: Yeah. I grew up in Manila. Never knew really how to cook, honestly, until I was 19, until I went to culinary school in city college. Growing up, I’m Filipino-Chinese. So I grew up with diverse food – Filipino food, Chinese food; going to Chinatown, and then until I came here, I learned how to cook. So I went to city college…
NA: That’s in San Francisco…
FA: …and my first class was Pastry. That’s when I appreciated pastry a lot more because it was a creative outlet. Growing up I never knew how to sing, dance, do anything, like paint or draw. There’s just zero talent. So I went to city college and I appreciated pastry, and then I focused a lot more on pastry. I worked in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, mostly on the savory dishes, and then I worked at the bakery, and then eventually left, worked at Fifth Floor as a savory cook.
FA: I was trained first, at Gary Danko, which does a lot of classic French dishes, pastries, and whatnot. Then I went to Fifth Floor with David Bazirgan. He’s very spice-heavy. He’s American-Armenian. I learned a lot about spices, and then we get this amazing wall full of different spices. I cook for Taj Campton for pastries right now; it’s California-Indian. Again, more spices.
04:58 A life-changing visit to the Philippines
FA: From there, in 2013, I went on vacation with my wife to the Philippines. It was during that time we were in Samar when typhoon Yolanda, or Haiyan, happened. We were there and we got stuck an extra week off the grid. It was pretty crazy. We didn’t know how extreme the typhoon was. I guess nobody knew. Towns were displaced, just wiped off the map, families were disappearing. It was chaos.
FA: After the typhoon we walked around different towns, neighboring towns. It was devastating. It was… I don’t know. There’s no words for it. So we went to the market. We tried to buy whatever we can just to be able to feed the neighboring town. We were lucky because our town – my wife’s family’s town – there were two islands blocking it, so the waves didn’t go in. The other towns beside us, they were just wiped out. We bought two sacks of sweet potatoes. We did as much as we could. We didn’t realize how fragile life is, how crazy. One second you’re okay, and next you just disappear.
NA: I can only imagine the type of experience that someone can walk away with, after being in that particular environment, where you’re really seeing the communities and how resilient people are even in those types of situations. I guess they really did have a big impact on how you decided to move forward with your cooking career, and what you wanted to do once you got back to San Francisco.
07:08 The seeds of Pinoy Heritage
FA: So we came here, back to Fifth Floor. We did a fundraiser of Filipino food. People were really happy and it was well received. That planted the seed for us, for Pinoy Heritage.
FA: By the way, when we were gone there was a whole lot of chefs here in San Francisco – they did a huge fundraiser for the Philippines. I didn’t realize until we were in Manila; they’re calling us, “Yeah, we’re this fundraiser. Everybody was calling you, everybody was calling your family, trying to figure out where you were, even your mom didn’t know where you were, what happened...” because there was no communication at all. We were supposed to fly out Tacloban where the eye of the typhoon happened, and the majority of the chaos happened. It’s astounding how human beings react to help each other. It’s very humbling for sure.
NA: In 2013, I volunteered with an organization called NextDayBetter. You may have heard of them. I know they’ve put up a couple of events in San Francisco as well. But the big driver to that particular organization was really the typhoon too. For me living in North America at that time, humbling was totally the right word to use because then even strangers would volunteer and participate in these fundraisers and you really see that the amount of care that goes into caring for other people, and it’s totally a reflection I guess, of the Filipinos themselves and how that comes out in whatever they’re doing.
NA: One of the things I wanted to tell you that I really love about your dinners here is precisely that, where the way you share photos of the stuff you’re working on, and how you come up with certain dishes. Even that in itself is really encouraging and it really excites me as a person who’s never come to your dinners to come and check it out. I guess my question is, when you first got back to San Francisco and started thinking about wanting to put up these pop-up dinners,, what did you have in mind? Were you thinking of doing your take on some regional dishes or were you driven more about a lot of local California produce? Just wondering what you can share about how the dishes first came about.
10:24 Interpreting traditional Filipino dishes
FA: So, I knew I wanted to make Filipino food after that. I don’t know how or why. It was something that’s been a calling; I’ve always put Filipino dishes here and there in different formats – either savory or desserts – to Fifth Floor, Dirty Habit, or wherever. Even the Taj Campton I consult right now is California-Indian, but I still sneak in some Filipino ingredients in there.
FA: We’ve been doing this pop-up for about a year and a half. It took a while for us to figure out what we wanted to do and what format we wanted to go. Last year we traveled the Philippines for culinary research for six months. That actually opened our minds to how much unknown territory we don’t know. We went to Bicol, Eastern Samar, drove up to Northern Samar, all the way Bicol, to Manila. We learned all these amazing dishes that inspired us to create new renditions of.
11:34 Personal experience as a source of inspiration
FA: We just keep taking notes and then asking either our neighbor’s cook, or relatives, relatives’ relatives. They’re like, full-on “Alright, we’re cooking today, and over the next three days.” They would ask us what kind of dishes do we want. And I was like, everything. One day we cooked like 10, maybe 15 dishes. There was like, a lot of us. There was three full cars of just family driving up north to Manila from Samar. So there was a lot of food, but there’s a lot of people to eat it. We cooked a ton and, you know, you just take your notes and you come here, you go to a farmer’s market, which we love here in San Francisco, this a bit of a sight. Every day there’s a different farmer’s market. It doesn’t matter what day of the week.
FA: So, you go to the market, you see that, and then it triggers some memory like, “Okay I should do pinangat with swiss chard,” which we recently did. We traveled in Ilocos as well. We learned how to make Ilocano empanada. And then last winter was endive and chicory season, so we use that as a filling instead of green papaya.
12:51 The “soul” needs to be in it
FA: The way we create a dish is, the Filipino soul needs to be in it. Whether it will be a traditional dish that we spin off, or a traditional ingredient that we use. For example, let’s say pancit. We would make pancit, then think of Italian pasta. So we would think of adding a touch of butter, and then put in soy sauce, garlic, that’s how we spin off the dishes.
NA: I think one of the things that makes it really relatable, like the stuff you’re doing now and the stuff that a lot of chefs are doing now, where second or first generation Filipinos think there’s really a lot of that respect that comes with understanding what the “soul” of those dishes are, and I totally love your comment where “your rendition” or “your take” of a certain food has to be ‘rooted’ in some part of that dish...you wonder what the original Filipino delicacy or dish is about? For example, pinangat, as you mentioned. Can you tell me exactly what pinangat is? Is it taro leaves that’s wrapping something?
14:24 Dishes with roots
FA: Mm-hm. The way we learned it there is, you take a fish and then they paksiw it, which is, they cook it in either vinegar or some acidifier, garlic, onion, ginger and then they scrape it. Then they add chopped taro leaves and stems. They put it inside the taro leaf, wrap it, and then cook it in coconut milk. The way we learned it in Bicol, that’s how they did it.
NA: Bicol is a region widely known to be the Philippines’ best place for cooking anything and everything with coconuts. I even got a book called “The Coconut Cookery of Bicol” that attests to how ingrained it is in the local culture.
FA: So I take that same concept and just apply it to whatever local dishes we can get here. There’s just amazing, amazing produce here in San Francisco. I can’t stress it enough!
NA: So that’s really what kind of makes it a bit of a hotbed for these types of food ‘concepts’ – you can still call it that – for experimenting with how you want to interpret just how those kinds of dishes are really developed or inspired by traveling. Around the time you were visiting the Philippines last year, as well, I was also there. The purpose of my visit then was I wanted to go to Mindanao, because I have never gone. When you grow up in Manila, there’s still a big cloud that hangs over just visiting Mindanao in general, like what kind of food they have there. I was really curious about visiting Davao and I went to visit some chocolate farms and where they grew coffee there. I totally treasured the three weeks I was there. It was a short stay but I learned so much.
NA: After I came back from that trip, that’s when I decided I totally wanted to do the podcast. I want to keep blogging about it because the only way you are going to be able to start sharing those kinds of stories about certain foods in those regions are eaten, and how people enjoy them too. There’s not enough people talking about it, so the part that I can do best for myself, as someone who writes and does a lot of media stuff, is to kind of do it my way, to talk about it online.
NA: I guess it’s a very similar concept for even the Filipino Food Movement. We have all these folks joining the Instagram page and sharing their homemade recipes. It’s really heartwarming because you see so much potential and a lot of drive behind people exploring their own identity and their own appreciation and understanding of the food through whatever way they can, whether they do it professionally or at home.
17:34 On travel plans
FA: That’s very true. We honestly have a trip coming to try to go to the Mindanao region – Davao, Zamboanga, General Santos – hopefully, we’ll see.
NA: That trip happened after we recorded our interview...
FA: But we’re definitely going to explore that Malaysian-Indonesian Muslim region. That specific cuisine is very different from what you grow up in Manila. So I’m trying to incorporate more Filipino dishes. That’s why we want to travel to Mindanao where the spices are really…
NA: Yeah, like try out palapa and see how that’s made from scratch kind of thing?
FA: Honestly, the only regional cuisine like that is in Manila by Quiapo. I’ve never had it before until last year. I was like, “What the hell is this? Oh my God! I need to travel more.”
NA: Yeah! Galing ano? (Awesome, isn’t it?) It just really makes you realize how large the Philippines is and to get to explore all that.
FA: Yeah. I think what opened our mind to it was the Madrid Fusion for sure. Last year, Chef Tatung was talking on stage about Mindanao cuisine…
NA: That’s Chef Tatung Sarthou, a very well respected chef and advocate for regional Philippine cooking…
FA: …and that was definitely a reason to go check it out. Right now we’re asking people we know, so we can actually get relatives or whoever to actually teach us the dishes, because you can’t just go there and say like, “Hey I want to learn.” Everybody’s going to look at you. You got to find people you know.
NA: Exactly, absolutely, and that’s what’s exciting to me about Filipino cuisine. You touched on it a little bit earlier where you’re going around and you’re going through all these towns. Even to me, I guess where it comes from is that, there’s so many different techniques and so many different, even ingredients that many other Filipino folks are not familiar with either because they’re not from that region maybe, or they just haven’t heard about it or not very many people use it in regular Filipino cooking.
NA: So that’s what’s really exciting about the stuff you’re doing with Pinoy Heritage, where you’re trying to incorporate a lot of these cooking styles and techniques with the stuff you serve to guests.
NA: Let’ switch gears a little bit. I’m going to refer to a couple of dishes that you have in your Instagram feed just because I want to see how some of those dishes were made. So for example, the pinangat you mentioned. I see that you have swiss chard, pickled stems, halibut, coconut milk, kumquats, and baby shrimp. So, I guess in that presentation, how did you do it differently from the regular pinangat?
FA: This one what we did is, we got some fresh coconuts. We used the water to poach the fish. We poached the fish, we took it out and then we marinated it like the paksiw, the vinegar, ginger, garlic. And then we folded back in the blanched swiss chard. Then we cooked the coconut leaves from raw and then you just keep cooking, cooking, cooking. Eventually your fish becomes either really tough or really soft. It’s delicious either way but I want to make sure it translates well here.
NA: If you’re testing a recipe, for example the pinangat that you want to translate into stuff that you are going to serve at the pop-up dinner, when you’re testing it out in your kitchen, what are some of the things that you keep in mind? Like for fish like that, you want to make sure that it stays the right texture, like –
22:11 Dishes come from what’s local and abundant
FA: Yeah, we have the right tools to do the pop-ups, so for this one we have a controlled oven where it doesn’t go crazy with temperatures. A lot of the dishes we create use whatever’s available, whatever’s in season, what we can get. Majority of the inspiration is just what’s around, and there’s a lot around. So, kumquat is just amazing. The fish needs to be cut with something, a little bit of sweetness, a little bit of acidity, brightness. Watermelon radish is just like another funk that adds to the dish. And then the baby shrimp is alamang that we might have just brought here in the States from the Philippines. And then we add a little bit of vadouvan – it’s like a French curry – very onion-heavy. So we add a little bit of that to add another layer of flavor. It’s got acid, spice, fattiness, and just freshness from the kumquat.
NA: This attention to detail is what really makes this style of Filipino cooking stand out. You can see where the professional training Francis had that shapes things. Gary Danko, that first restaurant he worked in, is one of San Francisco’s top French restaurants. If you look it up online, you’ll see “superb dining” and “exemplary service” as common descriptions of peoples’ experiences eating at the restaurant.
NA: But what’s worth celebrating, I think, is the fact that Francis takes that sensibility for creating a really memorable dining experience, not something often associated with Filipino food especially in the restaurant circuit. Sourcing local ingredients and translating Filipino recipes to adapt to that local produce while improving upon traditional cooking techniques, all this stuff contributes to developing the profile of Philippine cuisine as a whole.
NA: This approach definitely isn’t something that only Francis does, not by a long shot. It really inspires me to think that more people are starting to think this way about our food, because it’s not “boxed in” by what your grandparents think it is or what traditional Filipino food is supposed to be. And if you don’t live in the Philippines, that isn’t a barrier at all! There’s so much interest in Filipino food – by both Filipinos and non-Filipinos – I think because we’re really starting to realize how much there is to discover about the culture and the traditions and the geography and just the origins of these everyday things that are very normal for Filipinos, especially for regional cuisines.
NA: One of the things I want to ask you about is the influence, because you mentioned about some of the other chefs you worked with before, at the first was more like traditional French and the other one where you were really encouraged to play with spices and understand the depth that spices can really bring. In terms of expanding your different styles and what you want to do with some of these Filipino dishes, how important is it to you to be able to learn from other people, from other chefs, and use that as a springboard for some of the stuff you want to do?
26:38 Why you need to go to the Philippines
FA: Every chef’s experience creates their own originality, I think. That’s how I think of Filipino this way and another person can’t. We just cook a different way. It’s not like my Filipino dish is better than yours, it’s just very different. I think what’s the most important part is - which I tell a lot of chefs, about Filipino food - if you have the chance, if you have the time, you really need to visit the Philippines. It’s just beyond of what you think. Every time I research something, we find something new and it’s just very inspiring. You really don’t want to f-up Filipino food for the rest of the people. So please do your research, and you really need to go visit. You need to find the soul. That’s the most important part.
27:39 A nod to tradition
NA: You gotta find that soul. I guess, in a nutshell, that is what Pinoy Heritage is about.
FA: Yeah. Basically what we say is, our Filipino food is a nod to tradition in a California sense, basically.
NA: Can you tell us a bit about what your pop-up dinners are like? Who comes to the dinners, and what kinds of feedback have you received?
FA: To be quite frank, everything is well-received. People who go in to pop-ups aren’t the same people who go in regular restaurants. They know what they’re getting into, either a good review from a blog or a food writer. But all-in-all there’s a lot of people who haven’t had Filipino food, who go to the pop-ups. Everybody so far is pretty happy with what we’ve put up and I can’t say how blessed we are with the pop-ups we’ve had so far. There’s a lot of support definitely from the Filipino Food Movement and just local media here in San Francisco. Even local chefs are just coming out, local industry people are coming out. It’s really cool. We definitely feel the love down here.
NA: What’s it like in the community of Filipino chefs over there in San Francisco?
FA: We all pretty much, for the most part, know a lot about each other. Collaboration-wise, I haven’t really collaborated with a lot, but we all support each other here. We go visit each other’s restaurants and find each other inspiring. It’s grateful. It’s just cooking styles are different everywhere.
NA: Would you have ever thought back then ,when you were a teenager in Manila that you would be doing this, like now?
FA: Absolutely not! I don’t know how to cook until I was like 19, 20. I think it’s more of survival that I learned how to cook because you grew up in Manila, you’re pretty spoiled. You never have to cook anything. Then you come here and like, “Oh man! I want Filipino food. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know have any money. But you have to learn!”
NA: Back home, when I was growing up, we had a helper at home. She was our yaya who helped raise myself and my two other siblings. She would often do the cooking. My mom and my dad were both working. They worked like insane hours and they’d be home every night at ten o’clock because traffic in Manila is just horrible. It didn’t even occur to me until I moved to Canada and I moved out of my parent’s house because I went to school in a different city. One of the reasons why I started writing my food blog with my Canadianized recipes is that I was really craving for sinigang one time because I was sick and I was living by myself and I’m like, “I don’t know how to make sinigang from scratch!” I don’t even want to go to Chinatown to get the produce because there is really no other way that I can make sinigang by going to my local grocery store. Stuff like that kind of made me start thinking there must be a different way to get the dishes or do the dishes I want to satisfy the craving or the flavor I am looking for.
FA: You definitely take it for granted until you come out on your own, for sure.
NA: Did you have any particular Filipino foods that’s your favorite?
FA: Definitely sinigang. I grew up a skinny kid and everything else didn’t seem good until sinigang. Growing up when I was like five, six years old, it took me like two hours to eat a meal. And then if it’s sinigang, it’s like 10 minutes lang (only). For sure it’s sinigang.
32:04 Advice for interested cooks
NA: Do you have any advice for people who are interested in cooking Filipino dishes and recipes but maybe aren’t sure where to start?
FA: For me, for people who just want to learn how to make Filipino food, you need to travel to the Philippines. First, it’s a good excuse because the Philippines is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Amazing beaches, the most hospitable people. That’s a good excuse for you to learn how to make Filipino food. Just know that, yes there are traditional ways, but you don’t need to go the traditional route. Just know the soul of the food and the dish, because Filipino food is an evolution. Either the Chinese traders, then the Filipinos absorbed it, think of like lumpia, pancit. And you got the Spanish, you got the Malaysian influence. So it’s just an evolution of food. Eventually Filipino food will blow up here in the US… or I guess it has already. It’s evolving again to involve local produce, what’s available here. I wouldn’t say it’s fusion. It’s an overused word and people just butcher that word. Even though Filipino food is true fusion, in a sense. So just make it tasty. Don’t try too hard. Just make it tasty. And it just needs the soul. That for me is the most important part. The soul.
NA: You got it, Francis. To me too, it’s that soul paired with this almost ingrained hospitality that I love about sharing Filipino food with others. It gives me a lot of pleasure and joy just being able to do that.
34:20 On Filipino hospitality
FA: Filipinos are known for being hospitable. It’s just very genuine. You come to a Filipino’s house – “Oh let’s eat. Have you eaten yet?” “Kain na. (Let’s eat.)” It’s always, you have to be full. If you come to my pop-up and you say, “I’m so hungry.” By all means you need to tell me this, I will feed you until you’re happy.
FA: I’ve told people in my pop-up dinners, “If you’re hungry, you let me know. I will send you another course, and I will be very happy to do that.” That’s just part of it, of being Filipino. You just take care of people. There’s just genuine love, I think. We’re just wired that way. Yeah, it’s beyond a job, it’s just second-nature, I believe. And people here in North America who have Filipino friends and have been into their family’s house, I’m sure they’re agreeing with me too, because they’re not going to leave until they’re extremely full.
And with that, I hope you’ve found this episode just as satisfying. I’m definitely craving some kind of Filipino food, so I’m probably going to end up making something for dinner. Visit pinoyheritage.com to learn more about Francis and his team, and to book a seat for their next dinner if you’re in the Bay Area.
My warmest thanks to Francis Ang for this interview. I definitely look forward to where Pinoy Heritage goes next!
Music for this episode is by David Szestay for the opening credits, Eric and Magill, and Lee Rosevere. They share their music along with an incredible roster of artists at fma.org.
For those of you subscribed to the show, I’m so sorry this month’s episode was a bit late. There’s a lot going on here in Toronto and I’m so excited to share that with all of you soon. I’ve been involved with a number of different Filipino food events in the city, and the energy from each of those projects, each of those communities we work with, it really is something to experience. I can’t say that enough. I’m hooked on sharing Filipino food culture in as many ways as possible. If you’re interested in learning more about that, head over to nastasha.ca to learn more.
And as before you can subscribe to the show on iTunes by looking up ‘Exploring Filipino Kitchens.’ My RSS feed is now finally working again. So please do subscribe, and if you had issues with it before, it should be working now, but please do drop me a line if you are having any problems with it. And visit exploringfilipinokitchens.com for further information about this and other episodes we’ve done.
Maraming salamat, and thank you, for listening.