By Christy Panis Poisot
(HOUSTON, TX) Self-proclaimed gypsy chef Yana Gilbuena, held a pop up dinner in Downtown Houston’s Henke and Pillot on December 27, 2015 Kamayan style –where you eat with your hands. Gilbuena laid down ground rules before commencing the Sunday dinner – “serve with your left hand, eat with your right.”
Filipino cuisine in Houston, much like Filipino American history and identity has been perceived as a mystery to many Americans. Origin stories are not well known to young Filipino Americans due to the lack of formal curriculum in mainstream education. The colonial past plays a huge part in these mixed emotions and stories. There are high points and low points. “A lot of young chefs who want to try their hand at doing Filipino food, I said, ‘you need to learn your history,’” reflects Gilbuena. “You need to learn why certain things are cooked a certain way. For me, I understand adobo. The reason why adobo was created was there was no refrigeration. My goal is for Filipino Americans to appreciate their country and where they came from. How they got here. The struggles we have been through to get where we are.”
In spite of this ambiguity of Filipino-American identity, one thing is clear: Filipino food is delicious and access to the food can prove to be a mystery to a Houstonian. Ambitious foodies can seek out steam table options or turo-turo at Filipiniana, Godo’s, and Pugo de Manila. Jollibee, a national chain, offers a fast food approach to dishes with fun names like Fiesta noodles, known to the Filipinos as pancit palabok. Anyone wishing to access the cuisine must be friends with a Filipino who has a mother living nearby and hope for an invitation. Gilbuena explains, “As someone born in the Philippines, our only connection is food,” she said. “Food, like flavor or any odor, is a big memory invoker. We go to the mom and pop places because it reminds us of home. I wanted to share that, what home is defined for me.”
For one night, Gilbuena demystified the cuisine as a rebellious gypsy chef. The dishes were both traditional and deconstructed. Her holiday visit to Houston showcased dishes from the three regions of the Philippines: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindano. Gilbuena visited earlier in 2015 and sold out in minutes to a few fortunate souls who jumped on the invitation at Phoenicia Marketplace in Downtown Houston.
A full house, hosted by Henke and Pillot, provided an ambience of old friends and foodie adventurers looking to experience something very different and delicious. Deep Eddy Vodka concocted drinks such as the Manila Mule made from the citrus found in Filipino gardens known as calamansi. Gilbuena was pleased to find that the year-round tropical weather of Houston was able to provide her with fresh calamansi and banana leaves for her traveling dinner.
The sourcing of fresh local ingredients allows flexibility in the recipes. “That is the beauty of Filipino cuisine, it is very adaptable. The reason we have pinakbet is because those are the only vegetables you can grow,” explained Gilbuena. “So, what if you grew other vegetables? You would still make pinakbet, but with a different mélange. Why would it not be a pinakbet anymore if I put kale in there or turnip root?”
Bringing people together throughout all fifty states has been a learning experience for the chef. About eighty percent of all the pop-up guests were non-Filipino. “It all comes down to being able to share food with or without utensils, without the pomp and theatrics at the table. Breaking barriers and making connections while you are eating.”
The SALO Project has big plans going forward. “I want to inspire people to keep spreading the word and spread culture through food. I am not saying I am a world class Michelin star chef,” said Gilbuena. “I am far from that, this is my language and food is my currency. For me, being able to share that experience with people and give them a concept of what Filipino food is and Filipino culture, I think that is one of the best rewards I can ever get.”
Gilbuena will start her South American tour in 2016 starting in Bogota, Columbia. “I want to finish the Americas and two continents and then go on to the other five.”