Cheryl Tiu: On Introducing Andre Chiang to Balut and Why She is One of Manila’s Most Respected Food Writers TodayMay 20, 2015
Before I met Cheryl Tiu, I had no idea what to expect. Her resume is miles long for someone her age: she’s been a publisher, journalist, columnist, and last year, authored a Wallpaper city guide to Manila. It’s easy to be intimidated by someone with so much under her belt, but she is candid, thoughtful, and surprisingly down-to-earth—it’s impossible not to love her. In the latest chapter of her evolving life, Cheryl has become known for her opinion on food, writing about restaurants, cuisine, and travel on her website. She’s now the unofficial tour guide for visiting chefs and foodies, even introducing Andre Chiang to balut, who brought a box home for all of his kitchen staff to try. We sit down with the woman-of-the-moment to pick her brain on Manila’s evolving food scene, her favorite places to dine in the city, and just how exactly she came to do it all.
Pepper: How did you start writing? What was your first foray in media?
Cheryl: I was really young, I was 17 years old when I started writing for a national newspaper. I was still in high school and I would try and do my homework during lunch and recess. Then after school I would write my articles, go to the office, sit there, watch them close. I started writing for Meg magazine then, too. After I graduated, I went to France to do further studies, and when I went back, One Mega Group offered me a job. At the time, I still wanted to travel the world, but I said, “why not?”. So my track for media has always been as a lifestyle journalist, and I started a long long time ago.
P: But nowadays, you’re recognized mostly as a renowned food writer. How did your career evolve?
C: Well until now, I generally write under the lifestyle umbrella, but I found out that my passion really lies with food. I’ve written about beauty, music, personality profiles but I really love to eat and travel, and those really fell into place. I guess people can really say that I’m most passionate about food and travel.
P: Of all the hats you’re currently wearing, which one is your particular favorite?
C: Well now, I’m focusing on my website. It’s funny because I started out as a journalist, so I don’t really call myself a blogger, but it is a blog. So I’m a journalist and an editor who just so happens to have a blog, and now it’s my biggest passion project.
P: Nowadays, there are a lot of food writers too—so what do you think your particular place is in the food discourse in Manila?
C: If you read my articles, the way I write about food isn’t about restaurant reviews, or food reviews or being a critic. As a food journalist, I have a personal philosophy, too: if you can’t say anything good, don’t say it at all. That’s what makes me different from other people. I don’t have anything against people who are critics, in fact I respect them because it’s their honest opinion, but it’s my personal style. To me, it’s about the storytelling of food, about the people behind it, the philosophy behind it, and things that I enjoy in particular.
P: So you talk about food storytelling and the people behind it—is this the kind of conversation that you want to propagate in the food scene in Manila?
C: I think right now, I’ve noticed that I really want to become an advocate for Filipino cuisine and the Philippines in general. So a lot of my articles for my columns on Forbes and CNN Travel, and the Wallpaper City Guide even, have always been about the Philippines and about Filipino food. There is so much interesting things going on in the Philippines, so currently, it is the right time. Local ingredients, local restaurants, local food, local chefs. Anything that is proudly Filipino.
One of the most significant moments in my career with lifestyle Asia as publisher/editor was our last anniversary gala. Every year we celebrate our anniversary with a gala dinner. Last year I decide to center it around Filipino food and chefs who are making waves in the country, whose talents I believe should be recognized, and many of Philippine high society had not heard of or been to their restaurants before. So I invited 5 chefs to each cook a course at the gala. I was really proud and happy to have been able to take the risk to push borders—I mean, we served balut custard, isol, lechon, something that has never been done here before at such a formal event. And the reception was great! Guests loved it!
P: Do you think Filipino food has a place in the global food conversation?
C: Yes, for sure! We just published an article [on Forbes] about the first Filipino restaurant week in New York City. When I was researching for that article, I came across something in the Washington Post that said why is it only now that we’re talking about Filipino food, and it has a lot to do with history, like the fact that we were colonized for so many years. They were talking mostly about America, but we were also colonized by Spain, Japan and a lot of other countries, so we’ve also assimilated all these cultures—we have all their cultural traits, so I think we’ve been dismissed as just being an amalgamation of these things, with no true defining cuisine.
At the same time, the food we’ve become known for is balut or dinuguan, these Fear Factor-type foods, so when it comes to our cuisine, people around the world don’t really know what Filipino food is like! Another thing is that we’re 7,107 islands and so many different provinces that have their own versions of adobo, etc, and everyone’s fighting, saying that ‘oh no, my take is better’. So instead of unifying and solidifying, everyone’s saying my way is better. But now, things are changing. There’s a surge of Pinoy pride—not just in food but fashion, architecture, so I definitely think it’s the time for us.
P: What do you think our local chefs and food writers have to do then to further this resurgence and cause?
C: I think that everyone should just help each other. Support each other, help each other, promote each other. That’s the only way to go; we’ve already been divided for so long.
P: Speaking of the Philippines, how did you decide on the places to feature in Wallpaper?
C: Myself and Kissa Castañeda, who’s based in Hong Kong now, was also a contributor for this project, so we were just emailing back and forth. We had one month: contacting, sourcing, shooting! What’s important with Wallpaper though is not so much how good the food of the restaurant is, it’s really about the overall aesthetic. That’s really the basis of how we selected the places. And we got nominated for best city after that book!
P: What do you personally look for in a restaurant?
C: It has to be something I personally enjoy. When I come in, it has to have a fascinating concept, or the food is amazing, or the chef is brilliant. It has to be something I really like. I would never call myself a connoisseur or an expert; I actually just know what I like, and I’ll share it. If you like it, then good; if you don’t, then we just have different tastes. It’s very subjective. I’m also not interested in being the first to write about the newest restaurant or the newest bar. I’ve experienced firsthand that I wrote about something that was amazing when I went, and then when everyone else went, it was not that great. I’ve learned my lesson, so I wait and see if it’s consistent, or if I hear feedback from people I trust that they agree and it’s been verified.
P: If you were to take people to one restaurant in Manila to experience our current food scene and culture, where would you take them? Would it be where you took Andre Chiang and Bobby Chinn?
C: I try to tailor it to see if it fits this person’s personality. I would always take them to Salcedo Market because it’s concentrated and has everything, and it is also quite the urban market, which is now a popular phenomenon. And they can really choose, from barbeque to balut to sisig to lechon. But lately, in terms of restaurants, I’ve brought guests to 3 places. Sarsa, because JP Anglo is cooking food from his native city of Bacolod, so it remains true to his identity but he adds fun spins. For foreigners, they get a taste of what Filipino food from that area is really like, so it’s Filipino but still something new. I like Black Sheep too, because Jordy Navarra is really trying to use Filipino ingredients in a very creative way. I like the different stories and philosophy of Black Sheep, because he relates them a lot to his childhood growing up as a Filipino, proudly promoting his take on Filipino dishes, and the taste is also pretty amazing. And lastly, Gallery Vask, because even if Chele Gonzalez is Spanish, the story behind his menu is really about going to communities and provinces like Pampanga, Dumaguete, or places I’ve never even been myself, and discovering produce that I’ve never even known that we had. That to me is amazing, to have someone from abroad embrace Filipino culture even more than some Filipinos do, and share it to the world.