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We Speak to the Levha Sisters on Food and Their French and Filipino Identity at Madrid Fusión Manila

April 11, 2017

Decked in matching white tops with their hair up in buns, the Levha sisters could easily be mistaken for twins. In truth, the two are separated by a two-year age gap. “I was born here [in the Philippines],” says Tatiana, who works as the chef of the bistro said to be Paris’ bestLe Servan. Katia, who works front of the house in the bistro, was born two years later in Paris. The half-French, half-Filipina sisters spent their earlier years shuffling between staying in France and around Asia, and though they have since settled in Paris, this multicultural upbringing manifests itself in the food they enjoy eating (“very spicy food . . . mostly just anything with chili”) and cooking (“a lot of . . . sourness, spices, and [we serve] a lot of fried food”). We sat with the two to chat about food, identity, and the interaction between cultures in the way that they cook and eat.

Growing up you’ve shuffled between staying in France, the Philippines, Thailand and Hong Kong. In that sense you’ve had a lot of influences. What kind of food did you grow up with?

Katia: We were always used to eating local food wherever we were.

Tatiana: Our mom is from the Philippines, so we ate a lot of Asian food at home. Our dad used to work, so she’s the one who used to feed us. . . And when we’re abroad our dad would [bring out] his specialties and would cook French food for us.

You’ve always been passionate about food.

T: Yeah, we’ve always been passionate about food since our youngest age. Our family is very passionate about food on both sides. So we were brought up in this kind of… all our vacations were around eating, and our family’s very “foodie.”

Was there ever a time you felt you had struggled with your identity?

T: No. [We’re] very Filipina and we used to spend all of our summers here . . . When we were little we’d come here every year [for] 2 ½ months during the whole summer.

What about your French side; what were the dishes that your dad used to prepare?

K: On our dad’s side, we used to spend a lot of time at our grandmother’s house—his mother—and the food . . . had the same [sort of] culture. It was very…

T: Home-cooked, very central…

K: Very generous and sharing and just eating all day long.

What are the similarities for you between French and FIlipino food or eating culture?

T: The generosity of them both. The importance of it.

Both French and Filipinos have a very collectivist perspective on eating.

T: Yeah. Well in France, at home it’s very [communal], it’s like home cooking: really big pots and slow-cooked meats and things. At the restaurant . . . there’s no sharing.

K: [It’s more] personal.

T: Yeah, personal. Each one has their own [plate].

K: But it’s strange because at the restaurant we decided to add a course—a pre-starter, kind of—which I call . . .  a word that doesn’t exist, but it’s something that we share, people share. People are so happy to share food in a French restaurant.

T: For us, [growing up] choosing our own food [in a restaurant was] something that . . . took a long time for us to be able to do,  [without hesitating or wanting] to share. But now we’re okay and we can just order our own food.

In your food, do you often cross cultures? Do the multicultural facets of your identity come out, and is there a struggle to have to identify with just one side of it?

K: It comes out. But the techniques are French.

T: The technique and the product are French.

K: But then, I think, [you] still look . . . to learn different techniques that you don’t learn in France . . . like the siopao. That’s something we don’t have [in France]. So we try to learn different, new things. But then it still comes out in other different ways. All the time, I think, in every dish . . . [there’s] always [a little bit of] a twist.

Was this something deliberately taught to you by your parents or your family?

T: No, I think it’s just the result of our parents’ being of two different cultures. ‘Cause my mom would always make us eat rice and ham. It’s so absurd in Paris.

Given that you grew up eating food that was relatively unusual in Paris, did you ever feel left out compared to your peers growing up?

K: No.

T: But sometimes I’d feel . . .

K: Different. Not left out, but a bit different, I mean, food-wise.

How did you respond to those feelings of being different? Was it a bad thing or a good thing?

T: For me it wasn’t really feeling different; it was just not liking the same things, food-wise. When I first started cooking I always used to think, “Is this going to be okay?,” because I really don’t like the same things [as other people in France]; there are so many things I don’t eat and for some time wondered if I [ever would].

Did you find it difficult to have to adjust to [culinary school and its very traditional approach], given your unique background and preferences?

T: Oh no. It actually really opened my mind to many other things that I hadn’t had the chance to eat in my childhood.

So in a way it was also an eye-opener?

T: Oh definitely.

You trained under Alain Passard.

T: Yeah, Alain Passard . . . and Katia was in London and Switzerland and then French restaurants so both of our training was very traditional French. So before we opened [Le Servan], we hadn’t imagined . . . what we’d do would be so mixed [in terms of the influences].

K: We didn’t really know what we were gonna serve until we opened. And still, today—

T: [It] still changes.

Is the culture in Paris forgiving to that kind of food? From an outsider’s perspective, for someone who’s never been to Paris, it always seems like tradition is like the first thing that people think about.

K: Oh, it’s changed a lot.

T: Yeah, it’s changed a lot. The food scene in Paris is very young now. And very changing. There are lots of young people opening new restaurants with different concepts and different kinds of food.

Does sustainability drive the dishes in Le Servan? Are your dishes more ingredient-forward, or more concept or technique-forward, in terms of your thought process?

T: We think about the ingredient. [The] product is really at the center of what we cook.

Are there any ingredients in the Philippines you’d be interested in working with, given the chance?

T: There are lots of things. I mean I love kamias, I’d love to do something that [uses] calamansi.

K: [But] we can’t import them.

What trends do you see in Paris that’s upcoming with these young chefs? Is it mostly globally influenced? Is it places like yours that have a bit of an Asian influence?

T: Asian is definitely trendy.

K: Small places. Like, not so formal.

How do you feel about Filipino food being bigger now, globally?

T: Oh we’re very excited about that.

K: We’ll try to help!

Patricia Baes SEE AUTHOR Patricia Baes Trish thinks too much about everything—truth, existence.....and what’s on her plate. Her ongoing quest for a better relationship with food has led to a passion for cooking, gastronomy, and a newfound interest in its politics. She is a cheapskate in other aspects of her life, preferring to use her savings on specialty vinegars and degustation menus. While she admits to eating out too much, cooking and baking remain her first love, and she's always looking for quirky new ways to use up seasonal produce. Thanks to her obsession with (unnecessarily) making everything from scratch, she is now desperate to clear her fridge full of homemade condiments. She dreams of perfecting the art of making soufflé with her crappy toaster oven.
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