Gypsy Chef Yana Gilbuena of the Salo Project Shows Us Why Everyone Loves Filipino FoodApril 5, 2020
I’m intimidated by Yana Gilbuena. We met over Twitter, after what may have been some lurid twist of fate. I’d decided it might have been time to end my poor inactive timeline’s misery, but a near swipe of the delete button was interrupted by a random tweet. “Hey! Let’s talk??” That was all it said, but it came from a person whose account I’d been following for a while. I’d read and constantly heard about Yana, this incredibly enigmatic personality who had taken on the leviathan task of introducing Filipino food to all 50 states in the USA.
It sounded absolutely mad and crazy, a self-funded/crowd-funded project that would take a one-woman cooking team doing pop-ups in restaurants and homes, or wherever anyone let her. It would be all Filipino, whatever beautiful dish of our heritage she’d dreamed up then and there, to be partaken of Kamayan-style. It was something ardous, but when meeting Yana, you’ll know it’s only this type of soul that could even think of accomplishing anything like this.
She is intimidating, yes, with her wealth of experience and knowledge, but there is more to her—she melts in front of you. A ball of frenetic energy and a real desire to champion the food of her country. Within a few days of meeting her, we’d planned a Salo, and managed to sit her down to pick her brains and ask her what it is about our home we really need to share with the rest of the world.
How did you decide to drop everything and start the Salo Project?
Yana: I was doing pop-ups already when I was planning on doing an LA one, far from New York where I was based at the time. Two weeks before I left, I got laid off in my real job, and then my friends in NY said, “Well, you don’t have to go back to NY, you can stay and do your pop-ups here in California.” So I figured I’d do LA, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, but Portland didn’t push through because I didn’t know anyone, so I went to Seattle and Vancouver instead. From there, it was like “this is it”, I don’t want to work for anyone anymore, this is what I want to do. So I went back to NY, planned everything, then typhoon Haiyan happened, so that just added a whole philanthropic layer. It wasn’t just about travelling for food, but I also got to raise money.
Do you think you have a role in spreading awareness about Filipino food?
Y: I think my role is to show Filipinos that everyone loves our food. It’s not impossible for other cuisines to like our food versus being apologetic or nahihiya with our food. I always get questions, “Are you sure they like this, or they ate that?” Like the kamayan, I say, “Well you gotta do it, because I said so!” Obviously, if you go to a Japanese restaurant and you said you have to eat with chopsticks, you do. I just want to show people that it is very possible to do what I do and be a proud Filipino.
Why do you think our cuisine hasn’t really made it that big? Does it have to do with that being ‘nahihiya’?
Y: I always kind of thought that it was maybe because of regionalism. Everyone in Pampanga thinks they have the best food, and everyone in Iloilo thinks they have the best food. You know, instead of thinking we’re better than one another, we should work together. From when I arrived back here, I kind of knew. Even after leaving the airport, all I saw were not-Filipino restaurants. Everything else but ours. When you get out of the airports of other countries, you’re immediately bombarded with their food. It’s indicative of their culture. Dito, paglabas mo, wala. Where is the Filipino cuisine? Where is the Filipino culture? Hindi mo nakikita because we try to be someone else, we’ve lost our identity. We try to be the better Italian chef instead of being a better Filipino chef.
What was the reception towards Filipino food and kamayan at your dinners?
Y: They really enjoyed them because they found similarities with their own cuisines. Like when I did chicharon bulaklak, especially in the Southern states, they were more familiar with it—they were like “It’s chitins!” Like the gizzards and hearts, the South of America already eat that, but it’s so nice because they see it in a different light—with Filipino flavors. We’re an original amalgam of cuisines because we have so much influence. When I serve the food, they can find something similar to it, like Thai curry. It also helps to spread it in that way because there’s a similarity but still very unknown.
Judging by their reaction, do you think Filipino cuisine can be as popular as what Korean cuisine has become in the recent years, for example? First a trend, and now an ubiquity?
Y: I think it can be, as long as we concentrate on something. Like the Japanese concentrated on ramen or sushi, we can concentrate on something like inasal or street food or pancit—anything that would carry the Filipino brand.
What do you think it will be?
Y: I don’t know. Personally, I would really like to open a street food restaurant.
What was the most challenging thing about the whole tour?
Y: The most difficult thing for me was finding locations to sleep in. Travelling alone as a girl, you have to make sure you’re safe. Safety is a priority. Minsan sketchy yung couch surfing, so I tried Airbnb, but sometimes, you have to book in advance. Sometimes, friends of friends, but it’s too far out the connection. At some point, I’m like: choose the lesser evil.
What’s the most satisfying thing about doing Salo?
Y: I think the most satisfying thing happens after the dinner, after I talk to everyone and ask them about the food. To be honest, I’m not a super chef, but it’s so heartwarming that I touch people with my cooking.
Do you have a particular dinner or city that was really memorable?
Y: Wow, I have a lot. Top five would be Portland, Maine, St. Louis, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota, and LA actually because that was the first one I did in an alley, and we just asked everyone to bring their own chairs.
What about a disastrous event?
Y: I would say another one in LA. My friend offered her house, and said she had an electric stove. She said it had four burners, well 3 out of 4, and I was like, I can work with three. Well, you’ve got 2 ovens, I said, then she said “Well, 1 out of 2”. We were supposed to have dinner at 7pm and at like, 6:45pm, everything shuts down. Everything shut down, and they had to call the landlord. I was like, “is there any other way we can do this, I just need to finish it up.” They were like, “we have a grill.” So we put all the pans there, tapos sabi ko, “wait lang meron bang gas?” We finished it off, but I couldn’t do the dessert I wanted. It’s a good thing I originally bought ice cream and ube pandesal, so I made an ice cream sandwich.
How do you manage to find ingredients in these 50 states? Was it difficult at all?
Y: There are two places that I source from: the farmers’ market and Asian markets. I think the only place with no Asian market was Bismarck, North Dakota. I was like, “What can I cook? I don’t have soy sauce!” Eh di, paksiw. Predominantly, most places have Asian markets, but some don’t have some stuff because it’s either more Thai or some other Asian cuisine. Like, sometimes, there’s no bagoong.
What’s your thought process when making a menu?
Y: Basically, the first thing I do is try to connect with the local food and people. I check what’s in season. I try to do a little bit of Mindanao, Visayas, and Luzon. If they all align, then good. If not, then I change it. That’s why I always have chef’s surprise.
Do you have any staples that you carry within states or it’s all a surprise?
Y: I love to do sisig because pork is very easy to find. I love to use ox tail, because it’s cheaper. People just want to throw it away, so I ask for it in the farmers’ market. It makes my life easier and the cost is lower since I’m self-funded. People also enjoy it.
On your trip here, have you found anything you particularly liked or rediscovered?
Y: I think I fell in love with the indigenous ingredients. I went to the Cubao market, and I’m like: oh my God, I haven’t seen these in forever! Ang lalaki ng sugpo and the crabs are so sweet. I can get my mangosteens and green beans, the little things I took for granted. It was actually nice because I met Amy, she has so many ideas, and ever since I found out about her, we moved in the same circle. But to actually meet her was such a treat. She made me taste this new ice cream flavor, which was like pandan and buri. Buri is like a palm sugar. Before I was like, “whatever”, and not pay attention to it. But now, I notice the depth of flavor of the palm sugar. I wish I could take it with me.
What’s your plan when you bring Salo to Canada, and what do you expect?
Y: I’m staying there for two weeks. They’re kind of excited because there are a lot of Pinoys and they already know what I’m doing. I don’t have to explain all over again. It will be very interesting to see what local ingredients they have there. Like moose and the seafood they have there. It will be very interesting, since it’s summer naman.