Chef Charleen Caabay on winning ‘Chopped’ and bringing Filipino food mainstream

Chef Charleen Caabay on winning ‘Chopped’ and bringing Filipino food mainstream

The charismatic Oakland-based restaurant owner and recent winner of the Food Network’s “Chopped” sizzles as one of the country’s leading Fil-Am chefs and restaurateurs.

When Charleen Caabay learned she earned a coveted spot on the Food Network’s “Chopped,” she knew she had a great opportunity to showcase her talents.

The vivacious owner of Kainbigan, one of the Bay Area’s most-loved Filipino restaurants, has sprung as an up-and-coming leader in Filipino-American cuisine, and her appearance on the “New Year’s Bash” episode of the cooking competition show — which aired in late December — is likely to bring in a whole new wave of fans.

“My goals were to inspire anyone who was going to watch the show,” Caabay, 37, told the Asian Journal. “It’s not often that women that are in business have the opportunity to really shine. I just wanted to show them who I was.”

Caabay knew she was going against formally-trained, renowned chefs, some of which worked in Michelin-star restaurants. But she didn’t let that break her spirit. Utilizing only techniques she learned growing up, Caabay has never had any formal training in culinary arts, and she doesn’t see the need.

“Each round, all I could do was pray,” she said.

She started off in the first round creating a crab torta with collard green laing (a Filipino dish traditionally consisting of taro leaves cooked in coconut milk) with champagne butter sauce, which judge Alex Guarnaschelli praised for its creativity.

Once again, she drew inspiration from her heritage in her martini steamed lobster tail with BBQ strip loin and curried black-eyed peas, using the Filipino tradition of cooking barbeque on a stick.

To top it all off, in the third and final round, Caabay created a funnel cake with pomegranate grape compote.

“I was a little worried about the fancier folks like when a French culinary chef I competed against,” Caabay remarked. “I knew he was going to throw down a lot of, like, fancy French techniques, like with his sauces. But I really just pushed myself to really believe and have the confidence to say, ‘Hey, you can do your fancy sauce, and I can do my own Filipino sauce,’ which was probably just, like, suka (vinegar) and soy sauce.”

“[On the show] I was basically like, ‘This is what I got, this is what I grew up with and this is what I have to show,’” Caabay opined.

“It was just really amazing to see how I really surprised them by going my own way and having them try something different that I’m sure they’re not used to,” Caabay said, adding she was happy that the judges reacted favorably to the Filipino influences in her dishes.

Moreover, the decision to draw Filipino inspiration in her dishes each round was a no-brainer.

“This is my culture, this is my heritage. I’m Filipino, so you’re going to taste some Filipino,” she added with a laugh.

Growing up with the basics

Caabay, was born and raised in New Jersey by first-generation Filipino Americans. When she was in her teens, the family relocated to the Bay Area.

Her teenage years were when Caabay’s love for cooking really flourished. Inspired by her mother’s and grandmother’s cooking, it seemed like she was on the path to delving into a culinary career.

However, cooking and owning a restaurant weren’t in Caabay’s initial career sights.

As the tech world was booming, Caabay saw herself working in information technology (IT), attending DeVry University right after high school.

After being laid off from job after job and realizing the 9-5 work day wasn’t for her, she sought a different direction and went back to her real passion: cooking.

She shifted her career into a culinary nomad, creating makeshift kitchens, selling her food on the street and catering in clubs and for private clients. As she began holding steady clients and garnered a following, she opened up a pop-up restaurant in 2012, creating her signature Filipino comfort dishes.

“From there, it became a huge thing and it got more serious,” Caabay said of her rise in the food arena. Fans of her cooking would often ask what her next food venture was or even if she would be opening up a restaurant.

Kainbigan and the rise of the Filipino food movement

In 2013, Caabay signed the lease for a restaurant in residential Oakland, and Kainbigan was opened nine months later. She finally had a brick and mortar food joint to call her own, and took it back to her roots when setting up her menu.

“I made it simple. I made it memorable to what was on the stove growing up, so a lot of it had to do with what my grandma and what my mom cooked,” Caabay said of the inspiration for the Kainbigan menu.

Kainbigan’s menu includes unique takes on a variety of Filipino comfort favorites including rice dishes, pork adobo, bistek (beef steak), afritadas (stew) as well as breakfast like tocino (sweet cured pork), longanisa (sausage) and beef tapa.

One of the restaurant’s most popular dishes is the garlic noodle special, which is created with a calamansi aioli and crispy adobo sprinkled on top.

In the three years since it first opened, Kainbigan has garnered a wide following in the Bay Area — and not just from Filipinos. It has been cited by Zagat and has been nominated for local awards.

Caabay and her first restaurant (and certainly not her last, she said) have been instrumental in introducing Filipino cuisine onto the mainstream food world in the last few years, which has seen a rise in more Filipino food ventures.

“I think the more we all work together to support each other and really put it out there it will be one of those top food when it comes to ordering food,” Caabay said. “I think my win on ‘Chopped’ definitely came at a right time, and I think it’s important that the generation continues to build on. We really need to step up because food is a huge way in introduc[ing] our culture. There are so many amazing Filipino restaurants popping up, and whether you’re a restaurant or a pop-up store or food truck, it’s amazing.”

Caabay encourages all aspiring Filipino chefs and restaurateurs to never give up and to be proud of Filipino culture and cuisine.

“Keep pushing, be confident in our cuisine, present it well and present from inside and where you’re from,” she said. “Don’t let anybody else tell you how this adobo should be made, just trust in what you’re making. It’s part of you. Continue to go strong because our cuisine is dope and hella good!”

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