“I think ultimately the key to everyone’s heart is through their stomach.”
—Filipino-American chef Alvin Cailan
With the immense admiration that Filipino food has received over the last few years, it’s no surprise that the cuisine is also getting big screen treatment.
“ULAM,” (Tagalog for main dish) an hour-long documentary by Filipina-American filmmaker Alexandra Cuerdo, looks at the rise of the Filipino food movement in Los Angeles and New York City.
It was recently previewed in front of over 600 individuals at the Million Dollar Theater as part of the LA Food Bowl, the Los Angeles Times’ inaugural month-long festival this past May.
The cuisine’s ability to appeal to diverse palates is evident from the get-go of the documentary, as the opening scene shows diners of various ethnicities gathering around a table for a kamayan meal. This eating style of forging utensils and using banana leaves as plates — once seen as ‘uncultured’ — has been turned into a curious dining experience.
As seen in “ULAM,” this current accessibility to Filipino food is thanks to chefs and restaurant owners like NYC-based Romy Dorotan and Amy Besa of Purple Yam and Nicole Ponseca and Miguel Trinidad of Maharlika and Jeepney.
In LA, we have Andre Guerrero (The Oinkster, Maximiliano, The Little Bear & Ramen Room), Johneric Concordia and Christine Araquel-Concordia of The Park’s Finest, Alvin Cailan (Eggslut, Amboy & Unit 120), Ricebar’s Charles Olalia, and brothers Chase and Chad Valencia of LASA.
“Right now, we’re kind of hitting this stride — this renaissance, if you will, of Filipino food in the states. Everyone is doing something very different and unique, where it’s personal to themselves, authentic to themselves,” Chase Valencia narrates.
For Cuerdo, a Southern California-native whose father Rey has a film background, focusing on NYC and LA were obvious choices for “ULAM” because she was shuttling back and forth between the two cities while working in film production.
During a conversation with Fil-Am cinematographer Matty Libatique (“Black Swan”, “Iron Man”) in mid-2015, she expressed her interest in doing a documentary on Filipino food. Libatique, whom Cuerdo regards as a role model, essentially told her to pursue it and sent her off with a list of Filipino places to begin with. She then pitched the idea to John Floresca, who became the film’s co-producer and cinematographer.
A few months later that year, Cuerdo met Cailan at NextDayBetter, a creative speaker series that held an event in LA featuring Fil-Am chefs and restaurants. That’s also where Cailan connected with the Valencias and Olalia, sparking a camaraderie and support system among fellow Fil-Ams working in LA’s culinary industry.
“It’s all of these meeting places that are really important for Filipinos. That’s how we connect, that’s how we all come together as a community,” Cuerdo told the Asian Journal. “That’s really how it began in LA and New York. It’s just an introduction to the Filipino food movement.”
Throughout “ULAM,” the influences of Filipino food and the preparations required to make the chefs’ signature dishes are shown, from Dorotan’s ube cassava tamale to Concordia’s slow-smoked pork ribs to Olalia’s longganisa made from scratch.
“I just love the flavors. I love hitting all the senses. When it comes to the table, visually it looks interesting. Texture, it’s all different. If you close your eyes, the scents are powerful. And when you taste it, it doesn’t end with just chewing and swallowing — you have a nice finish. And it’s delicious,” Trinidad describes early in the film.
By the time the film ended, there seemed to be a resonating hunger in the audience.
Beyond the struggles
However, despite the mouth-watering, beautifully plated creations, being in the culinary field isn’t entirely glamorous. It was apt to detail the challenges the chefs went through in order to open their restaurants, especially after being told they would fail.
The perspectives that the chefs offer on this provide a historical and cultural context as to how Filipino cuisine has become the mainstream phenomenon it is today. Though it’s a collective movement, it still has its own nuances, like Maharlika’s translation of the food differs from Purple Yam or LASA’s menus.
“At what point do you talk about authenticity?” Guerrero asks, questioning the identity of Filipino cuisine, given the influences from the Spanish, Chinese and Americans.
Among the struggles, Dorotan and Besa share how they migrated to the United States because of the political climate in the Philippines during the ‘70s. The couple went on to open Cendrillon in Soho in the late ‘90s and though the restaurant was a beloved hit, it was way before its time and eventually shuttered its doors because of Manhattan’s ever rising rent. In November 2009, they opened Purple Yam in Brooklyn.
Ponseca, who began Maharlika as a series of pop-up brunches in NYC, reveals how critics initially said that non-Filipinos wouldn’t be adventurous enough to try dishes like dinuguan (pig’s blood stew), while Filipinos would find her offerings overpriced.
“There’s no manual that says, ‘how do you open a crossover Filipino restaurant?’ Or how do you make it to year three?” she says. “So I split the conversation: How do you run a restaurant? and How do you represent Filipino food?”
Trinidad, Ponseca’s partner who is of Dominican descent, recounts some of the hesitations he received from diners in his endeavor to learn how to cook Filipino food. He backpacked around the Philippines for three and a half months to immerse himself in the culture and food, arguing that it’s possible for non-Filipinos to take part in the food’s movement because chefs have mastered Italian cuisine without being Italian descent, for example.
“I wanted to do right by it. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t bastardizing it or dumbing it down,” he explains. “So I went to the roots.”
Spirit of Filipino food
Curated by Cailan’s Unit 120 culinary incubator, Filipino food had its own spotlight at the LA Food Bowl with “Filipino Fridays” at Chinatown’s Far East Plaza featuring nights devoted to street food, lechon and dessert. Six Fil-Am chefs came together to whip up a multi-course dinner to tease the documentary preview the night before.
After the screening, Cuerdo, Cailan, Chase Valencia and pastry chef Isa Fabro were joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold for a panel to reflect on the film.
Gold — who is a known proponent of the movement — praised “ULAM” for capturing the ‘spirit’ of Filipino food through the generosity and unity.
“When that friendship and dialogue (with Alvin) started, one big thing was this idea of really developing a community and backing each other,” Chase Valencia told the audience, adding how this network allowed him and his brother Chad to transition their pop-up dinners to a full-service restaurant.
He added, “This documentary is awesome because it stops at a moment right now of where we can take it next. It’s just pointing out the fact that we’re going to push our food and we’re going to do it together.”
The chefs and Cuerdo suggested that embracing the regionality of the Philippines and more Filipino restaurants popping up are possible next steps for the cuisine. Cailan added that the progression could be taking on different traditional dishes like kare kare or laing.
“There will be a generation of Filipino kids who will grow up eating this food…[and] will be so much more educated about the regional differences and even names of the dishes,” Cuerdo said. “And not just Filipinos, but just people. Everybody is welcome to try the food and people are going to know, in the same way we know pad thai, adobo. I think that’s really beautiful.”
“Taste of what’s to come”
While only chefs and restaurants in LA and NYC were highlighted in “ULAM,” Cuerdo hinted that it could spring off into a series of documentaries on more chefs in cities like Washington D.C., Chicago and San Francisco.
“By no means did we want it to be a manual, an A to Z. This is just a taste of what’s to come, so we would love to do part two. We would love to profile many of the other amazing Filipino chefs and we’re looking forward to the future,” she told the Asian Journal.
Cuerdo plans to enter “ULAM” into various festivals and screen it across the United States, but for now, she hopes it will “get people to try Filipino food.”
“At the end of the day, if we can get anyone who watches this film to try one of these restaurants, that’s the goal,” she said. “We’re really trying to promote our culture through food.”