Sauce culture and culinary heritage: A conversation with Chef Jerome Grant


Chef Jerome Grant is a Filipino-American chef based in Washington, DC and is the chef-owner of Mahal BBQ, an American barbecue concept with a playful twist of Filipino flavors. Chef Jerome is a three-time James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic (2019), Best American Cookbook (2019), and Best New Restaurant (2017) aside from being named by the New York Times as one of the ’16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America’.

Sauce culture is a universe all its own. From dabbling in dipping techniques to stashing extra packets for a rainy day, it’s a world Chef Jerome Grant, a Filipino-American culinary leader, knows intimately. 

Filipinos have an undying love for their sawsawan, concocting the perfect blend of sweet, sour, and spicy for every dish. It’s a world where a medley of flavors, from tangy, vinegar-based concoctions to sweet and sour condiments, come together in perfect harmony. Whether it’s a dash of calamansi in fish sauce or a fusion of banana ketchup, vinegar, and soy sauce, the art of sauce-making is practically woven into the Filipino DNA.

This culinary tradition holds a special place in the hearts of Filipinos, and Chef Jerome understands this sentiment profoundly. With over a decade of culinary expertise, he has not only mastered the craft of blending diverse flavors but also dedicated himself to representing culture through food all while elevating everyday meals into extraordinary culinary experiences.

For almost four years now, Chef Jerome has been an integral member of the McDonald’s Culinary Council, where he brings his diverse culinary expertise to the table.

We had the opportunity to speak with the Philippine-born chef at the NYC launch of two new sauces at McDonald’s – the Sweet & Spicy Jam and Mambo Sauce. These sauces, set to tease and tantalize taste buds, exemplify Chef Jerome’s dedication to blending flavors that reflect his upbringing and cultural heritage.

“It’s a privilege to represent culture through food. We have this group where we talk about new innovations, we talk about new flavors, and mambo sauce has been on our list for a while,” Chef Jerome told the Asian Journal. His involvement in crafting these iconic sauces demonstrates his passion for introducing new, vibrant flavors to the American palate.

Chef Jerome says that you could put the two new sauces “on anything and everything, I even put it on my tocino.” The sauces complement the chicken nuggets, fries, even the burgers and fried chicken sandwiches.

Mambo sauce, inspired by the rich culinary tapestry of Washington, D.C., holds a special place in the chef’s heart. This sweet, spicy, and vinegary sauce embodies the fusion of barbecue and Asian influences. “It’s one of those types of things where you could put it on anything and everything; I even put it on my tocino,” he shared.

The Sweet & Spicy Jam on the other hand, with its unique blend of red pepper, Szechuan peppercorn, cayenne pepper, and apple cider vinegar, promises a bold, breakfast-inspired dipping experience.

Starting Oct. 9 for a limited time, fans can enjoy these new flavors with all their McDonald’s favorites.

“We get inspiration for the food our fans love by exploring the incredible tastes and flavors found in communities across the country,” said Tariq Hassan, Chief Marketing and Customer Experience Officer at McDonald’s USA. “Sweet & Spicy Jam and Mambo Sauce live at the intersection of flavor and culture – pulling from decades of rich food history and tradition in local restaurants and home kitchens, and bringing the delicious spice, sweetness, and kick of heat we know today’s customers are craving.”

Since sauce culture is a viral thing on social media, the fast food chain has partnered with six food content creators to celebrate the arrival of these sauces and for them to review the sauces so they can share pairing suggestion ideas with customers on their respective TikTok channels.

Mahal BBQ

Chef Jerome’s culinary prowess extends beyond his role at McDonald’s.

He is the visionary behind Mahal BBQ, a concept that marries American BBQ with playful Filipino flavors. “We’re talking about my upbringing, my family’s story through food,” Chef Jerome said. The venture, currently seeking a permanent home, is poised to be a cultural and culinary destination that showcases his Filipino heritage.

“My dream for Mahal is to be able to open up small Mahals across the East Coast,” he shared. His ambition is to provide a platform for guests to immerse themselves in the rich history and traditions of his family’s culinary journey. Through Mahal, Chef Jerome aims to offer an authentic experience, celebrating the fusion of American and Filipino flavors.

Born in Pampanga, Philippines, Chef Jerome moved to the United States at the age of four. Reflecting on his childhood memories, he recalls the natural simplicity of life in the Philippines. “I remember eating snacks on the street. I remember taking baths in buckets,” he shared. These experiences have profoundly shaped his culinary identity and are woven into the fabric of Mahal Barbecue.

Chef Jerome is most notable for his tenure as the inaugural chef of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Sweet Home Cafe and the National Museum of the American Indian’s Misitam Cafe. His work at both landed him three James Beard Award nominations and was one of the ‘16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America’ by the New York Times in 2019.

During the pandemic, he collaborated with fellow Filipino American chefs for Taste of the Philippines where they showcased and highlighted Filipino cuisine.

While it’s been a while since his last visit to the Philippines, Chef Jerome is eager to reconnect with his roots. “Way overdue for a visit,” he says with a smile. His mother Charry Lorna Paison hails from Cebu, and he’s excited to explore the vibrant culture and cuisine of his mother’s homeland.

Chef Mike Lingo, McDonald’s menu innovation team and Chef Jerome Grant, one of the chefs from McDonald’s expert advisory council explain the inspiration behind the addition of two new sauces that will be available across the United States for a limited time starting Oct. 9. AJPress photo by Momar G. Visaya

Chef Jerome Grant’s culinary journey so far is a fusion of flavors, culture, and heart. From his role at McDonald’s to his visionary venture, Mahal Barbecue, he is a force in the culinary world. With each dish, he weaves a tale of heritage and tradition, inviting us all to savor the richness of his Filipino roots.

As he dreams of opening small Mahals across the East Coast, it’s clear that Chef Jerome’s influence will continue to grow. So, whether you’re drizzling on some Sweet & Spicy Jam over your burger or fried chicken sandwich or savoring the Mambo Sauce with your fries and nuggets, you’re tasting a bit of his dedication to sharing the rich tapestry of his heritage with the world.  n


Momar G. Visaya

Momar G. Visaya is the Executive Editor of the Asian Journal. You can reach him at [email protected].

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