Filipino food: Off the menu

Andre Guerrero, left, Crisi Echiverri and Gary Menes.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

André Guerrero grew up eating Filipino food, but you’ll find few traces of it on his menu at the Oinkster, and none at all at his new Marché L.A. Nor will you find Filipino food on the menus at Providence, Pizzeria Mozza or Church & State, all prominent local restaurants with Filipino chefs in the kitchens or front offices.

Filipino food: In the Feb. 25 Food section, a caption accompanying an article about Filipino home cooking referred to a dish as Mom’s nigala. The beef stew dish is called Mom’s nilaga. —

Some cuisines, such as the deeply flavorful mélange of foods from the Philippines, seem to resist assimilation into mainstream culture, thriving in home kitchens but stubbornly remaining there.

And for the many chefs of Filipino heritage who cook in some of the finest restaurants in Los Angeles, there is a very distinct line drawn between their private and professional kitchens — the food of their home culture may be cooked for staff meals, but it rarely crosses the pass into the dining room itself.

“I love it. I grew up eating it,” says Guerrero, a Filipino American chef who has owned or partnered in a string of restaurants in Los Angeles over the last 25 years. “But how does it fit into what we do? It really doesn’t.”


Guerrero had put the traditional Filipino parfait halo-halo and an upscale version of his classic chicken adobo on the menu at his earlier restaurant Max, and milkshakes made from the purple yam ube are a favorite at the Oinkster. But for the most part, the cuisine of his home stays there.

Providence’s chef-owner, Michael Cimarusti, and his wife and business partner, Crisi Echiverri, eat a lot of Filipino food at home — Echiverri is Filipino American — but you won’t find any influences on the menu of the two-star Michelin restaurant.

Echiverri, who met her husband while both were at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and who has worked in the kitchens of Wolfgang Puck and Pierre Hermé, says she’s played with Filipino flavors in the pastry kitchen. But she’ll make her aunt’s bichu-bichu, crispy coconut fritters in a brown sugar sauce, at home, not at the restaurant.

This separation between home cooking and restaurant cooking holds true whether home is your mother’s kitchen in Eagle Rock, or in the Philippines itself, a vast archipelago (named for King Philip of Spain) of some 7,000 islands scattered across the warm waters between Taiwan and Malaysia.

“The food is so regional, we don’t have one unifying dish,” says Marvin Gapultos, a Filipino American who runs the Los Angeles food blog Burnt Lumpia. “There’s adobo, but there’s about 7,000 ways to make it.”

The island-to-recipe ratio may not be literal, but the diversity of the people, the landscape and the history — occupied or colonized by the Chinese, the Spanish and the Americans, with Mexican influences from the Acapulco-Manila galleon trade — is reflected in the haphazard etiology of the food.

The cuisine can seem a jumble of indigenous fruits and fishes, with calamansi limes and bottles of vinegar that spike the stews and soups. Many native dishes trace to Indonesia and Malaysia (biko, suman), others are fused with the traditions of China (lumpia, pancit), Spain (escabeche) or Mexico (the trade routes brought tamarind, chiles and chocolate), coupled with the military legacy of America (hot dogs, spaghetti and Spam).

In the kitchens of Pizzeria Mozza, chef de cuisine Joe Marcus also shares this division of home and professional cooking. The graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, who is Filipino American, cooked at Ciudad, Sona, Literati 2 and Campanile. “Have I cooked Filipino food professionally? No. Never,” Marcus says.

That Filipino food has, by and large, not been assimilated into mainstream American cuisine is ironic, given how adept Filipinos historically have been at assimilating into other dominant cultures (the country is Catholic; English is the second official language), and given how assimilated the myriad cuisines have been within the country itself.

“It’s probably one of the least understood cuisines,” says Rodelio Aglibot, a Filipino chef who was the executive chef at Koi before opening the now-shuttered Yi Cuisine, perhaps the only upscale Filipino restaurant Los Angeles has had. “Are we Pacific Islanders? Are we Asians? There isn’t, like, a defined identity,” says Aglibot, who is now chef-partner of Sunda in Chicago.

Aglibot says that for a few years at Yi Cuisine, “I did crispy pata with foie gras,” deep-fried pork leg with liver sauce. “I did pork belly adobo.” But still he kept the food close to its origins. “I don’t sous-vide my pork belly. It’s got to be close to its roots, or else it’s something else.”

Whether Filipino food fit in one of Guerrero’s mainstream restaurants came up again last year when he tapped Gary Menes, who is also Filipino American, to become executive chef and partner of his restaurant Marché L.A. Menes had cooked at Palate Food + Wine and Patina, and had staged for more than a year at the French Laundry.

“Gary tossed around the idea of doing molecular gastronomy Filipino food,” Guerrero says, although he admits that neither chef ever seriously considered it.

Although Menes has never cooked Filipino food professionally, he would cook it in restaurant kitchens when he got homesick. At the French Laundry, he’d make his mother’s nilaga, a traditional beef stew, for staff meals. That he had to bring the celery for the dish from home — Thomas Keller rarely uses it in his kitchens — seems symbolic.

At Church & State bistro, the Filipino influence may not be on the menu, but it’s palpable once you talk to the staff. Executive chef Walter Manzke and his wife, Marge, frequently visit the islands where she grew up. Marge Manzke, who was the pastry chef at Bastide during her husband’s tenure there as executive chef, cooked previously at Patina and Mélisse. “Every time I cooked staff meals, I’d try and do something. I’d make lumpia at Mélisse.”

Like Menes, Manzke says she demarcates the food of home from the food on the menu at the restaurants where she’s worked. “Being classically trained, I just kind of separate it.”

Mary Jo Gore, a Filipino chef instructor at the Cordon Bleu school in Pasadena and a friend of the Manzkes from Patina, says part of the problem is aesthetic. Filipino food, she says, is comfort food. “Visually, it’s not very appealing. It’s stewed and brown and oily and fried.”

Gore thinks part of the assimilation problem is that many Filipino restaurants in this country are either mom-and-pop places (called turo-turo or “point-point” restaurants, because you often just point at the buffet-style food) or fast food (think Jollibee). “I don’t understand why it can’t go beyond fast food. Filipino food is not fast food. It takes time to cook tripe and oxtail.”

Church & State sous chef Allen Buhay, who is Filipino and who trained at Jean Georges in New York after culinary school, says that he purposely arranged a stage at Yi Cuisine when he was in school. “I was Googling [for Filipino restaurants]. I was like, ‘How is there nothing? How has no one done it yet?’ ”

Maybe it is simply a question of the time it takes to move a cuisine from family table to restaurant family meal to the mainstream for it to get beyond the belief system of home, where no one cooks the kare kare and sinigang and, yes, that 40-pound whole roasted suckling pig, as well as your mother or grandmother does. Also, if there are 7,000 recipes for adobo, then only one of them is the one you grew up with.

“Why hasn’t Filipino food assimilated?” asks Aglibot rhetorically. “Because it’s still assimilating.”