Like many chefs, Aaron Verzosa has scrambled for the past three years to get Archipelago, his Filipino restaurant in Seattle, through the pandemic and its ripple effects. Getting a James Beard Award nomination was a validating moment.
“Being able to amplify and present stories about Filipino American culture, the communities here, especially in the northwest, and really the immigrant story that my parents came with…I was just very humbled to be able to having the opportunity to showcase what the sacrifice was and being able to represent the region in that way,” said Verzosa, who is up for Best Chef: Northwest and Pacific.
In the culinary world, awards are the equivalent of the Oscars. Three Filipino restaurants will be represented at the annual James Beard Foundation Awards on June 5 in Chicago.
Abacá in San Francisco scored an outstanding pastry chef or baker nod for Vince Bugtong. And Kasama, in Chicago, won a joint Best Chef: Great Lakes nomination for husband and wife Tim Flores and Genie Kwon. Last year, Kasama was nominated for Best New Restaurant and also became the first Michelin-starred restaurant in the Philippines. Past Filipino American winners include Tom Cunanan, who snagged Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2019 for his now-shuttered restaurant in Washington, DC, Bad Saint.
All of this recognition is welcome praise for a cuisine that has historically been stifled by colonialism and a general lack of appreciation. These chefs are part of a younger generation expressing the Filipino American experience through the language of food.
Before joining Abacá in January, Bugtong said he had an identity crisis as a pastry chef for an Oakland cocktail bar. He wanted to make more Filipino-centric desserts, but at the same time felt he lacked authenticity. In Abacá, he said, chef and owner Francis Ang gave him the freedom to explore his culinary roots. Since then, he has experimented with dishes from the pre-Spanish era of the Philippines, such as rice-based desserts or kakanin in Tagalog.
“In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve really learned a lot,” Bugtong said.
He likes to play with ingredients from the Philippines. For example, he wants to make a granita with barako coffee, which is grown there, and pair it with muscovado jelly and flan de leche ice cream. Flan Leche is the Filipino version of crème caramel.
Bugtong doesn’t care if something is unconventional and outside the usual traditions of Filipino culture.
“My thought process when I come up with stuff is, ‘Do I like it? “”, Did he declare. “Does this represent me as a Filipino American? Then the second thing I think about is, ‘Is it accessible to others? Filipino or other? And then I think of a composition that makes it aesthetically beautiful.
In Seattle, Archipelago, named because the Philippines is made up of 7,100 islands, has been offering a seasonal tasting menu since 2018. Verzosa and his wife, Amber Manguid, wanted a “Pacific Northwest restaurant” above all else. But there is also an intrinsic “Filipino-Americanness” to the meals.
For example, Verzosa could replace tamarind with wild lingonberries. He makes his own version of Filipino banana ketchup with sweeter tubers or root vegetables.
With only 12 seats in the restaurant, Verzosa chats with every customer.
“When we have Filipinos coming from the Philippines and we have Filipinos coming from the United States – whether they’re first, second, up to fifth generation – there’s a really nice way to connect differently with them,” Verzosa said.
“I think the most important thing to realize is that there is absolutely – like nothing – no way to be Filipino.”
Neither Verzosa nor Bugtong seriously considered a culinary career until after college. Verzosa grew up on a diet of PBS and Food Network cooking shows, as well as the cooking of her father, aunts and uncles.
“I was coming home from school, eating my dad’s food and watching these shows,” said Verzosa, who was originally heading to medical school. “At one point he was like, ‘Hey look, Aaron, if you love eating as much as you do, you gotta learn to love cooking.'”
Bugtong dropped his plans to become a teacher and enrolled in a Bay Area culinary school in 2014. As a child, he showed no passion for making things from scratch.
“I did some Betty Crocker stuff and thought I was badass, like replacing water with milk,” Bugtong said with a laugh. “When I was a kid, I would put egg wash on Chips Ahoy! and bake them. They came out very gooey on the inside and crispy on the outside.
Filipinos have heard on and off over the past decade that their food is having a moment, about to be the next big thing in American cuisine. Its staples include steamed rice, meat, fish, and sweet, salty, and sour notes. Dishes like adobo (meat braised in vinegar, soy sauce and garlic), lumpia (spring rolls) and pancit (fried noodles) are already in vogue.
Still, Filipino restaurants make up just 1% of American restaurants serving Asian cuisine, according to a Pew Research Center analysis released earlier this month.
There is no single explanation why other Asian cuisines like Chinese cuisine have taken a bigger place in the restaurant industry.
According to Martin Manalansan IV, a professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, one reason is the “orientation” of early Filipino immigrants toward particular professions. In the 1920s and 1930s, he says, they came to the United States for agricultural work. After 1965, they worked mostly in more technical fields like nursing and engineering.
Many young Filipino Americans were discouraged from becoming chefs “because it was considered very modest, especially if your parents are nurses, doctors, engineers, whatever,” Manalansan said.
Additionally, Filipino food was often dismissed as an amalgamation of Chinese, Spanish, and a dash of American. This perception annoys Manalansan because it fails to recognize the creativity of Filipino culture.
“The gastronomic revolution of the late 90s was really about being adventurous and being called ‘foodie’, moving towards more ‘exotic’ and interesting cuisine,” Manalansan said. “Filipino cuisine was considered a little homey, a little jaded.”
Whether this year’s love of James Beard is a coincidence or not, Verzosa says it seems there are more accomplished Filipino chefs than ever.
“Over the last five, ten years or so, they finally get to develop their own voice and want to highlight their own families, their own communities, their own regions,” Verzosa said.
“Having the know-how and the ability to cook delicious food – obviously that has to happen to tell these stories.”
Terry Tang is a member of the Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ttangAP