APPETITE: WHAT IS THE SALO PROJECT?
Yana Gilbuena: The Salo Project is my fifty state tour in the U.S. doing Filipino pop-up dinners for fifty weeks—well, [because I experienced some delays, for] over fifty weeks now. Pop-up dinners are different from pop-up restaurants; it’s a one night only thing. The menu is prix fixe. You kind of just learn about the dinners through word of mouth and social media. It’s pretty much a dinner with strangers!
HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE IDEA FOR THE SALO PROJECT?
A lot of my friends were doing pop-up dinners in Brooklyn, but their themes were mostly farm-to-table and organic food, which is great. My theme is also kind of farm-to-table but with a cultural component. When I started, no one else was doing Filipino food.
YOU WERE BORN IN BACOLOD, ONE OF THE COUNTRY’S CULINARY CAPITALS. HOW DID YOUR NEGRENSE ROOTS INFLUENCE YOU?
I was born in Bacolod, Negros. I grew up in Iloilo and I’m an only child so I was very pasaway. When I was being naughty as a child, my grandma would send me to the kitchen with our cooks. I would chop onions and garlic—that was my punishment! But my fondest childhood memory is going to the pier every Sunday after church to have a picnic. There’s a lot of seafood in Iloilo and my grandma would pick up all these amazing stuff, like pisayan (shrimp).
BEFORE YOU STARTED THIS PROJECT, YOU WERE A PRE-MED STUDENT, AND THEN AN INTERIOR DESIGNER. WHEN DID YOU REALIZE THAT FOOD WAS YOUR THING?
I was in pre-med in UP, BS Psych. When you’re sixteen, you don’t really know what you want, and as you grow older you get exposed to more life experiences and you think maybe [your career] isn’t for you.
I had so many career changes. When I moved to LA, I got a job as a behavior therapist for autistic kids. I did that for two years and then I had a major car accident and almost died—I was twenty three. It made me realize how fragile we really are, that we’re not invincible. Why was I working a job I didn’t really like? When I started the pop-up dinners in 2013, it just kind of exploded. It suddenly consumed my life and [I realized] that it was what I had always wanted to do.
YOU HOSTED YOUR FIRST POP-UP DINNER BEFORE STARTING THE SALO PROJECT.
When Yolanda hit, a lot of my friends in Iloilo were affected. I felt so bad that I couldn’t send money because I was also gipit! My friends told me, “You’re so stupid, you could do a fundraising dinner!” So I had one and I was able to raise $ 1700 for the first dinner. That dinner was in October 2013 and five months later I started the project.
HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH THE MENU FOR THE DINNERS?
I try to have at least one dish to represent each region in the Philippines. In my menu, Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao are properly represented.
FILIPINO FOOD IS GAINING A LOT OF TRACTION GLOBALLY TODAY, BUT WHY DO YOU THINK IT TOOK SUCH A LONG TIME TO TAKE OFF?
I kind of realized the answer to that as soon as I got back [to the Philippines]. We don’t celebrate our culture enough—that’s why it hasn’t taken off. We ourselves aren’t proud of our culture and our food. When you go to Japan, as soon as you get off the plane, you get Japanese food. Same with China and Thailand. But here as soon as you get off the plane there’s fast food, Starbucks, Italian food!
HOW CAN WE CHANGE THAT?
There needs to be a [paradigm] shift of us just being proud that this is our food. And we have to be unapologetic. We’re always like, sorry po, masyadong maasim, maanghang. You know what I mean?
WHAT ARE THE MISCONCEPTIONS PEOPLE HAVE ABOUT FILIPINO FOOD?
Because of that stupid Fear Factor show, they made it look like Filipino food is gross. Like it was extreme. And some people think it’s greasy—it’s not! Filipino cuisine is actually one of the most colorful cuisines there is because we are an amalgamation [of influences], we are the true fusion. We have Spanish, Japanese, Indian, Malaysian, and Chinese influences. It’s all in our food. There are so
many flavors, ingredients, and influences that you can draw from.
NOW THAT YOU’RE DONE WITH ALL FIFTY STATES, WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE SALO PROJECT?
A Canada tour. After Canada, I’m going to do a South American tour and then the European tour is scheduled for 2016.
FOR YOU, WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF FILIPINO FOOD?
There are a lot of avenues it can go, and I love that about our cuisine. It’s so diverse and subject to interpretation. Like, there’s no standard recipe for adobo—my adobo will always be different from your adobo. And I think that’s what makes our cuisine so dynamic and creative. There’s no right or wrong way!