The Bay Area is a rich melting pot of different ethnicities, which allows for cultural crossovers and introductions. Over the past five years alone, numerous cooking and food-related publications and personalities, such as Andrew Zimmerman, Vogue, and Anthony Bourdain have cited Filipino food as being the “next big thing.” Our Chief Editor, Trami Cron, met a local Filipino chef and restaurateur, Rod Reyes, who owns Barya Kitchen (in Tagalog, barya means ‘loose change’ or ‘loose coins.’) at a recent function hosted by Content Magazine at a beautiful event venue on San Jose's famous The Alameda strip run by a lovely couple, Pat Tietgens and Michelle Zhang.
Barya Kitchen is described as a Filipino pop-up started by a group of friends who share the same passion for modern-style Filipino cuisine in the Bay Area. Cron connected Reyes with the editorial team for a glance at his background, inspirations, and aspirations.
Reyes himself first “learned to cook when [he] was in middle school [and has been cooking for] roughly over 20 years.” The first dish he learned to cook was a potato soup in the seventh grade. “My teacher taught us how to make a roux, so I’m assuming it was French,” he chuckled, “although, I used to help my mom prep as she cooked when I was younger, and I didn’t learn to make Filipino food until I moved out as an adult.” He did not always want to be a Filipino chef. He grew up with arts and music, and cooking was something he enjoyed in the background up until recent years. However, Reyes was “always intrigued with cooking,” and it “was always a balance of watching cartoons and cooking shows with [his] dad.” While he also observed both his parents preparing meals for the family, it was ultimately his mother who “was the catalyst and inspiration for the chef that [he is] today.”
A controversial topic in the culinary world is the idea of authenticity and its definition and the palatability of the food to groups unfamiliar with the cuisine. Often times, this applies more heavily for chefs of color who have immigrated outside of their ethnic origin. In the documentary, ULAM: Main Dish, this is discussed in regards to the marketability of Filipino food. Is it still ‘authentic’ if the dish is altered to appease to white and non-Filipino consumers? Who is to say the alteration itself is not a natural progression in the evolution of Filipino food? For Reyes, he envisions the creation of any dish as a way to “bridge the gap” between the chef and the consumer. He believes this is also experienced with first (and so forth) generations of Filipino-Americans whether or not they were already familiar with the Filipino culture and heritage. Reyes thoughtfully answers, “it is reinterpreting Filipino food from a Fil-Am perspective; and as far as non-asians and the white American demographic, it’s introducing Filipino food in a way that is less ‘intimidating.’ If non-Asian and white Americans can eat other traditional Southeast Asian cuisines, such as Thai, Indian, and Vietnamese food, they can eat Filipino food with the same open mind.”
Each cuisine has its ‘staple’ foods; to Reyes, “rice is the ultimate staple food” with the ‘staple’ flavors of the Philippine palette being “salty, sweet, acidic, and spicy.” The ‘holy trinity’ of Filipino dishes are arguably: adobo, kare kare, and sinigang, which Reyes strongly emphasizes is his personal opinion. Depending on the family and region, ‘staple’ dishes will vary. Other popular dishes include sisig, diniguan, lechon, pancit, lumpia, silogs, and so on.
Reyes describes food as insight into a people’s comfort; it shows what endured in times of struggle, celebration, strife, and endeavors. Food can also highlight connectedness, as Reyes explains, “Food can also teach us how similar and relatable we all are regardless of our cultural differences. Food can also show us all the different cultural influences that contributed to certain dishes.” He received feedback from guests stating his cooking has made an impact on his community, and he hopes that his cooking will continue to do so.
As a Filipino-American, his cooking is bound to be influenced by both cultures. In his opinion, both mesh well together. He comments further, “American cuisine is historically a blend of culinary contributions of those who immigrated or were either enslaved or colonized. He incorporates his Filipino culture with his American one through hospitality. Within his family, this may range from mental health, engineering, nursing, art, music, and food.
Sometimes, there is a price that comes with immigrating to the States. There are many recollections of Filipino immigrants (and or their children) forgetting or not even learning their native Filipino dialect, whether it is Tagalog, Visaya, Ilokano, or any of the various dialects located on the Philippine archipelago. Reyes is a similar story: he spoke Tagalog when he was younger, until he started kindergarten and assimilated to American culture. He, however, wistful, “I wish to someday regain it back, though.” He also mentions that he will make it a point to return to the Philippines in the future.
Despite growing up in the States, prejudice and misconceptions of one’s culture is still a universal immigrant experience today. “Just like with any first or second generation American, regardless of where you’re from, we are torn with this identity crisis. As a first generation Filipino-American, it was always a question in my head: am I more Filipino, or am I more American? Growing up in the Bay, as diverse as it is, I still experienced racism and prejudice. My cooking helps express myself in a way that brings us to a point where we can relate. We can be civil and understand each other over a plate of food.”
We asked Reyes what he wanted to communicate to those who eat his food: “to Filipinos and Fil-Ams: this is the food we grew up eating. We are now at a shift in our culture where we can enjoy each others’ food without feeling like we need to compare it to what we are used to, growing up. It’s not what your nanay or tatay made for you. It’s reminiscent of that. It’s now, what I’m making for you. It’s food we all can enjoy together, like we always have. Good Filipino food is good Filipino food.
To everyone else: this is my interpretation of traditional Filipino cuisine. It is not weird or exotic. Just like other Asian or Southeast Asian cuisines, it’s different in many ways, yet familiar in other ways. Enjoy it!”
Reyes has met fellow Filipino chefs, and he is sure there is plenty more to come. He states, “we are all connected from experience in some way, shape or form, and I am inspired by every one of them.” There is a phenomenon of additional stress, in which an individual feels an ‘obligation’ to do well. Minorities often feel this pressure being the only “one,” whether it’s the only Asian or the only Filipino in the room. We asked if Reyes feels he is held to a stricter standard, and he contemplates, “yes and no, but I try not to put that much pressure on me, especially with the food I try to create, which has elements of tradition. But, it’s formatted in a way that reflects what I grew up eating and what influenced me. There’s always going to be pressure from those who know nothing but traditional flavors or are new to this cuisine. But, I have faith in what I do and all I can really do is let the food speak for itself.”
Reyes describes himself as a Filipino-American chef (but not limited to, he adds.) He is not a classically trained chef, but he learned from experience and what was passed down within his family. “Just like with music and art, I gravitate towards what is different or to what others consider, ‘outside the box.’” His goal is to eventually open a brick and mortar with the hopes of educating people on his interpretation of Filipino cuisine and what he grew up eating. Up until very recent years, it became much more meaningful and purposeful to be a chef because it stems from a place of comfort. He continues, “It’s my grandparent’s cooking. It’s my mom’s and dad’s. It’s my aunt’s, uncle’s, cousin’s, etc. It’s ancestral. And now, this is my interpretation of all that is passed down to me, which I will pass down to future generations.”
To conclude the interview, we asked if Reyes had any advice for the younger FIlipino-American chefs who wish to follow their artistic goals:
“In everything that you do, do what makes you happy and fulfills you. Don’t limit yourself to a standard or format. And because criticism will come regardless, be open, but don’t let that sway you from your vision. As long as you stay genuine and have faith in your vision, people will see it too.”
For more information about Rod Reyes, please also see his interview with Undiscovered SF and email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Keana A. Labra - Milpitas, CA
Utilizing her background in English Literature, Keana would like to learn more about Filipino literature and history to bring an understanding and awareness to the culture. As a Filipino American, she is interested in further researching the impact of the feminist movement and how it affects Filipino tradition. She would also like to uplift the Filipino Americans who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. She hopes to encourage fellow Filipino Americans to participate and immerse themselves in the Filipino culture. Her hobbies include watching anime and reading manga.
Follow Keana @KeanaLabra