It started innocently enough. I was happily and anonymously blogging about Filipino produce, ingredients and recipes for almost four years on my blog, marketmanila.com.
I published a set of posts entitled “The Lechon Chronicles” that outlined my attempts to recreate my grandmother’s lechon from the 1960s and I had lamented the loss of traditional methods and recipes. I recoiled at the discovery of flavor shortcuts, most notably a cup or two of pure MSG powder added into modern versions of lechon, and wrinkled my nose at the brushed-on dark soy sauce that had replaced a traditional bath in fresh coconut water; and I vowed to bring lechon back to its roots, while innovating and finding my own personal and modern twists.
I had read Pigafetta’s chronicles of Magellan’s visit to Cebu in 1521, and was fascinated by the mention of a pig (probably roasted) served at a feast that likely included other dishes such as kinilaw, grilled seafood, rice, coconut-based dishes and budbud kabog (millet seed cakes) that are all still enjoyed by Cebuanos half a millennium later.
That set of blog posts had caught the eyes of some television producers and researchers in New York City, and I received several increasingly lengthy emails from them starting in late July, 2008. I had no clue who they were, but I had a standing policy of trying to help anyone seeking more information on Philippine cuisine, and I wanted to do my part to promote Filipino food to a global audience.
So I answered dozens of detailed and pointed questions, gave numerous suggestions of things for them to eat and do across the country, helped with an itinerary, and gave them the names of chefs and folks they should seek out. Several of those suggestions formed the backbone of their visit here. Finally, in early September 2008, the emails had gotten so lengthy and detailed that I told them to call me instead, and they did.
At one point in the telephone conversation, someone in the background asked, “Is that the pig guy?” When the producer said yes, that man grabbed the phone and said, “Hi, this is Tony, would you cook a couple of pigs or lechons for us if we come to visit you in Cebu?”
I replied that I would be happy to accompany him to a myriad of purveyors and specialists in Cebu as I wasn’t a chef nor did I even cook lechon other than for personal consumption. But he insisted, and said if I was the one who wrote the posts on lechon, then they would really appreciate it if I would be the one to cook lechons for them.
There are just a few pivotal times when I throw caution to the wind, jump off a proverbial cliff and say yes, and I must say I am immensely glad I took that leap back then. I agreed to help and when I finally put the phone down, I broke into a cold sweat and realized “Tony” was almost certainly chef Anthony Bourdain, and I had just agreed to go on film for an episode of his show, "No Reservations."
At dawn on the day of the shoot, we were as ready as we could ever be. I wrote several posts about the preparations behind the scenes on the blog and I understand that Mr. Bourdain later read those posts and had a good chuckle, saying, “Marketman’s preparations for the Cebu lechon extravaganza made the filming of (the movie) 'Apocalypse Now' look quick and easy.” He was a movie and war aficionado, so that quote seems rather apt.
We first toured the dried fish market at the Taboan. We then cooked up a storm, served several lechons, a whole buffet of other classic Cebuano and Filipino dishes, and then the seven or eight hours with three to four cameramen filming our every move was finally over.
During lunch, he exclaimed twice that the lechon was “The best pig, ever!” and you can imagine my shock and joy at his reaction to our humble and homemade lechons. Honestly, I thought that would be the end of it, a happy, exhausting, rewarding and fulfilling day. Mission accomplished.
Some three months later, I got word that the episode on the Philippines was about to air in the U.S. The segment featuring the lechons we served in Cebu was the last to be aired and the reaction from viewers around the world was not to be believed. I knew Mr. Bourdain had a global viewing footprint of nearly 100 million viewers, but I was unprepared for the comments, emails, reactions that followed the airing of that program. His kind words regarding our lechon led to features on television, international and local magazines, and all kinds of other opportunities. And frankly, it brought tremendous positive attention to Philippine cuisine as a whole.
But what was he like, so many have asked since that fateful day? I only spent 10 or so hours with him, and during that period he struck me as being incredibly frank, honest and devoid of bulls**t. He seemed partial to “real food” and not the fancy plated restaurant stuff, and for that alone, I felt a strong kinship.
He asked real, intelligent and probing questions and seemed genuinely interested in the answers. He pressed for greater depth if you happened to give him a lukewarm answer and he was intensely aware that the more he learned, the less learned he seemed to get.
I particularly liked that he never endorsed products for personal benefit, never did things for the commercial aspect of it, never wore clothing or watches or used equipment because he was paid to do so. So much about this is what I have harped about on the blog repeatedly for the last decade to an increasing deaf audience. Integrity, honesty and essential truths... The good stuff is what Mr. Bourdain was all about.
The most enjoyable part of our day together was the final two to three hours off-camera, where we talked in-depth about Filipino cuisine, ingredients, global reach, human conditions, politics, etc. It wasn’t some celebrity guest over for a snazzy extravaganza. Instead we had a cultured and intelligent guest at our dinner table for a wonderful meal and enlightened conversation.
It’s hard to imagine how a single encounter and a simple phrase would have such a positive impact on so many people. Nearly a year after we hosted Mr. Bourdain, we decided to make the lechons we cooked for him available to the public, first as a simple effort to increase staff incomes.
A little bazaar stall selling Zubuchon on the weekends exploded with customers from the day we started selling. Two years later, we decided to open our first restaurant, always with the desire to do things differently, focusing on honest food done the old-fashioned way, treating, compensating and developing staff well, and being cognizant of how we source our local ingredients. We have since grown to over a dozen restaurants and we employ some 380 staff in Cebu and Manila.
It took a lot of hard work and effort to get to where we are, but it would be foolish not to acknowledge the monumental nudge Mr. Bourdain’s quote has had on us, both literally and figuratively. He was kind enough to give us permission to use it, and we are eternally grateful.
Some would say, what’s in a simple quote? It’s just a personal opinion, everyone has different taste preferences. And I would agree for the most part. Except that it was said by a person whose credibility, integrity and global food expertise I admire deeply, and whose core values seem to dovetail with many of mine as well.
It is one thing to have made a lasting impression on a man like Anthony Bourdain, but what is more impressive is the attention, focus and impact he has had on highlighting Philippine cuisine for a global audience, bolstering national pride in our own dishes, and providing decent employment for hundreds of individuals.
And that was just the result of one day, and one quote, the “best pig, ever!”
Thank you Tony, you will be sorely missed.
Joel Binamira co-hosts "Show Me The Market" with chef JP Anglo which debuts on June 23 on ANC and June 24 on Metro Channel.
Visit marketmanila.com and @therealmarketman on Instagram for more articles and photos relating to Anthony Bourdain’s experience in Cebu in 2008.