There is no such thing as just a leisure activity in the world of Sharwin Tee, chef, TV host, and columnist—at least the “leisure” part doesn’t last a long time. An interest usually, and rapidly, evolves into a bigger project that serves the people who support him.
Take for instance his new Korean drama pursuit, which began with a deep affection for hit TV series Crash Landing on You (CLOY). Although, he would like to state for the record that he had just been told that the first K-drama he has ever watched was South Korea’s version of Designated Survivor, based on the American TV series of the same name.
“The short answer for why I got interested in CLOY is Son Ye-jin,” he tells ANCX in a phone interview. “I’m totally in love with the actress. Any chance to see her is a good chance.”
The strong attraction to the award-winning star was followed by a series of K-dramas, all of which are on Netflix.
Then, as he binge-watched, he would see posts on his social media pages about straight men watching K-dramas, but the pronouncements were always followed by disclaimers: “I was watching with my girlfriend.” Or, “My wife ‘forced’ me.”
“Maybe some guys think that if you’re a K-drama fan it makes you less masculine somehow?” he says. “So, that’s really where it started. I was laughing at the idea that you need to post disclaimers. For me, just say if you’ve watched it, and say if you like it or not. It’s not a big deal.”
That notion spurred him into creating episodes in his YouTube channel, ChefSharwinTee, dedicated to a straight guy’s newfound love for K-dramas. He calls it, “Straight Guy #Kdrama Reviews.” Since its inception a month ago, the series already has five episodes.
“It doesn’t mean that I’m abandoning my work as a chef,” he says, laughing. When the quarantine started, he had just been done shooting the second season of his cooking show on GMA, and was left with nothing to do. “I finally had time to watch stuff. I started watching K-drama. I got interested, and I became a fan.”
In retrospect, Tee has always entered the doors of opportunities once they presented themselves. A graduate of the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts in Vancouver, Canada, he didn’t plan on becoming a chef. “But the call to work with food was just too powerful,” he says.
That time he blew up the oven
Tee was around six when he started to watch cooking shows Wok with Yan. He watched in awe as TV chefs entertained with their dishes and made people happy. But his parents wouldn’t let their boy anywhere near fire, so in the kitchen, the young culinary enthusiast would stand a few feet away from the stove and just tell the cook how he wanted things done.
When he was tall enough to use the stove, he began experimenting with food, and cooking on his own—for his personal consumption.
“My family was not very trusting of the food I made when I was young,” he says. Having family members who worked in finance and business—his father was a banker, his mom was a stockbroker, and his brothers are businessmen—the arts weren’t a path that was highly encouraged.
But the family’s line of interest wasn’t the only factor that kept him away from the kitchen for a long time.
In his teens, he accidentally turned the oven on without checking the pilot light. “I blew up the oven, and I almost burned down the house,” he says, laughing at the memory. “Seriously, the house was not in real danger, but the oven blew up.” For about ten years, there was no oven in the Tee premises—which may or may not be a testament to the household’s lack of interest in the culinary arts.
In college, he took up communications at Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City, then went into teaching English at the Xavier School in San Juan. Although he admits there was pressure from the family to go into business, he has always found it uncomfortable to work in an office setting for long periods of time.
It was then he decided to heed the calling of his real passion. “I just needed to work with food,” he says.
Many of his friends were stunned with his decision. He never really talked about his cooking, or brought food to the office or to school. “I was very shy about my cooking kasi nga I never got the encouragement from my family,” he recalls. “If my own family was not willing to eat my food, then I didn’t want to cook.”
That all changed when, in 2003, he enrolled at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. Since coming back to ‘Pinas in 2004, he was on a path to becoming a celebrity chef. He became the first winner of the reality TV show Clash of the Toque-en Ones, which gave him the opportunity to host his own talk show. He has also written books, and keeps a column for Philstar.com. He has had over 20 pop-up dinners in the Philippines and abroad, and was in the concept stage of a new restaurant he wanted to put up when the pandemic came to throw the world in disarray.
“For chefs, this pandemic is a good reminder to go back to the basics: we need to feed people,” he says. “The message is loud and clear. There might not be room yet for the fancy stuff.”
Tee was one of the active chefs who participated in feeding programs for frontliners, specially in the beginning of the quarantine. Taking cue from his successful pop-up dinners, he did an online pop-up to raise funds for distance learning.
But when he’s not busy participating in all those initiatives, he goes to a quiet corner in his room, turns on the lights and his laptop’s camera, puts on his microphone, and does straight guys a favor by giving them a dose of K-drama counseling.
K-dramas are better with crunchy, spicy food
Tee’s endeavors have always been rooted in his many different experiences. His current YouTube series brings out his knowledge of film, food, and communications. But, he quickly adds, he is far from being an expert in this TV trend—although he’s a self-proclaimed film nerd. Before the pandemic, he would watch one movie every week.
“I feel like I’m qualified to do this, not because I’m an expert in K-dramas, not because I’m an expert in film, but if you combine everything: I’m a straight guy, I watch K-dramas, and I love food. I felt like I should talk about stuff like that.”
In his reviews, he talks about the show’s plot, production value, the top four actors, the food, and then he gives his verdict and his rating. But a huge part of his reviews naturally revolves around food.
Before he films an episode, he tries to watch a show at least twice—and often with Korean food, which is usually a vital element in K-dramas. He has experimented with some of them in his kitchen, and dried octopus is one of his favorite binge-watching accomplices. “Something crunchy and spicy is good. And any of the stews also are perfect with soju, while watching K-drama,” he adds. “I try not to eat carbs while watching because I watch at night.” Fortunately, there’s a Korean store near his house in San Juan so getting ingredients has been easy.
His top three favorite Korean dishes, so far, come from the current shows he had just watched. Jjampong, from the Netflix series It’s Okay Not to Be Okay (2020), is a spicy seafood noodle soup, cooked in pork broth, and flavored with gochugaro (chili powder), zucchini, carrots, onion, garlic, cabbage, and other vegetables.
Jajangmyeon was one of the dishes featured in Wok of Love (2018). It’s a Chinese-inspired Korean dish made with thick noodles, topped with chunjang or fermented black bean paste, that’s combined with tender meat (usually pork), ginger, garlic, and fresh vegetables. Tee says Chinese dishes are close to his heart, and he has dedicated the past years studying them. “It’s my heritage,” he says.
The last one is from the award-winning series, When the Camellia Blooms (2019), which features stir-fried pork that Tee says, “looks really good to eat while watching K-drama.”
But just for the pure merit of the shows, he recommends to his fellow straight men Descendants of the Sun (2016)—“It’s not new, but for straight guys, it’s a gateway to K-drama”—CLOY, and When the Camellia Blooms. “The last one is melodramatic, but if you want to take in their culture, it’s good. And it’s award-winning.”
Through this new hobby, the culinary artist learned that Filipino and Korean food cultures share a certain affinity.
“Korean food is made by ajummas (middle-aged or married woman), and lolas, and aunties,” he explains. “I think a lot of the best food that we have here are made by our titas and lolas.
Having worked in television for years, he says that his binge-watching also made him realize that we could really infuse new life into our telenovelas with Filipino cuisine. “One of the things I really like about K-drama is the Koreans have used it to push their culture forward,” he says.
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“If you watch K-drama, even if the genre is action, they take like a minute just for food porn,” he explains. “And all of a sudden, after watching, everyone wants that dish. I think that’s what we can do in the Philippines. Even in our telenovelas, with the usual plots, there’s still a way to shoot food and make it look really delicious.”
Before the pandemic, he and a friend wrote a short story that they had hoped could be made into a film. It’s about a chef and a food writer, and would revolve around the Iloilo province and its food culture. He wants to start working on the project again when the pandemic is over.
He also wants to go back to South Korea. He has been there once. But he won’t visit the shoot locations—he’s not the type to. With excitement in his voice, he says, “I want to go because I want to see how much of the food I’ve made is close to the real thing.