I don’t usually frequent Filipino restaurants abroad, choosing to enjoy the food of whatever locale I’m visiting. But perhaps Bad Saint should be one of the few exceptions—if ever I get to Washington DC, top on my bucket list would be a visit to this five-year-old restaurant which is helmed by Filipino-American chef Tom Cunanan. But with recent news of his departure, unfortunately, I’ve missed my chance to try the “original”—or when Cunanan was at the helm.
When Bad Saint first opened in 2015, this tiny no-reservations restaurant in no time attracted droves of customers who didn’t mind waiting in line for hours in order to sample Cunanan’s deliciously bold take on Filipino food. Bad Saint was proclaimed second best new restaurant in the United States by Bon Appetit in 2016, and listed as one of America’s 38 essential restaurants by Eater in 2017. In 2019, Bad Saint was included as one of the “40 Most Important Restaurants of the Decade” according to Esquire, as well as one of a select thirteen “Most Important Restaurants of the Decade” by Food & Wine. Cunanan himself won the prestigious James Beard Award (think of it as the Oscars for chefs and food professionals) as Best Mid-Atlantic Chef in 2019.
On August 1, Bad Saint posted on its Instagram account the surprising news that Tom Cunanan is “parting ways” with co-owners Genevieve Villamora and Nick Pimentel, accompanied by an endearing group shot of the trio who started it all. The post bids a loving farewell to the chef, sharing, “We have tremendous gratitude to Chef Tom for all the passion, hard work, and deliciousness that he has shared with us. He’ll always be a part of our story and our restaurant family.”
Cunanan isn’t severing all ties though, according to the post, as he is transitioning to the role of creative consultant to Bad Saint. Sous chefs Hannah Anderson and Andres Gutierrez are moving up to take the reins of the kitchen, while Villamora continues as the restaurant’s “aesthetic and cultural guide.”
While there are hundreds of Filipino restaurants in the United States, from mom-and-pop turo turos to more mainstream full-service establishments, Bad Saint has certainly helped move the ball forward for Filipino food, thanks to Cunanan’s explorations of Philippine regional flavors that go beyond Pinoy menu mainstays. As Joel Binamira wrote for ANCX on his two visits to Bad Saint, “But this isn’t your typical Filipino ‘kinilaw, sinigang, adobo, lechon meal’, and that is precisely the point!”
Even with all the accolades, Cunanan has continued to delve deeper into the many layers of Philippine cuisine, sharing with ANCX late last year when he was in the country that, “I’m moving with a purpose here to learn as much as I can and take it back home so I can keep representing my flag, inspiring Filipinos and non-Filipinos to try our food.”
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I saw this for myself when I joined Cunanan along with other Fil-Am chefs during the Davao leg of a Chefs Tour organized by the Department of Tourism last November. Cunanan was “like a sponge” as he visited the local market, had his fill of durian, Malagos cheeses and chocolates, as well as the Davaeño home cooking of Carmina del Rosario. He did the same in other stops like Manila, Pampanga, Cebu, Iloilo, Bacolod, Cavite.
The news of his departure comes as a surprise as Bad Saint had remained largely closed since March due to the pandemic, opening only on June 13 with a shortened menu for takeout on weekends. While Cunanan hasn’t publicly commented yet on his departure, he has remained active during the pandemic, posting dishes he’s been cooking at home, and even sharing a video collaboration with Erwan Heussaff on how to make sinigang. His most recent post is titled “Quarantine Recipes: BBQ Edition” where he demonstrates how to make chicken inasal and pork liempo skewers.
It remains to be seen what Cunanan’s next move will be, but the food world will be waiting. Once it’s safe to travel again, I’ll be adding one more name to my bucket list of Filipino restaurants to try abroad: Bad Saint, of course, and whatever new concept Cunanan is dreaming up next.
Davao photos by Chris Clemente