“I’m still learning. I’m still trying to figure out what Filipino food is,” proclaims Tom Cunanan, arguably the most prominent chef cooking Filipino food in the United States today. It’s a bit of a hard statement to swallow, frankly, coming as it is from the mouth of a James Beard Best Mid-Atlantic Chef 2019 awardee for his much-lauded Washington D.C. restaurant, Bad Saint, which, by the way, serves exclusively Filipino food. Since it opened in 2015, Bad Saint has garnered rave after rave, landing on Bon Appetit Magazine’s list as the second best new restaurant of 2016, being included among Eater’s America’s 38 Essential Restaurants of 2017, and just last month, featuring in The New York Times as one of the “10 Reasons Washington Is a Great Restaurant City.”
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Now about that earlier comment about Filipino food, let me provide a bit of context. Cunanan had just landed in Manila to participate in the Department of Tourism’s Chefs Tour Project, a two-week immersion into Philippine cuisine at the provincial level, via encounters with producers, home cooks, local chefs in Manila, Pampanga, Iloilo, Bacolod, Davao, and Cavite.
During an impromptu interview at Chef Josh Boutwood’s The Test Kitchen in Rockwell, right before the Chefs Tour was about to start, Cunanan was candid and even sentimental about this visit, his second one after attending Madrid Fusión Manila two years ago. “Being Filipino and visiting the Philippines for the first time was like a big culture shock because I didn’t grow up with a lot of Filipinos,” he reveals of that first visit.
I caught up again with Cunanan on the 3rd day of the Chefs Tour, for a leisurely lunch at the beautifully restored Augusto P. Hizon House in San Fernando, Pampanga. The spread featured many of the province’s most prized heirloom dishes cooked by the best home cooks of Pampanga. From pesang dalag, burong babi, to pugo adobo, morcon, and tocino del cielo, the guests, Cunanan included, dug into the feast.
Cunanan may have been born in the Philippines, but he left for the United States at three years old. He shares, “The only Filipinos I knew were one or two neighbors, and I had six siblings and my parents. We spoke Tagalog at home… and then little by little I started losing my Tagalog.” But he did have a lot of Filipino food at home. “We always had rice, soy sauce, vinegar, fish sauce, bagoong. But for me, it was not why it made me a Filipino chef. When I started cooking in restaurants, it was French and Spanish and Italian. Filipino food was the last thing on my mind. I thought I wanted to cook Chinese, Hokkienese food.”
After cooking at various restaurants around the D.C. area, Cunanan eventually turned his attention to Filipino cooking. He explains, “When I hit my 30 mark, I started speaking more Tagalog again because I wanted to give back to Filipino cooking. My mom was the one who put me in that direction.” He partnered with fellow Fil-Ams Nick Pimentel and Genevieve Villamora to open Bad Saint in 2015 in Columbia Heights.
With Bad Saint, the accolades soon came, along with the famously long line outside this no-reservations restaurant, and Cunanan was clearly touched by this early success which “acknowledged the fact that Filipino food is just as good as any cuisine. Seeing people wait in line for hours is such a great feeling. I think this is the most I’ve ever cried, this year!”
While Cunanan admits he has “only scratched the surface” of Filipino food, he is clearly on the right track in going beyond the standard repertoire of dishes that Filipino-Americans tend to keep to, starting with his “breakthrough” adobong dilaw from Batangas. This dish is miles away, flavor wise, from the soy-vinegar-bay leaf-peppercorn adobo most Filipinos in America grow up with. At first, many of his Filipino-American diners claimed this wasn’t adobo. “They had no idea and that really excited me. I got to find something else now,” says Cunanan.
That next dish was palapa, a spicy condiment from Mindanao made with sakurab (white scallions), chilies, coconut, among other ingredients. Again, many of his customers didn’t realize that Filipino food could also be spicy. From then on, Cunanan realized he was on to something. He elaborates, “I started doing more research, reading Kulinarya, Amy Besa’s cookbook, Doreen Fernandez’s books that really inspired me, 7,000 Islands. I went on YouTube watching videos of these mothers, lolas making regional home meals.”
But how did he manage to recreate these dishes without having ever tasted them in the first place? Cunanan explains, “I started putting these flavor notes in my mind as I was watching this video of this woman making palapa… thinking about the regional ingredients which I had (in Manila) before, and then implementing with what I had back home.” He adds, “I made it the first time, and it came out beautifully. It was flavorful, spicy, very hard on the coconut. It tasted what I would imagine it would taste.”
For Cunanan, this trip back to the Philippines is a crucial part of his continuing education in Filipino cooking. With the DOT guiding the way, Cunanan together with fellow Filipino-Americans, chef Charles Olalia of Ma’am Sir in Los Angeles and Hawaii-based Grant “Lanai” Tabura of the food show Cooking Hawaiian Style, are traveling the country to savor the sheer depth of Filipino regional cooking, visiting Farmers Market in Cubao, meeting Kapampangan culinary authorities Claude Tayag and Lilian Borromeo, trying modern Filipino fare concocted by Chef Tatung Sarthou at Talisay and by the young chefs of Hapag Manila, among many other experiences.
The group just visited Iloilo and Bacolod for tastings of batchoy, inasal, kansi, and more, and as of this writing, are headed to Davao for the local cacao, cheese, durian, and coffee. Then, they’ll fly back to Luzon for a heritage tour of Cavite, and back to Manila for a bar crawl of Poblacion. Cunanan, Olalia, and Tabura are also sharing their expertise with Filipino students through a series of Fun Food Talks by WOFEX University held at their various regional stops.
Cunanan’s two-week stay in the Philippines will certainly be fruitful, as he declares, “I’m like a sponge. I see something and I’ll take it. I am 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. We have a lot of repeat customers who want to see what else we’re doing, what’s new.” And he has to make sure he delivers. “(Our customers) sense the soul, the talent, the passion that we put to make these dishes. We change the menu every day.” He adds, “If we can’t make it in house, we don’t do it at all. We’re extremely ambitious. We’ve done a lot of crazy things just to get that one dish right, and with finesse.”
After soaking in all the flavors and ingredients from this Chefs Tour, Cunanan will soon return to Bad Saint to apply what he has learned, including his highly-anticipated Christmas menu, he promises. When I asked what else to expect from Bad Saint, he simply says with a twinkle in his eye, “I’m not going to tell you guys yet. Something’s happening and it’s not open to the public yet. But you’ll hear something soon!”
Photos by Jar Concengco