I used to work for a magazine that’s now dead. I was a fresh grad baby who fluked his way into an editorial position. For a food issue—back when sidebars and dynamic spreads were still a thing—I pitched a panel discussion about coffee, and a short blurb commenting on the artisanal coffee phase, which was apparently the most exhilarating, zeitgeist-defining thing in the early 2010s.
I asked JJ Yulo, who I had worked with before with restaurant reviews, to churn out a hot take on Third Wave breweries, expecting something contrarian and polemic. Like, f*ck citrus notes and latte art, y’know? That was how that magazine (and many other publications even now) got attention: say something incendiary.
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Instead what I got was a humble blurb on what an exciting development it was, that we were getting fanciful, even a little frivolous with our caffeine. From 3-in-1s to the single origin shit, it was all good, all very good, because shouldn’t coffee in any form get our hearts racing? I don’t know why that memory stays with me, of a writer saying something both kind and culturally uplifting. Since then I’ve learned to marvel at the exquisiteness of an Arabica gibraltar.
That’s what governs the words, thoughts and actions of Manila’s friendly neighborhood food guy JJ Yulo: positivity. For over a decade in the food scene, he’s been doing everything from writing, to cooking for events, and even holding food tours. These days he’s gallivanting around the metro for his online show Foodtrip on ANCX.ph, exploring the restaurants that make our food scene exciting.
If anything, this may be one of Manila’s best value-for-money joints. 300 or so will get you a satisfying burger (I like the “Old School”, or the “Assassin” on a sesame bun with nori and wasabi mayo) and fries. Is the location a bit hidden away? A bit. But that’s part of the fun!🤘🏼 @bunsnbros you are awesome as always!🍔❤️ @ancx.ph
You’d think, with his deftness, that he had been partaking of and uplifting food culture since forever, but not so. Yulo grew up the way most financially abled Filipinos do—eating with family. Food and loved ones were inextricably linked. He’d watch his lola on his father’s side cook in the kitchen. That sort of upbringing is the reason most Filipinos, whether they get a culinary education or not, have strong opinions on who makes the best adobo.
After graduation from journalism school, Yulo tried running a graphic design shop—but that didn’t work out. He felt lost and went back to school.
“I went to culinary school. That was the turning point.”
He went to the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, New York, and found himself among other souls making their own existential turning points. “My school was more like a journeyman school. I had a lot of classmates who were lawyers, or they were from other professions.” Whether it was burnout or a desire for a change of scenery, Manhattan seemed to help Yulo get back on his feet. The city offered loads of inspiration. “I was able to try a lot of interesting food. Very mind-blowing. My mind was just... fired up on all cylinders.”
It’s easy to see how such a sense of wonder lingers with Yulo until now. As the host of Foodtrip, Yulo greets every establishment and dish with the enthusiasm of an amateur and the level-headedness of someone who’s been in the game for so long.
But this culinary management major wasn’t interested in being a chef.
“Basically, I had to figure out how to get into the food scene without actually opening a restaurant. That's what's expected of you, which is wrong, by the way: as soon as you finish culinary school, you open a restaurant. I knew I [couldn't]. I still can't, to this day.”
Thus the food tours, the occasional (read: when the mood strikes him) cooking gig, the writing. And it makes sense. The man isn’t suited to be a chef, at least in the traditional, run-a-tight-ship-by-being-an-
When people think of legendary male chefs, they think of Gordon Ramsay or Marco Pierre White, kitchen tyrants who think the road to culinary excellence is paved with knives, fire, and tantrums. Yulo didn’t walk down this path, and still established himself as a trusted figure in the local food scene. “People I guess bought into me and what I was all about, and enabled me to do it.
Instead of being antagonistic, Yulo sought instead to be communicative, whether through writing, or hosting something like Foodtrip. “Writing put me on the map as well. I guess it kinda showed too that I had something here.” He gestures to his noggin. “Y'know what I mean?” The journalism degree turned out to be useful after all. “I like using my voice as a tool. I think that's my underlying thing.”
I try to think of the other food mavericks who’ve made this ongoing culinary renaissance—which is to say, more people taking a deeper interest in food—possible. There was the late Anthony Bourdain, of course. There’s the old warhorse Ramsay, with his hardass, perfectionist pottymouth schtick. There was also the upsurge of flatlay Tasty content from Buzzfeed. We have VICE and Bon Appetit putting out extremely good videos that make the cooking shows of old look drab as all hell. We also have Erwan Heussaff whose videos have a great many following.
The adventure continues at the most excellent China Blue at Conrad Manila. With me here is their executive chef, Chef Khor, who’s running me by some of their signature dishes. It’s a beautiful space serving creatively plated dishes that are still steeped in traditional Chinese flavors - well worth seeking out. Sarap dito!❤️ @conradmanila #justjonesingph
To me, JJ Yulo’s pursuit evokes the motives and intentions behind contemporary food writers like Ligaya Mishan, Soleil Ho, or even Doreen Fernandez, who sought the delicious in hidden places and championed the underrepresented. “I try to draw inspiration from a very pure place. It's because I love the country. I love the heritage. I love everything we're about. Food included.”
He’s mentioned not just in my interview with him but in his writing to turn to the regions beyond Manila, to forge genuine relationships with the people in the food scene, to give due credit to our farmers and fishermen.
Ending a looooong 12 hour day with a fun, intimate meal at @hapag.mnl 🤘🏼 These chefs had multiple dinner events today, but they pulled it off with panache. Salamat, Hapag, led today by @navgram_ ! Boss @bernsrp and guests loved it! ;) @tomccunanan @lanai @lapetitebelle_eats @eylulsavas @makalahi #itsmorefuninthephilippines #justjonesingph
In many ways, Foodtrip is like the culmination of JJ’s creative and ethical sensibilities. Wielding creative control over the show, JJ makes eating around the metro look not just approachable and fun, but also tantalizing to anyone who hasn’t given the food scene here a second thought. He’s the personification of the aphorism: “When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher wall.”
“I wanna help the restaurant scene. Because I built this, I guess my reputation, my name, that's all I have. Everything I do, everyone else can do. A lot of people can do what I do. But I built this. People actually listen to what I want to say. And I use that as a tool to help. If I find there are places that don't necessarily have a voice or have a marketing machine behind them or whatever, then I'll turn the spotlight on them in hopes that they'll do better. At the heart of it all, it's a service.”